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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Climate blindness at the bushfires royal commission

My response to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission interim report was published today on ABC Unleashed. In the article I argue that the interim report was a missed opportunity to consider stronger climate policy as a means of long-term bushfire prevention. Had the Royal Commission recommended that Australia's climate policies be assessed for the impact on global bushfire risk, it might well have influenced the policy position we take to Copenhagen and show leadership towards a stronger post-Kyoto climate treaty. That in turn would reduce Australian bushfire risk over time.

While the Royal Commission will look at climate change in the next phase of the inquiry, any recommendations in its July 2010 final report will be well and truly too late for Copenhagen. An analysis of climate policy and recommendations to strengthen it were therefore urgent tasks for the royal commission before the next fire season, and should have been accommodated within the terms of reference. While such action would not influence that fire season, it may well have impacted on fire seasons to come. Unfortunately the opportunity to consider climate in a timely and urgent manner has been squandered through climate blindness.

For more on climate change and the 2009 Victorian bushfires, click on the links under the masthead of this page. Comments are welcome.