RAMESH THAKUR. Australian bushfires: it’s not always about climate change (Straits Times 24-12-19)

Global warming and climate change are scientific facts, but beware of attempts to make them responsible for poor human decisions affecting the environment today.

While negotiations were going on at the United Nations climate summit in faraway Madrid, forest fires raged across Australia. Sydney was smothered in thick choking smoke.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was sharply criticised for climate delinquency.

Global warming, with man-made CO2 emissions as a major cause, is now beyond scientific dispute. However, while science has a lot to tell us about trends in overall conditions over the long term, the bushfires-climate change linkage argument contains two fallacies.

Carbon emissions do not cause immediate global warming; and global warming does not determine local weather in any location at any given time. International and national climate assessments report only low confidence in links between human-induced climate change and droughts, bushfires, floods and hurricanes. For example, Monday 30th was the coldest December day in Delhi in 119 years. That is no more a refutation of the scientific reality of the rise in average global temperatures caused by CO2-induced climate change than the Australian bushfires are proof of it. Yet both are evidence of increasing climate volatility.

The frequency and intensity of weather disasters, and exposure and vulnerability to them, depend also on land and water use practices, settlement patterns, urbanisation, and so on.

Conflating man-made global warming with weather disasters heightens the political acrimony about ways forward and deepens public cynicism that climate change is a convenient bogeyman for disasters.

Misleading extreme rhetoric makes domestic and international agreement even more difficult, both between political parties domestically and governments internationally.

The frequency of natural disasters has increased steeply since 1900, but the death tolls have plummeted dramatically. Some of the worst resulted from human decisions. The primary blame for the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33 that killed 13 per cent of the population lay with Stalin’s policies. Similarly, Mao Zedong’s ideologically-driven farming policies contributed to the great China famine in 1959–61 that killed tens of millions.

Australia has a long history of bushfires. Their causes are both structural (including global warming) and proximate (arson, lightning strikes, carelessness with fire).

Many past bushfires were deadlier despite much lower CO2 concentrations at the time. Over 200 deaths were recorded in an intense three-week heatwave that swept across Australia in January 1896.

In January 1939, temperatures hit 44.7 0 C in Melbourne (the readings back then were not altogether reliable) and 71 lives were lost across Victoria to bushfires that covered almost 20,000km2 (2mn hectares).

Much of the blame for the extent and intensity of the current fires lies with faulty land management practices. In Australia’s hot dry summers with frequent droughts and eucalypt bushland, fallen tinder-dry twigs and undergrowth are combustible fuel. Lack of controlled burning during favourable winter conditions built up fuel loads that made it much harder to stop the fires spreading at speed.

Meanwhile global warming is making Australia’s summers hotter, longer, more drought prone and therefore at risk of more frequent forest fires. However, people are reluctant to accept cuts to living standards to support drastic climate action if Australian action will make little overall difference because others who matter more are free-riding. In 18 months to June 2019, China increased its coal-fired power capacity by 42.9GW (gigawatts) while other countries cut theirs by 8.1GW. It plans to expand existing capacity by 147.7GW and bankroll more than one-quarter of coal development in other countries.

A stop to global warming would help to reduce the numbers of bushfires in the future, but the impact depends far more on emission reductions by the Big Four of China, India, Russia and the US which account for 54.5% of annual global emissions compared to Australia’s 1.1%. This underlines the pointlessness of national action by Australia in current conditions of global climate governance. This makes it challenging to cut coal fleets and impose additional hardships on citizens already angry about rising costs and unreliable power supply.

The International Energy Agency expects the demand for coal-generated electricity to remain stable over the next five years, with India accounting for the biggest growth at 4.6% annually. With export revenues of US $67bn, coal was Australia’s top commodity export in 2018. If India is committed to increasing coal-sourced power anyway, why should Australians forego the export revenue and miners lose jobs?

The smoke from cooking over a wood or dung fire kills millions in the developing world every year. A switch to coal-powered electricity would save millions of lives in the here and now. If Australian coal is cleaner than the alternatives for India (as seems likely), the net global emission doesn’t increase.

