Bushfire commission's climate denial

NASA image of the Killmore East-Murrindindi Complex South Fire, Victoria, Australia, taken on 14 February 2009One way we deal with the unthinkable is to pretend it isn't there. On the basis of its published proceedings so far, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission seems to be ignoring the relevance of clímate change as a major causal factor in Black Saturday. Yet the Commission's first Term of Reference was to inquire and report into 'the causes and circumstances of the bushfires'.

So far, the Royal Commission is addressing Black Saturday as if it were just another major bushfire in the series that includes Black Friday in 1939 and Ash Wednesday in 1983. The Commission is examining how particular bushfires started and spread, and how particular agencies and individuals responded to these emergencies.

The opening statements of the Chairman and of Counsel Assisting did not refer to climate change. Public hearings are due to end this week, yet no scientific witnesses have been called to testify on how climate change contributed to Black Saturday's unprecedented ferocity.

Yet it was already clear to the public in the days after the fires that Victoria was in new climate territory. A feature article by Michael Bachelard and Melissa Fyfe in The Age reported climate scientists' views that these were 'fires of climate change'.

The article set out the science behind the Bureau of Meteorology's warning on 6 February that 7 February was in danger of becoming the worst day in Victoria's history; in many areas, Forest Fire Danger Index values were predicted to be a terrifying 150 to 180. By comparison, Ash Wednesday in 1983 had a FFDI value of 102.

The Age journalists drew on the expertise of Professor Neville Nicholls, a distinguished climate scientist who spent 35 years as a senior researcher at the Bureau of Meteorology. Black Saturday was Melbourne's hottest-ever day — 46 degrees. The fires were spurred by fierce winds and unprecedented heat on the day itself. But to understand the intensity of the fires, one must consider that even the deepest wettest mountain gullies had been cured bone-dry during preceding weeks of unusual heat.

Because these gullies burned too, there was nothing to slow down and contain the fires.

Climate change played a major role in Black Saturday's severity. These fires came after the state's longest-ever 12-year drought, a string of the hottest years on record in the previous decade, a 35-day dry spell for Melbourne (the equal second-longest in history), and one of the most severe heatwaves on record.

The January 2009 heatwave — with record-breaking jumps in average local temperatures of more than two degrees in places — was so extraordinary that Nicholls described it as 'mind-boggling':

The crucial thing linking Black Saturday to climate change is the preceding three-day heatwave, rather than the really hot temperatures on the day of the fires. By then, the situation was already primed. It is beyond reasonable doubt that global warming and the enhanced drying effects on Victoria's mountain forest country exacerbated the severity of this tragedy.

Nicholls lodged a detailed written submission to the Royal Commission. Other submissions addressing the climate change dimension of Black Saturday were lodged by climate scientist Professor David Karoly, and by the Australian Conservation Foundation. None of these were called to testify.

Nicholls' conclusions were:

The unprecedented drought of the past 12 years, the unprecedented three-day heat wave of late January, and the unprecedented high temperatures on 7 February, must all have contributed to exacerbating the bushfire situation on 7 February. In turn, there are strong grounds for concluding that human-caused climate change, specifically the enhanced greenhouse effect caused by increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, contributed to each of these three unprecedented meteorological features. The obvious conclusion is that human-caused climate change exacerbated the bushfire situation of 7 February, even though it did not 'cause' the bushfires.

Climate models, and our understanding of the climate system, lead us to expect even stronger warming, perhaps with further rainfall declines, over the next few decades, leading to increased frequency of days with extreme bushfire risk. Any actions taken to reduce fire risk in the future will, as a result, need to be more extreme than might have been considered a sufficient response if the climate of southern Australia had not been expected to continue warming and drying.

Why didn't the Commission want to explore further in its public hearings such powerful scierntific analysis and warnings, centrally relevant to its mandate? One might ask whether the Commission plans to set climate change issues aside: to refer to them, but essentially report on Black Saturday as just another big bushfire.

Royal Commissions are independent of politics. So it must be a coincidence that, under federal and state governments determined to downplay climate change as a clear and present danger to Australians, and to pursue policies which worsen it, this Royal Commission seems disposed to shrug off climate change science too.

The possible awful truth — that Victoria's cool mountain ridges and valleys may be drying out as a result of climate change, to the point that their rich forest ecologies may no longer be sustainable, and that such ferocious bushfires may be nature's way of transitioning these areas to a hotter, drier climate — might be a truth too much to bear. Maybe that is why the Royal Commission seems not to want to go there.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is the author of Crunch Time, a book exploring Australia's inadequate policy responses to the climate change crisis. Eureka Street has copies of Crunch Time to give away. Find out how here

Topic tags: Black Saturday, Victorian bushfires, royal commission, climate change, Professor Neville Nicholls



submit a comment

Existing comments

"the relevance of climate change as a major causal factor in Black Saturday."

Why not keep it simple??

Tell the big polluters: You've known for years* that you've been polluting the air / the soil / the water. You've just continued to do it. Some of your competitors have changed their practices. Now change is urgent.

Tell them: Last year, you created x units of pollution. For 2011, you can have permits for that many units of pollution, but you will have to pay $x for each unit. For 2012, the number of units you can have will be reduced by 5% and cost 5% more. If you need more units than that, you'll have to buy them from another permit holder or reduce your production. (None of this hanky-panky of buying them from overseas.)

If you don't need that many, you can sell them to someone else. (The ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) is supposed to ease the introduction of the CPRS not be the main act.)

For 2013, the total number of units will reduce by another 5% and the price per unit will increase by another 5%.

For subsequent years, the number of units will continue to reduce and the price will continue to rise.

Time is running out.

