Sunday, May 31, 2009

Letter on climate silence in bushfire inquiry

The Sunday Age today published my letter on the failure of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission to even utter the words 'climate change' in public hearings so far.

The letter (scroll down) was commenting on a piece in last week's edition by Michael Bachelard, which reported on public hearings of the inquiry, and in particular the quiet departure of the 'stay or go' policy as a response to bushfire. Yet, despite the questioning of this policy given increasingly frequent and severe fires, there has been no acknowledgment that this has come about because climate change is clearly contributing to unprecedented levels of the Forest Fire Danger Index.

As I say in the letter, bushfire prevention should be seen through the lens of climate change. It is open to the Royal Commission to recommend that effective climate policy - including a stronger Australian position at December's Copenhagen negotiation - be framed with future fire prevention in mind.

Here's the letter as published, then as it was submitted.

IF 'STAY or go' has quietly departed, there's one reality that has not even quietly entered the Bushfires Royal Commission. That reality is climate change, which is fuelling bushfires beyond levels able to be defended or, tragically, survived by those who choose to stay and fight.

Scientists will say, correctly, that there isn't a simple causal link between climate change and the Black Saturday fires. They will also say, however, that climate change has contributed to the elements, such as extreme temperatures and dryness through lack of rainfall, that comprise the fire danger index, which reached unprecedented levels on February 7.

Addressing climate change through better policy and international leadership will help control these elements of fire over time. For that reason, the Bushfires Royal Commission must look at bushfire prevention through the lens of effective climate policy. Yet a search of the transcripts of public hearings to date reveals not a single mention of 'climate change'.

Within the supposedly all-encompassing terms of reference for this inquiry, there should not be room for such deadly silence.

Now, as submitted:

If 'stay or go' has quietly departed as the policy of choice for residents facing bushfire, there's one reality that has not even quietly entered Room 4.3 at the County Court of Victoria, venue for the Bushfires Royal Commission. That reality is climate change, which is fuelling bushfires beyond levels able to be defended or, tragically, survived by those who choose to stay and fight.

Scientists will say, correctly, that there isn't a simple causal connection between climate change and the Black Saturday fires. They will also say, however, that climate change has clearly contributed to the elements, such as extreme temperatures and dryness through lack of rainfall, that together comprise the Forest Fire Danger Index, which reached unprecedented levels on 7 February 2009.

Addressing climate change through better policy and international leadership will help control these elements of fire over time. For that reason the Bushfires Royal Commission must look at bushfire prevention through the lens of effective climate policy.

Yet, despite expert testimony from the Bureau of Meteorology detailing preceding and prevailing extreme and anomalous weather, a search of the transcripts of public hearings to-date reveals not a single mention of 'climate change'. Within the supposedly all-encompassing terms of reference for this inquiry, there should not be room for such deadly silence.

Politically sensitive truth is truth nonetheless. The Royal Commission must have the courage to call the evidence on which our governments will either act or stand condemned.
Comments welcome. Read more on the 2009 Victorian bushfires.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bushfires Royal Commission should be more open

Back on 19 May, I emailed the Bushfires Royal Commission with the following:
Your website appears to have no public information about who is to appear before the commission and when they are to appear. Can you advise whether this information is publicly available, and when it is likely to be published on the Royal Commission website?
I got two replies on 25 May. There was the following:
Unfortunately there is no publicly available advance scheduling for evidence or witnesses. Given the dynamic nature of the witness list, which is being updated constantly, we cannot offer such a service.
Thank you for your email. We will not be publishing this information as I have been advised it could change considerably during the course of the week, however you are more than welcome to call the Commission at the beginning of the week and enquire.
I replied to the first (and along the same lines to the second) that that's what the web's for (i.e. to publish changing information).

This seemed to irk Commission media staff somewhat, resulting in the following reply:
Not quite sure what you meant by your response.

First and foremost our commitment has been to make the hearings as open and transparent as possible by web-streaming and allowing pool cameras and stills photographers in the hearing room and most people feel the Commission has done a good job in this respect.

Given the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the witness list, and given all our other priorities, we would struggle to keep it up to date on our website. So we have chosen to concentrate our activities on making sure the streaming happens and the media is well catered for so they can inform the public through TV, radio and the print media.

The public has access to transcripts the next day and the submissions are there for anyone to read. We are happy with the service we are providing but we will continue to look at ways to improve it.

I thought this deserved some elaboration, and sent off the following:

There are certainly some good aspects to your coverage. However, I find it difficult to believe you don't know quite what I mean. There are lots of aspects that aren't sufficiently transparent about this inquiry. They include:

1. Publication of who will appear and when - that information might be provisional but should not preclude its publication on the web with an appropriate disclaimer that the list might change and should be confirmed by phone if necessary. You could easily and almost instantly publish changes via a Royal Commission Twitter account, for example.

