Bushfires and climate change: where’s the policy?

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Ahh, Greg Hunt has got himself into a pickle by quoting Wikipedia on the causes of Australian bushfires. This amused me greatly and I wanted to write a post making even more fun of it. Sadly, I did what I am not expected to do as a blogger and listened to the whole BBC interview that caused this. Nothing takes the wind out of a blogger’s sails than context.

Here is the quote Hunt actually made:

Bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year due to Australia’s mostly hot, dry climate. Large areas of land are ravaged every year by bushfires, which also cause property damage and loss of life.

Damn. That doesn’t look like a wrong statement and those of us in academia would pretty much agree that is the standard way to open a discussion on bushfires. Hunt then went on to say that he did not think it was relevant right now whether to determine whether the current fire was caused by climate change or not. He said we need to deal with the crisis and then the longer-term policy later in which he did not dispute that climate change may be cause of the increase the frequency of bushfires. The science is pretty clear that there has been an increase in that frequency whether it has been caused by climate change or not. The BBC interview had a scientist on after Hunt that said pretty much just that.

Now the Greens and others would like to use this event as a motive for continuing to act on climate change. I think that is a legitimate avenue to push. Abbott and Hunt clearly, for similar political reasons, don’t want to allow the debate to go there. But I think we need to step back and consider this more dispassionately and I am worried that bringing the climate change equation into this will actually undermine action on a clear policy issue.

First, having now spent 4 years in North America, let me tell you that the Coalition have come a long way on environmental issues. Importantly, they now accept environmental damage is a bad thing. This is not true of the right-wing elsewhere who don’t necessarily care what happens to the environment. The issue in Australia now is how to get a clean environment not whether to have one. This is a big change from when I was growing up. Clearly, the Coalition are not acting on carbon pollution in a way that is effective or cheap but that is another matter.

Second, the climate change equation is irrelevant to how we manage bushfires. You can have a carbon tax in Australia or world-wide and the increased frequency of bushfires will remain a problem for a century or more. Mitigating climate change is not a solution to this. It would be best that we kept it separate.

Third, that means we need to focus on bushfire management strategy. Four years ago 176 people perished in the Victorian bushfires. Now I don’t know what was done after that in policy circles. As a blogger, I will exercise my expected charge not to bother to find out. But the NSW situation should at least put on the table that it isn’t enough. We have state-wide situations in October for goodness sake. How did this happen?

As I read the media today, I see column inches and web pages devoted to climate change and the politics of that and nothing devoted to the clearly central policy issue raised by the current crisis. While they may have political motives, what Hunt said was actually more consistent with focussing on the relevant issues than what many others seem to be doing. In social media, we need to get the focus back on the real issue. Bushfires are a problem. They require a solution regardless of causes. The rate of return for investment in this is likely to be very high. Do something.

9 Responses to "Bushfires and climate change: where’s the policy?"
  1. Govt *may* put its shoulder to the wheel, but it’s a cert that its surrogates will be flat out to preserve the status quo, especially power ratios. So, how will those in the Consultancy domain line up? With the public interest, or at a neutral remove, hoping for scraps in the inevitable flood of contracts?
    Smart devices & social media suggest the mug public is desperate for information (‘news’) & will pay out for it. This book http://eagereyes.org/criticism/review-isabel-meirelles-design-information may be a good investment for actual players who side with the public. Now, I must pop out to buy “the paper” and read it from cover to cover, even though the front page tells me all I need to know.

  2. My crazy thought was this: set up a disaster relief/climate adaption fund, with a legislated value, say 3 billion, indexed to CPI. Bushfire relief, drought relief, flood relief etc all paid from the fund, and it’s filled by a carbon tax on top 500 polluters, the emptier the fund, the higher the tax.

    That way if the ‘skeptics’ are correct, then there will be little cost imposed on emitters, but if it goes the other way and there is a large cost to adaption, then far better that those costs are shouldered by polluters than borne out of our income taxes or special levies, like the Brisbane floods were.

  3. Joshua,

    What nonsense you talk. Bushfires are a State responsibility and it appears – given that the nsw bushfires resulted in just one fatality – that nsw at least is doing a good job and is working hard to improve its bushfires management and response.

    Mitigating carbon emissions, on the other hand, is a federal responsibility. Abbott clearly is not taking this seriously. He is aiming to abolish carbon pricing asap, and has no clear policy or capability for replacing it.

  4. After the Victorian Bushfires there were a couple of major responses taken by the State Government.

    The first was to reduce fuel loads in fire prone areas. So backburning etc.

    The other was to bury powerlines underground (which will be prohibitively expensive and probably unlikely to happen).

    Another suggested response was to ban housing developments in high fire risk areas, though I don’t think this has happened.

    Lastly, in terms of micro economic reform, the fire services levy is now collected from all property owners instead of taxing insurance premiums.

  5. Two interesting ‘people management’ directives are being investigated by emergency services Victoria. Craig Lapsley said on ABC 730 yesterday that they had three refuges well on the way to being operational. Quizzed by the seeming tardiness of this implementation of the Commission Report, Lapsley said they had to be sure the “infrastructure” would be used as intended (or words to that effect). Seems to me, then, that the authorities want to be very sure that people using a refuge (either voluntarily, or as directed) would not be placed in further hazard. How do they do that? How would a scientific study replicate the extreme stress of fire threat, in order to test people’s reactions, etc?
    The second proposal is for the manoeuvre used in the Blue Mountains on Wednesday – closure of schools so that all children will be supervised by parent(s)/carer(s). That needs to be thought through very carefully, opened to wide input and documented in watertight legalese, as well as in consumer literature in several languages and pitched at Grade 3 comprehension level. Then they have to sort out their electronic messaging and means of recording acknowledgements of receipt by the targeted parents.

  6. Piece at Canberra Times http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/lets-bring-children-into-emergency-plans-20131027-2w9hj.html looks at needs of children in disasters.
    “This confusion is not surprising. Extraordinarily, at a local government level there is more planning for the needs of animals in emergencies than for children.”
    Seems to be a pretty argument for some *national* planning, if that’s not offensive to the prevailing ideology.

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