To reduce disasters, we must cut greenhouse emissions. So why isn’t the bushfire royal commission talking about this?



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Robert Glasser, Australian National University

With next fire season already underway,
the bushfire royal commission yesterday released an interim report.

Its observations in the wake of our Black Summer suggest the commission’s final report, due on October 28, may recommend a major shake-up of how disaster management is governed at the federal level. This includes setting up a national body focused on recovery from and resilience to future disasters.

Most initial observations are uncontroversial and sensible, but there is a glaring omission. It involves the most urgent measure to reduce the risk of future disasters: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In my former role as the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, I saw first-hand the impacts of natural disasters, and nations’ efforts to build their climate change resilience. The royal commission process is a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in these areas, which are so critical for Australia’s future.

What’s in the report?

In February, the royal commission was tasked with finding ways to improve disaster management in three main areas:

  1. how the federal government coordinates with other levels of government
  2. resilience to climate change and mitigating disaster risk
  3. the laws governing the federal government response to national emergencies.

The initial observations touch on each of these areas. This includes the need to collate, harmonise and share disaster data across jurisdictions; enhance research in climate and disaster resilience; reassess aerial firefighting capabilities; and plan more effectively around critical infrastructure.

It’s also worth noting the royal commission hasn’t yet formed a view on a key change Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested was necessary in the wake of the bushfires: establishing the legal authority for the federal government to declare a national state of emergency. Currently, only state and territory governments have this power.




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And controversially, the commission suggests the long-standing role of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) should be transferred to a federal government agency.

AFAC is a non-government organisation that facilitates the deployment of emergency personnel and equipment interstate and internationally. But the states and territories may not be willing to relinquish the engagement they have under the current arrangements.

A bushfire danger rating sign, pointing to 'extreme'
The royal commission also reported that many people said terms like ‘watch and act’ were confusing.
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Most importantly, the royal commission is considering consolidating disaster recovery and resilience functions in a new national body.

These functions reside in at least three agencies. They include Emergency Management Australia, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, and the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.

Consolidation makes good sense as the recovery phase from disasters can contribute to strengthening resilience.

It’s also sensible to separate the resilience function from the disaster response function, currently led by Emergency Management Australia. In my experience, resilience work rarely gets the whole-of-government attention it deserves when it’s embedded in agencies focused around responding to emergencies.

Three months of disasters

After the devastation Black Summer wrought, it’s clear resilience to future disasters must start with action on climate change. So it’s disappointing the royal commission has not yet commented on the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible.

Although COVID-19 has masked our awareness of the rapidly increasing climate threat, the evidence — even over just the past three months — is overwhelming.

In June, the record was set for the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic. The associated unprecedented heatwave in Siberia contributed to massive bushfires razing an astonishing 20 million hectares.

While Siberia burned, severe floods devastated South Asia, China and Japan. One-third of Bangladesh was underwater, affecting almost 15 million people.

Two boys use a rubber tube to float in a flooded street in Bangladesh
Catastrophic floods in Bangladesh were among many disasters that occurred in the last three months.
EPA/Monirul Alam

In China the figure was 63 million, with daily rainfall records set across the country. China’s Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam, the world’s biggest, received the largest inflow of water in its history, prompting fears last week the dam would be breached.




Read more:
Summer bushfires: how are the plant and animal survivors 6 months on? We mapped their recovery


In southern Japan, record-setting rains that dumped 1,000 millimetres of water in just three days forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Then, earlier this month, deadly fires erupted across California, exacerbated by persistent drought and record-setting temperatures. In just five days, the fires burned more land in the state than was destroyed in all of 2019.

We can’t ignore climate change

While it’s difficult to scientifically demonstrate that climate change “causes” any one disaster, the general direction is crystal clear. As the climate continues to warm, the frequency and severity of these events will increase.




Read more:
California is on fire. From across the Pacific, Australians watch on and buckle up


We’re already seeing worrying signs of this in Queensland, our most hazard-prone state. Over the past three years, 53 of Queensland’s 77 local government areas have endured three or more major disasters. And 71 out of 77 local government areas have experienced two or more such events.

These communities are increasingly in the unsustainable situation of chronically recovering from disasters.

The prime minister has argued “Australia, on its own, cannot control the world’s climate, as Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions”.