We accept that this is most likely to force you to increase the price of your product (but the cost of the intangibles and the externalities have to be recognised) and your customers will be forced to increase their prices too. But also, it will give clean producers a level playing field.
If our products can’t compete on the world markets without government/public compensation for the pollution caused in their production, their manufacture should cease.

It’s not fair for us to export our pollution.

<<The government should not be diverted because some people will need to change their occupations. How many employees were diverted when call centres were moved to India and the Philippines? What help was given to them (or to car workers when their bosses continued to concentrate on less suitable models)?>>

The proceeds from the sale of units will be used by the Government -
to help needy people to meet the higher prices of some essentials (although most families will be able to meet the extra costs of energy and the resulting flow-on increases – particularly if they stop buying non-essentials) and to encourage development of clean power (eg, solar power and the transmission and storage of such power) which needs more employees than would lose their jobs in the polluting industries."

We need to get right the relationship between the economy, the society and the environment. It’s obvious that we are totally dependent for life on the environment and that the economy is a means to an end – enriching lives in a civilised community.

The Earth needs to reduce carbon - therefore the CPRS. The proposed ETS was to help towards reducing carbon pollution (the ETS should not be seen as the end in itself).

Geoff | 28 May 2010  

Like all good Royal Commissions, this one is playing the blame game rather than looking at the real issues.

The comments by the lawyers participating once again shows that it is going to be a goldmine for the legal profession without coming up with good solutions, If it does come up with any solutions recognising the true situation it will be ignored by the Government - irrespective which political party is in power.

nick qgocs | 28 May 2010  

The major cause of the ferocity of those fires was the unprecedented heat. At about 47 degrees the eucalyptus oil in the air surrounding forest trees can reach such a saturation that the air itself is inflammable. If such temperatures are reached routinely the forests are doomed, and no recommendation of any royal commission can make any difference.

Michael Grounds | 28 May 2010  

The Royal Commission is staffed by well-meaning people educated in the ways of the law. It is not contempt of the Commission to point out that climate science may well be outside their collective areas of competence.

Nevertheless, should warming and drying trends not be considered as factors contributing to the rapidity of the fires' spread, and their consequent devastating effect, then the Commission will have failed to address its terms of reference.

"Geoff" has posted a rather lengthy description of an ETS as being an appropriate mechanism to control the carbon emissions that are the major anthropogenic contribution to the present climate crisis.

The problems with emission trading are manifold, and I have commented on them elsewhere. For example, I comment on Fairfax's Opinion site, nationaltimes.com.au, as David_FTA. On such comment set out my proposal for a tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels (which can replace Really Stupid taxes, such as payroll tax) at http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/politics/climate-change-is-no-friend-of-rudds-second-time-around-20100412-s40n.html?comments=60

David Arthur | 28 May 2010  

Regarding Geoff's advocacy for an Emission Trading Scheme, I posted the following proposal for a revenue-neutral carbon tax elsewhere (http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/politics/climate-change-is-no-friend-of-rudds-second-time-around-20100412-s40n.html?comments=60)

KRudd has acknowledged the need to address climate change by curbing CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, however, he chose the wrong regulatory option, by constructing a dodgy emission trading deal under the pretence of curbing CO2 emissions.

Cap-and-trade schemes, however, are all about enriching banks and associated financial institutions by siphoning a little sidestream of wealth out of the rivers of gold that have enriched fossil fuel companies over the last century or so.

In a dynamic, liberal, innovative economy, the appropriate regulatory response is, over a decade or so, to transfer the burden of taxation on to carbon-emitting activities.

This is done by introducing a carbon tax at a low dollar rate per tonne emitted carbon, then increasing the rate of tax per tonne emitted carbon, year on year. At the same time, the rates of other taxes are cut, freeing up capital for investment in low/zero emission technology and equipment.

No need for complex financial trading arrangements, no need for special deals between rent-seeking corporations and governments. Just steadily put the screws on carbon emissions, and let the innovators free.

David Arthur | 28 May 2010  

It seems to have escaped Mr.Kevin that royal commissions are about dealing in facts not opinion.It simply cannot be proven that global warming (if it in fact exists)was a contributing factor to the black Saturday bush fires.
If so-called global warming was a factor in 2010,then why was it not a factor in 1939 or in 1851 when a third of Victoria burnt?

Peter Golding | 28 May 2010  

I agree with the comment by David Arthur regarding the backgrounds of the main players in the Royal Commission being inadequate either to grasp the content of scientific argument about climate change or to implement any agenda relating to that content. The main players are lawyers and in two cases school teachers (the assistant to the chairman Susan Pascoe and the Premier; this is not to deny their competence in their own fields, but to point to the unlikeliness of their backgrounds to yield a proper hearing of the evidence, or to aqccord to it its proper significance.

The lawyers "assisting:" the Commission seem primarily to play their own adversarial culture and to look for scapegoats (which plays to the media)- in any case that is about responses to the crisis, not anbout causes.

In my view it is not necessary to enter the hysterical debate about how much of climate change is due to human activity in order to accord climate change its proper place in the list of causes.

Dennis Green | 28 May 2010  

I lived my early years in Yea where my father Frank, a doctor/GP, was regarded as a hero for his work during the 1939 Black Friday fires. He taught me well about the fire risks we would take if we lived in much of Victoria, especially places with lots of trees.

Now I live in Perth. But even in Perth, I was well informed on 6 and 7 February about the fire risks in Victoria. The ABC presented the risks cogently. So did newspaper and other websites.I presume Victorians who now claim to have been ignorant about the danger/risks did not listen to the ABC or even read the newspapers.

Gerry Costigan | 30 May 2010  

I have developed an advanced solution for early detecting bush/grassfire and want to inform you about that
in www.geollit.se you find some information about me

jan olof ek | 29 July 2010  


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up