Sunday, August 30, 2009

2010 is too late for climate debate

Following my recent article for ABC Unleashed on the interim report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, today's Sunday Age has run my letter responding to Michael Bachelard's excellent piece, 'Smoke and mirrors', published last week. My letter was kindly run without edits as follows:
Michael Bachelard’s tough scrutiny of the Premier’s bushfire spin is most welcome as a call to face up to the challenges looming with the imminent fire season.

Yet, as fires in California and Athens cluster around the commission’s release of its interim report, there is a glaring absence in its findings regarding the contribution of climate change to the Black Saturday bushfires, and how stronger climate policy - including science-based emissions targets - might help to address bushfire risk over time.

True, any such analysis would not result in a reduction of fire risk this coming season, but there was a crucial window of opportunity that makes the slated consideration of climate change in the commission's July 2010 final report far too late. That window was the lead-up to the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

Bachelard’s comment on the stay or go policy, that ‘It’s crucial to get this right at the time this issue is the centre of attention’, applies equally to climate change. Australia is in the midst of its climate change legislative debate, and at Copenhagen will help frame an international agreement on climate that will succeed the Kyoto protocol.

If not now, when is the time that climate policy should be viewed and assessed through the lens of long-term bushfire prevention? That the interim report has not addressed this issue in its official findings before Copenhagen is testament to the political manipulation of the royal commission, and to the climate cowardice of our state and federal leaders.
Essentially, my argument here and in ABC Unleashed is that the inquiry should have made interim recommendations within a timeframe that best allowed action to implement them. With effective climate policy that should have meant the August interim report in the lead-up to December's international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, not July 2010 when the final report will be published.

Everyone concerned for our climate should now follow the second round of public hearings of the royal commission now underway. The hearings are webcast live and transcripts are available the following day. Since the first round, the website has introduced the improvement of listing witnesses for each day, which should make it easier to see when climate evidence has been heard.

Though any climate recommendations will come too late in the July 2010 final report, I am hopeful the media will highlight the clear relationship between climate change and long-term bushfire risk that should emerge in this second round of hearings if the inquiry does its job.

If state and federal governments are thereby forced to explicitly address bushfires in their climate policies, there's a better chance that Australia will show the kind of leadership in Copenhagen that might contribute to a stronger international climate that would help reduce global bushfire risk over time.

On the failure of the terms of reference of the royal commission to explicitly address climate change, see my March article for ABC Unleashed. For the kinds of climate policy recommendations I would like to have seen the inquiry consider, see my submission to the royal commission from May.

Comments welcome


  1. So this is the new approach is it? Cap&Trade to stop bushfires. Cap&Trade used to be sold to the public as a way to save the planet, but that approach failed to deliver the legislation. Now with a new angle, Cap&Trade to stop bushfires, this should deliver the almighty legislation? You Greenies will stop at nothing to trick the public into agreeing to Cap&Trade.

    Does anyone, other than some scientist paid by the Sierra Club or another sinister organization, actually believe that bushfires are caused by changing climate? Or even caused by CO2? Its a very big leap to make the link between bushfires and climate change. Good luck with that. Hope your job doesn't depend on this.

  2. Thanks for your comments. It is clear many scientists believe climate change is contributing to the increasing frequency and severity of bushfires around the world. Refer, for example, to the following post by Professor David Karoly, who leads the Victorian State Government's climate change reference group here in Australia:

    That article refers, among others, to a 2007 report by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and the CSIRO (commissioned by the Climate Institute) noting that recent bushfire trends in south-east Australia match or exceed those previously predicted under low and high global warming scenarios. That work did not take into account the 2009 fires, and I understand will be updated to do so.

    My reading of these reports is that, while climate change cannot be said to be the single cause of any particular fire event, it does contribute to the factors that combine to give the Forest Fire Danger Index here in Australia. The FFDI reached unprecendented levels during our Black Saturday bushfires, and climate change is emerging as a clear culprit.

    Other recent media reports referred to in my submission to the royal commission and in my articles for ABC Unleashed also describe growing concern amongst scientists currently researching this area that more frequent and severe bushfires are not only the outcome of human-caused climate change, but are a feedback loop in which the massive amounts of CO2 they produce lead to further warming.

    Of course, there have always been bushfires in Australia, but that doesn't mean that climate change isn't increasing their frequency and severity. And while I have not specifically championed cap and trade (there are other approaches such as carbon rationing), I do believe a stronger Australian position might help to achieve a more effective international climate agreement in Copenhagen, and so reduce bushfire risk over time. That's not a substitute to necessary, immediate measures such as fire refuges, but an essential complement to them.

    For a recent synthesis of the science on climate change, please refer to the March report of the Climate Congress held at the University of Copenhagen in March this year:

    I understand that a copy of the report has been given to the participants in the international climate negotiations scheduled for December in the same city.

  3. So are you basically saying that the kyoto agreement isn't strong enough? That we need something stronger that will address climate change head on.

  4. Yes, while the Kyoto agreement was valuable in aligning the international community on the problem, the cooperation and extent of action must be drastically improved on the new agreement to be negotiated this December in Copenhagen.


Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.