But because we’re disproportionately vulnerable to the threats of climate change, it’s imperative we convince other nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Our international advocacy will only be credible if we strengthen our own ambition to mitigate climate change. And as the government prepares to submit its updated targets under the Paris Climate Agreement, a recommendation to reduce emissions from the royal commission would be appropriate and extremely useful.The Conversation

Robert Glasser, Visiting Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A bit rich: business groups want urgent climate action, after resisting it for 30 years



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Marc Hudson, Keele University

Australia has seen the latest extraordinary twist in its climate soap opera. An alliance of business and environment groups declared the nation is “woefully unprepared” for climate change and urgent action is needed.

And yesterday, Australian Industry Group – one of the alliance members – called on the federal government to spend at least A$3.3 billion on renewable energy over the next decade.




Read more:
The too hard basket: a short history of Australia’s aborted climate policies


The alliance, known as the Australian Climate Roundtable, formed in 2015. It comprises ten business and environmental bodies, including the Business Council of Australia, National Farmers Federation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

Last week, the group stated:

There is no systemic government response (federal, state and local) to build resilience to climate risks. Action is piecemeal; uncoordinated; does not engage business, private sector investment, unions, workers in affected industries, community sector and communities; and does not match the scale of the threat climate change represents to the Australian economy, environment and society.

This is ironic, since many of the statement’s signatories spent decades fiercely resisting moves towards sane climate policy. Let’s look back at a few pivotal moments.

Preventing an early carbon tax

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) was a leading player against the Hawke Government’s Ecologically Sustainable Development process, which was initiated to get green groups “in the tent” on environmental policy. The BCA also fought to prevent then environment minister Ros Kelly bring in a carbon tax – one of the ways Australia could have moved to its goal of 20% carbon dioxide reduction by 2005.

And the BCA, alongside the Australian Mining Industry Council (now known as the Minerals Council of Australia), was a main driver in setting up the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN).




Read more:
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Don’t let the name fool you – the network co-ordinated the fossil fuel extraction sector and other groups determined to scupper strong climate and energy policy. It made sure Australia made neither strong international commitments to emissions reductions nor passed domestic legislation which would affect the profitable status quo.

Its first major victory was to destroy and prevent a modest carbon tax in 1994-95, proposed by Keating Government environment minister John Faulkner. Profits from the tax would have funded research and development of renewable energy.

Questionable funding and support

The Australian Aluminium Council is also in the roundtable. This organisation used to be the most militant of the “greenhouse mafia
organisations – as dubbed in a 2006 ABC Four Corners investigation.

The council funded and promoted the work of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE), whose “MEGABARE” economic model was, at the time, used to generate reports which were a go-to for Liberal and National Party politicians wanting to argue climate action would spell economic catastrophe.

In 1997, the Australian Conservation Foundation (another member of the climate roundtable) complained to the federal parliamentary Ombudsman about fossil fuel groups funding ABARE, saying this gave organisations such as Shell Australia a seat on its board. The ensuing Ombudsman’s report in 1998 largely backed these complaints. ABARE agreed with or considered many of the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

Meanwhile, Australian Industry Group was part of the concerted opposition to the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. In response to the July 2008 Green Paper on emissions trading, it complained:

businesses accounting for well over 10% of national production and around one million jobs will be affected by significant cost increases.

Australian economist Ross Garnaut was among many at the time to lambast this complaint, calling it “pervasive vested-interest pressure on the policy process.”




Read more:
IPCC: the dirty tricks climate scientists faced in three decades since first report


Back in July 2014, the Business Council of Australia and Innes Willox (head of the Australian Industry Group) both welcomed the outcome of then prime minister Tony Abbott’s policy vandalism: the repeal of the Gillard government’s carbon price. The policy wasn’t perfect, but it was an important step in the right direction.

In doing so, Australia squandered the opportunity to become a renewable energy superpower. With its solar, wind and geothermal resources, its scientists and technology base, Australia could have been world-beaters and world-savers. Now, it’s just a quarry with a palpable end of its customer base for thermal coal.

What is to be done?

Given the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the global pandemic and the devastating fires of Black Summer, it would be forgivable to despair.

It shouldn’t have been the case that business groups only acted when the problem became undeniable and started to affect profits.




Read more:
Carbon pricing: it’s a proven way to reduce emissions but everyone’s too scared to mention it


Somehow we must recapture the energy, determination and even the optimism of the period from 2006 to 2008 when it seemed Australia “got” climate change and the need to take rapid and radical action.

This time, we must do it better. Decision-makers should not look solely to the business sector for guidance on climate policy – the community, and the broader public good, should be at the centre.The Conversation

Marc Hudson, Research Associate in Social Movements, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.