2. Whether the commission has any plans whatsoever to call evidence on climate change with a view to framing appropriate recommendations for more effective climate policy that might support the long-term prevention of bushfire.

3. How many parties applied for leave to appear compared to parties granted conditional or unconditional leave. I'd be interested to know, for example, what climate scientists or climate advocacy groups applied for leave and were refused.

4. The tardy online publication of submissions.

5. The number of confidential submissions that have been received by the commission, and whether these were from individuals or organisations.

6. The fact that terms can be searched across submissions, but not across hearing transcripts, which would be useful for the public, and for journalists.

Those are just a few points, but there may be others.
Is the web-streaming and provision of transcripts a good thing? Certainly. But the Royal Commission could do a lot more to make the process even more transparent - particularly with regard to signalling the broad directions of the inquiry, together with an indication of which witnesses will or will not be called. There can then be better public debate as to whether the inquiry was ever intending to look at such politically incovenient realities as climate change.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Penny Wong dubbed minister for 'not yet'

Australian climate minister, Senator Penny Wong, was tonight dubbed the minister for 'not yet' by Bob Ellis, fellow panellist on ABC TV's Q&A program. The quip referred to the government's proposed delay to its emissions trading scheme from 2010 until 2011. Unfortunately, with Australia's weak proposed emissions targets and the release of a new MIT study modelling warming using economic and climate data, the Senator might also be the minister for 'too little too late'.

The study, undertaken by MIT, ran 400 simulations on its data and examined the most likely warming outcomes. It found the median projected outcome by 2100 was 5.2C, which more than doubles the 2.4C result predicted by a 2003 study quoted in the new paper. It also found there was a 90% probability that the range of 2100 warming will fall between 3.5 and 7.4C - well and truly suggesting an overwhelming chance that critical climate tipping points will be crossed in the absence of strong action at December's international negotiations at Copenhagen.

Instead of correlating Australia's target with the sort of warming it might lead to if similar cuts were universally adopted by developed nations, Senator Wong chose a familiar tactic favoured last year by the Australian Industry Group. She painted Australia's conditional 25% cut on 2000-level emissions by 2020 not as the ineffectual and defeatist target it is, but as a heroic reduction from where we are currently projected to be in 2020 based on current emissions trends. Under the government's scheme, by 2020 we will drop from the business-as-usual 120% of 2000-level emissions to 25% below them, the Senator proclaimed.

Firstly, there's something odd about her statement that, under the conditional 25% cut, we'd be going from 120% to -25% by 2020. If we're talking in 2000 terms, it's more accurate to say we'd be going from 120% to 75% by 2020. Doesn't seem quite so drastic, does it?

Perhaps the minister has been talking to too many coal and industry lobbyists, but there's also something not right about judging our target not against the reduction we need to achieve a safe climate, but against how much we are giving up relative to the accumulated emissions from 11 more years of unconstrained, climate-destroying greed.

My challenge to Penny Wong is to publicly state the level of warming scientifically associated with the government's targets if similar cuts were adopted internationally by developed nations. We can then match that warming, and its corresponding atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, against a scale of likely tipping points - uncontrollable bushfire, drought, floods and numerous others - all of which have been established by science. Because that's what her policy is - a pro-bushfire policy, a pro-drought policy, a pro-flooding policy, and the list goes on. Not quite as bland as 'CPRS', but so much closer to the truth, especially with these latest findings from MIT.

See the video question I posted at Q&A.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bushfire evidence silent on climate change

Yesterday's evidence at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission heard much fascinating evidence from the Bureau of Meteorology's Dr Mark Williams. Dr Williams did a very thorough job of setting out the extreme weather conditions that factor into the Forest Fire Danger Index, especially the highly anomalous and extreme temperatures prevailing in the January heatwave and during the fires.

Yet a search of the transcript reveals no mention of 'climate' and only two mentions of 'warming' in all the evidence for that day. The first, at lines 20-25 on page 728, has Dr Williams remarking on the potential contribution of the warming trend he clearly acknowledges to anti-cyclone wind patterns.

The second, at lines 20ff. from Commissioner Susan Pascoe, says warming 'projections seem to be toward an extension of these weather patterns'. Leaving aside the indications that the trend is likely to worsen, not proceed in a merely linear fashion, if there continues to be inadequate action on climate change, my question is this: How is it that the Commissioners could not bring themselves to ask any questions regarding climate change of an obviously expert witness?

My submission makes the point that recommendations from this Royal Commission urging a reconsideration of climate policy from the perspective of bushfire prevention might well be influential in the climate position Australia takes to international talks in Copenhagen. If this influenced other nations to adopt a stronger climate agreement, that would have clear benefits for prevention of bushfire in Australia over time.

Conversely, a failure by the Royal Commission to contribute in this manner might well cut across any recommendations it makes regarding better warning, emergency response and bushfire mitigation. If climate change goes unchecked, whatever adaptation measures they recommend will be increasingly ineffective and perhaps even useless.

