Asking people to prepare for fire is pointless if they can’t afford to do it. It’s time we subsidised fire prevention



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David Bowman, University of Tasmania

Once again, Australia is on fire. This year it’s the turn of Western Australia and South Australia, where bushfires are threatening homes and lives. In the south of Tasmania, conditions are dry and the region is entering a period of peak fire danger.

In the lead up to every bushfire season, the mantra is the same each year: prepare, prepare, prepare. Remove the fuel load. Clean out the gutters. Mow lawns, tidy gardens, create a burnbreak between bushland and your house. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Have a plan.

After 40 years studying the interaction between humans and fire, I have seen this mantra rolled out every year — and watched, every year, as it is comprehensively ignored by large numbers of people. Why? Because they are bad or lazy? No.

The fact is asking people to prepare for fire is pointless if they can’t afford to do it. If you don’t have time or money (or both), it doesn’t matter how many times authorities tell you to prepare. It’s not going to happen. What if we had a system, like Medicare, where the cost of these fire prevention measures was subsidised by the public system?




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We know the current system doesn’t work

Institutions such as local fire authorities, councils or governments can say “we have done our bit and we expect the community to do their part and manage their risk, their property, their bushfire plan”.

But it’s just passing the problem along to the next person, without considering whether they’re able to actually take up that advice.

For years, authorities have essentially handed people a very formidable and expensive checklist of things to do, right up to the level of retrofitting your house to be compliant with modern building standards. These are significant time and financial investments.

The cost of failing to prepare is huge. Bushfire often spreads by embers landing in a series of unprepared properties. If your neighbours don’t make their home defendable, chances are it may cause your house to burn down.

There are many reasons people don’t prepare, and a key one is affordability. If you’re not physically able to get up a ladder to clean your gutters or mow around your property and remove fuel load — and you can’t afford to pay someone to do it — what are you supposed to do?

You might think, “Well, if people choose to live in a bushfire prone area then that’s their problem. Why should they get subsidies?” But there are many reasons people might not be able to prepare, including poverty, old age, and health issues.

And if they don’t prepare, it won’t just affect them; it could create a vector for the fire to spread to other properties. Research suggests disasters, including fires, are more likely to occur in low socioeconomic areas.

A man cleans leaf litter out of gutters.
Many people are not physically able to get up a ladder to clean gutters and can’t afford to pay someone to do it.
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It’s time to look at preventative fire measures the same way we look at preventative healthcare.

Our taxes fund Medicare and public health measures because Australian society recognises it’s cheaper in the long run. It’s cheaper than allowing low-level health problems to fester until they become so threatening they have to be dealt with in the mind-bogglingly expensive emergency department.

In the same way, subsidies for household bushfire preparation would help prevent the vast taxpayer expense incurred for emergency fire-fighting when fire strikes.

What might the system look like?

The system could take many forms.

State governments already give vouchers to citizens to incentivise spending in one area. Think of the NSW government’s Active Kids or Creative Kids voucher systems, or its planned dining and entertainment voucher system.

So why not give vouchers you can use to pay someone to clear your gutters, mow your lawn or clear dry grass and other fuel loads?

Insurers could offer lower premiums to people who take action to reduce fire risk around their home by ember-proofing or installing gutter-guard, for example (in the same way there are insurance benefits if you make your house more resistant to being broken into).

A burnt out house.
Insurers could offer lower premiums to people who take action to reduce fire risk around their home.
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Perhaps councils could offer lower rates for low-income people who, in exchange, pay for measures to reduce their fuel load.

Or we could have a bulk-billing system, where you can ask a service provider to assess your home’s risk and do basic fire load reduction, and it’s charged to a Medicare-style system.

To me, these ideas make a lot more sense than more punitive measures being considered in some places, where authorities could clear a fire risk around a house themselves and simply send the bill to the occupant or land owner.

The punitive system just puts more pressure on people who may not be able to afford to reduce their home’s fire risk, much less deal with going to court to dispute a bill they’ve been sent. It also means people are less likely to trust and cooperate with fire authorities.

That sounds expensive

Yes, I know these ideas are expensive. So is Medicare. So is the pension system. So is the public health response that helped Australia drive the COVID-19 epidemic into submission. But they’re worth it, aren’t they?

And do you know what else is expensive? Doing the same thing every year, even though it doesn’t work.

We have just been through an enormously expensive bushfire royal commission. And as fire expert Kevin Tolhurst points out here, we’ve had 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939. A huge expense to taxpayers.

We know the cost of the Black Summer fires ran into the billions, with costs to the health system, individuals, businesses and emergency services.

Aerial fire suppression aircraft are expensive. Having 100-day firefighting campaign is an extraordinary drain on the public purse — and that’s before you even start counting the cost of economic disruption that comes with it.




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It sounds a bit radical

I know! But radical change is what’s needed — and it’s possible. In early 2020, I wrote it was time to re-arrange the Australian school calendar around fire seasons and people said this was crazy. But then a few months later we completely rearranged schooling around the pandemic — an idea that, in January, would have seemed completely unworkable.

It turns out radical change is possible when push comes to shove. And for climate change-related fire risk, push really has come to shove.

Our current system involves telling people to create “a defendable space” around your house. I’ve been on Google Earth to look to at how that’s played out in many bushland suburbs; you don’t need to be a genius to work out there they are not defendable spaces.