What Australia can do on its own, is to increase the resilience of bushfire-vulnerable communities, reduce fuel loads in the bush, and invest in efficient and rapidly-deployable firefighting forces.

For both fire prevention and management, this seems a better investment of public resources for earlier returns, without however ignoring the need to take an active role in international negotiations to halt global warming. The Morrison government has indeed been delinquent in the latter regard. Given Australia’s warming trend and high vulnerability to rising average temperatures, it should be a champion for global climate action, not a laggard.

Advanced modern economies like Australia and the US have far better disaster preparedness infrastructure and skills and can limit the deadly toll more effectively than developing countries. Energy was a critical component of their industrialisation that today gives them such capacity.

For developing countries, disaster preparedness requires transitioning to a modern economy, for which industrialisation is necessary. Industrialisation requires greater energy intensity to build high-quality dwelling, transportation, public health and education infrastructures. India’s annual per capita energy consumption is only one-third the world average; Americans, Australians and Canadians use between 10 to 16 times as much electricity per person.

A country’s growing intensity of energy use as it industrialises explains why cutbacks to the emission limits of developing countries require longer lead times and global climate agreements have reflected the different treatments of industrialised and developing countries. Such nuances are difficult to explain to a wider public not very interested in blame-shifting for historical and per capita emissions. They see that aggregate emissions from China and India are 29 and 6 times more than Australia’s, respectively, and refuse to back tougher emission cuts by Australia.

Nor, in the existing global order, can sovereign states be legally compelled to accept binding emission quotas. They prefer to set their own priorities on economic, development, industrial competitiveness, and energy policies. Coercion is also impracticable when the most powerful countries are also the worst climate laggards. The Trump administration’s disengagement from global efforts to address climate change is a more serious setback than the level of Australian implementation.

But the world can do little about it. At least the Australians can do something about their own bushfires.

Ramesh Thakur is Emeritus Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy,  Australian National University and a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General.

This is a slightly updated version of the original (paywalled) article which can be found here.

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Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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8 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. Australian bushfires: it’s not always about climate change (Straits Times 24-12-19)

  1. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    I would challenge the assertion that national action in Australia on climate change is pointless. The challenge lies at two levels: (i) physically mitigating carbon emissions; and (ii) working together with the rest of the world on an equitable and effective plan for mitigating carbon emissions. As one of the wealthiest nations with the highest per capita carbon emission, I would have thought that action by Australia is a necessary condition to achieving global cooperation in addressing climate change. It seems such an elementary point it feels embarrassing to have to explain it.

    I would also challenge the assertion that taking action on climate change entails a reduction in living standards. As far as I understand the economics, taking action may entail a slower path to rising living standards, but in general, Australian living standards will continue to rise. If Australian living standards do fall over the next few years, it is likely due to economic mismanagement vs taking action on climate change.

    I am sorry if this article has been published in the Singapore Straits Times, as it may give the audience in Singapore that Australians are unwilling to do anything on climate change. Any such perception will only make it harder for the world to work together to mitigate carbon emissions.

  2. Avatar Jerry Roberts says:

    The Commonwealth may have a constitutional power to cancel the export licences of coal-mining companies. If it did so we would still have the problem of managing our bush fires. I agree with Ramesh and thank him for his courage. When driving up the coast from Eden to Sydney we admired the beauty of the scenery where the forest grows down from the mountains to the ocean but we also expressed our concern about fire danger in such a landscape. Where I am now we are about to receive good rain from a cyclone. I hope this heralds a change in the weather pattern nationwide.

  3. Avatar Mark Freeman says:

    Plenty of well meaning but dubious assumptions and assessments in this piece. India is embarking on a major renewables program. Smoke from dung and wood is at least terrestrial carbon but most importantly if those people had the capacity to afford gas or electricity for cooking they’d be mostly doing so. The problem as ever is poverty not supply.