Maybe the inquiry is yet to hear further climate evidence, but it's hard to know given that there is no publicly available schedule of witnesses or topics for consideration. The Preliminary Directions Media Release issued by the Royal Commission on 20 April shows that no climate groups have been given either leave to appear, or conditional leave to appear. Of course, the Royal Commission may call expert climate witnesses, but the signs are not good for climate change getting appropriate air-time in this inquiry.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Submission to the Bushfires Royal Commission

This afternoon I sent off my submission to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. To be considered for the inquiry's August 2009 interim report, your submission needs to be in by 4.00pm next Monday 18 May 2009. See the website for details on how to submit.

My submission focuses on the circumstances and causes of the fires, and strategies for future bushfire prevention from the perspective of effective climate policy, and the benefits this might have in promoting the chances of a stronger international agreement at the Copenhagen negotiations in December this year.

In my view, there is a strong argument that recommendations from the Royal Commission could well be influential in strengthening the policy Australia takes to the talks.

You can download my submission in PDF format, or view it as a web page via Google Docs. They're starting to publish the submissions on the Royal Commission website, so visit the submissions page if you'd like to read some others as well.

Comments welcome.

Update: I had a bit of trouble with the electronic submission form at the Bushfires Royal Commission website, which in the generated confirmation email was not showing all the areas I had selected as being covered in my submission.

If you also have this problem, I sugest emailing the Royal Commission setting out the areas your submission covers to ensure it is given appropriate consideration.

Monday, May 4, 2009

We don't agree to burn, Mr Rudd

Citing the recession, the protection of jobs, and certainty for business, Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has further undermined the possibility of a strong international climate agreement this year by delaying the start of Australia's emissions trading scheme until 2011. Changes to the proposed scheme also include targets inadequate to secure a safe climate, a reduced carbon price in the first year of the scheme, and additional compensation to heavy polluters.

The changes extend high-emitting business-as-usual for Australia, putting us on track to cross what may well be irreversible climate tipping points. The proposed targets also fail to act with sufficient urgency even when emissions trading is implemented, continuing the government's fudging on a baseline for measurement of emissions (2000 v. 1990) and claiming the consistency of its target with a stabilisation level of 450ppm atmospheric CO2 - itself now frequently deemed inadequate by leading climate scientists.

With a group of eminent Australian scientists having recently written a letter to the coal industry describing its contribution to dangerous climate change, the government must surely also be on notice. It stands to significantly contribute to dangerous climate change through continued ineffective action, and a failure to show the kind of international leadership that would strengthen the chances of effective global solutions being agreed at the Copenhagen climate negotiations this December.

Already with melting of Arctic sea ice, the growth in bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the Queensland floods, and drought in south-eastern Australia, we are seeing the severe but only beginning impacts of climate change. Among these were February's Victorian bushfires, which have been increasingly related to climate change, with bushfire itself a significant contributor of greenhouse emissions fuelling subsequent warming.

Prime Minister Rudd's scuttling of Australia's international leadership puts transient economic cycles and vested interests ahead of permanent dangerous changes to our climate that are within our capacity to control with effective and concerted national and international measures. The failure of his government will correlate to worsening climate impacts over time, including more frequent and severe bushfires such as those we have seen in Victoria.

As University of Tasmania researcher, David Bowman, recently told Radio National's The World Today program:
We have got to understand increased bushfire activity as a direct consequence of uncontrolled climate change. This is a very good reason for Australia to do everything we possibly can to bring down the global temperature, to control carbon emissions and other gases which are resulting in the warming of the planet.
We don't agree to burn, Mr Rudd.

Update: Disappointingly, major environmental groups such as the Climate Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation have given qualified support to the changes. While they have both offered more ambitious hopes for Australia's ultimate position, saying that 25% by 2020 in the context of a global agreement is a starting point and that Australia needs to do more, this was all lost in tonight's grabs on ABC Television's The 7.30 Report, which simply noted their support for the package, which will do nothing for Australia's international leadership on climate at December's Copenhagen negotiations.

As Kerry O'Brien did well to note against evasive climate minister, Penny Wong, Australia's unconditional commitment remains a 2020 cut of 5% on 2000 levels, with the still-meagre 25% only kicking in with a global agreement.

While the impulse for consensus is no doubt correct, it is interesting that the climate groups chose to align with the government, rather than unify around the position of the Greens, which is closer to the science in its push for a 40% cut on 1990 levels by 2020.

If we're going to build consensus, shouldn't it be around a position that stands some sort of chance of solving the problem? It seems the politics of compromise, the dangers of which have been well identified in Spratt and Sutton's Climate Code Red, have emerged to significantly weaken Australian climate advocacy - clever politics by Rudd, but the climate will respond by degrees.

See also this article outlining the Greenpeace response that Rudd needs to start again and look at a 50% cut in the next decade. In the article, deputy PM, Julia Gillard, claims to have consulted widely on the delayed start for the scheme. With whom did she consult?