Climate change adaptation does feel radical, but it’s also necessary.

If we are sitting round going into a hotter, drier, more fire-prone world, what are we doing if we are not enabling people to adapt?


This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

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

Climate explained: why we need to cut emissions as well as prepare for impacts



Research shows the cost of damage through climate change will be much greater than the costs of reducing emissions.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Ralph Brougham Chapman, Victoria University of Wellington


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Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

First, let’s accept climate change is happening and will have major negative impacts on New Zealand. Second, let’s also accept that even if New Zealand did absolutely everything possible to reduce emissions to zero, it would still happen, i.e. our impact on climate change is negligible. Third, reducing our emissions will come with a high financial cost. Fourth, the cost of dealing with the negative impacts of climate change (rising seas etc), will also come at a high financial cost. Based on the above, would it not be smarter to focus our money and energy on preparing New Zealand for a world where climate change is a reality, rather than quixotically trying to avert the unavoidable? – a question from Milton

To argue that we should not act to reduce emissions because it is not in our interests to make a contribution to global mitigation is ultimately self-defeating. It would be to put short-term self-interest first, rather than considering both our long-term interests and those of the wider global community.

Our options on climate are looking increasingly dire, since we as a global community have postponed combating climate change so long. But in New Zealand – and indeed in any country – we should still do as much as we can to reduce the extent of climate change, and not, at this stage, divert significant resources away from mitigation into “preparing for” it.

Starting with the physics, it is clear that climate change is not a given and fixed phenomenon. It is unhelpful to say simply that “it is happening”. How much heating will occur will be determined by human actions: it is within humanity’s grasp to limit it.

Any significant action taken over the next decade in particular will have high payoffs in terms of reducing future warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in effect says emission cuts of 45% or more over the next decade might just avert catastrophic change. Inaction, on the other hand, could condemn humankind to experiencing perhaps 3℃ or more of heating. Each further degree represents a huge increase in human misery – death, suffering and associated conflict – and increases the threat of passing dangerous tipping points.

Climate outcomes are so sensitive to what we do over the next decade because eventual heating depends on the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We are still adding to that stock every year, and we are still raising the costs of cutting emissions to an “acceptable” level (such as that consistent with 1.5℃ or 2℃ of heating).




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Climate explained: will we be less healthy because of climate change?


Limiting future warming

Under President Obama, a report was published which pointed out that every decade of delay in making cuts in emissions raises the cost of stabilising within a given target temperature (e.g. 2℃) by about 40%.

Each year’s emissions add to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, even though some of the gases are absorbed into oceans, trees and soils. Until we can get global emissions down close to zero, atmospheric concentrations will rise. When the Paris agreement was adopted in 2015, it was expected that government pledges at the time might limit heating to under 2℃, conceivably 1.5℃ degrees, if pledges were soon strengthened. It is now even more vital to cut emissions, as it reduces the risk of even higher, and nastier, temperatures.

What of New Zealand’s role in this? New Zealand is indeed a small country. Like most groups of five million or so emitters, we generate a small fraction of global emissions (less than 0.2%). But because we are a well respected, independent nation, with a positive international profile, what we do has disproportionate influence. If we manage to find creative and effective ways to cut emissions, we can be sure the world will be interested and some countries may be motivated to follow suit.

Just as we notice Norway’s effective promotion of electric vehicles, and Denmark’s success with wind power, so too can New Zealand have an outsized impact if we can achieve breakthroughs in mitigation. Reaching 100% renewable electricity generation would be a significant and persuasive milestone, as would any breakthroughs in agricultural emissions.




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Climate explained: why plants don’t simply grow faster with more carbon dioxide in air


Reducing emissions makes economic sense

In economic terms, mitigation is an excellent investment. The Stern Review crystallised the argument in 2007: unmitigated climate change will cause damage that would reduce worldwide incomes by substantially more than the costs of active mitigation. Since then, further research has underlined that the cost of damage through climate change will be much greater than the costs of mitigation. Put in investment terms, the benefits from mitigation vastly exceed the costs.

Mitigation is one of the best investments humanity will ever make. Recent findings are that increasing mitigation efforts to ensure that warming is limited to 1.5℃, rather than 2℃ or more, will yield high returns on investment, as damage is averted. We also now know many energy and transport sector mitigation investments, such as in electric vehicles, generate good returns.

So why haven’t we invested enough in mitigation already? The answer is the free rider problem – the “I will if you will” conundrum. The Paris agreement in 2015 is the best solution so far to this: essentially all countries globally have agreed to cut emissions, so relatively concerted action is likely. Given this, it is worthwhile for New Zealand to act, as our efforts are likely to be matched by the actions of others. In addition, of course, we have an ethical duty to future generations to cut emissions.

The fact that New Zealand is a small country with limited emissions is irrelevant to these arguments. We must play our part in the global push to cut emissions. The reality is that it is worthwhile to mitigate, and we are committed to doing so. In this situation, it makes no sense to move mitigation resources away to preparation for climate change. We do of course need to plan and prepare for the impacts of climate change, in myriad ways, but not at the expense of mitigation.The Conversation

Ralph Brougham Chapman, Associate Professor , Director Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

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