    Concentrating on forest fuel reduction rather than global emissions reduction isn’t just a nod, intended or otherwise, to denialists, it’s basically nonsense as events this week have proven. The terrain in much of East Gippsland and up into the alps is vast and very hard to access. The idea that fuel reduction programs can outpace climate change is at best fanciful but better described as deluded. Elsewhere in Australia and the world fires are burning regions that previously didn’t have bushfires.

    I know you mean well Professor, but this piece doesn’t square with reality. I suggest you get any follow up pieces checked by actual experts.

  4. Avatar Bob Ellis says:

    “Reduce fuel loads’, ‘prepare efficient and rapidly-deployable fire fighting forces’. How? With what resources? I can assure you that off season burns are not the answer even of we could employ them. It is not the level of fuel loads but their nature we are experiencing.This posting is dangerously close to proposing wishes and prayers as an answer.

  5. Avatar Steve Webber says:

    Professor Thakur makes some valid points in this short essay but has missed a few issues:

    In arguing that Australia has always had bushfires the Professor attempts to downplay the impact of climate change in the current disaster. This argument ignores the actual warming that has already taken place and the acceleration of global impacts. How can you ignore the bushfire disasters in Spain, Portugal, California and Arctic countries.

    Last year the peat in the Tasmanian Central Highlands caught fire. Hardly a land management issue. In truth an environmental disaster.

    Whilst I agree that land management is an issue, the Professor has missed the impact of industrial forestry and planting of monocultures. This has been exacerbated by the collapse of managed investment schemes so no maintenance occurred.

    The biggest issue in relation to the fires is the complete lack of forward planning and resourcing by Federal and State Govts of all persuasions. The Commonwealth was able to step in when Cyclone Tracey devastated Darwin in 1974 because of the status of the Northern Territory.

    Despite the Darwin disaster there has been little progress at COAG to develop national arrangements between jurisdictions – and in my view this is a result of climate change denialism by the LNP.

  6. Avatar Malcolm Crout says:

    The level of ignorance in this article is astounding. It rolls up a view of denial and fact avoidance bordering on prevarication.
    No mention of the role of renewables in global clean energy. No mention of Australia’s position as the largest coal exporter in the World. No mention of the fracking nightmare to be added in the next decade by Australia which will leak tonnes of methane into the atmosphere. No mention of the lack of policy around climate change in this country.
    If we were to take the view of this article then nothing in the world will change for the better.

  7. Avatar ANDREW FARRAN says:

    At last some real common sense on this matter.

    The key practical issue for Australia is as the article states:

    “What Australia can do on its own, is to increase the resilience of bushfire-vulnerable communities, reduce fuel loads in the bush, and invest in efficient and rapidly-deployable firefighting forces.”

    If there has to be blame anywhere it is not personal. It is institutional in that we have not addressed longstanding issues arising from our antiquated Constitution. Whether it be fires or any other subject matter that calls for close coordination and an appropriate disposition of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the States the Constitution as it stands is inadequate.

    We cannot delay much longer the renegotiation and resettlement of powers, functions and responsibilities within our Federal system to make it fit for purpose in the modern era.

  8. Avatar Richard Barnes says:

    Ramesh, your piece seems to go dangerously close to supporting those who say “we emit only 1.3% of the total – why should we act when China and others don’t”. I realise you are saying much more than that. But still, I think we should be clear that (i) as a middle-ranking developed nation, the more radical we are in putting our house in order, the more we can be part of international efforts to get others to do the same and (ii) there is a powerful moral argument that our ability to safeguard ourselves is due to our wealth, which is built on a century of (what we now see as) profligate use of fossil fuels; so we should be actively helping other nations – Pacific neighbours in particular – to respond to their climate crises. (Would that Pink’s sincerely donated $500K had gone to Kiribas instead!)

    You expressed concerns about “conflating man-made global warming with weather disasters”. I know you wrote the piece two weeks ago, but all the world’s media, other than ours, are very much, and very correctly, conflating the current fire catastrophe with global warming! Look at a graph of the area burnt compared with the recent Siberian fires or last year’s Amazon fires. This is a catastrophe of staggering and unprecedented proportions. The fact that – fortunately – there have been relatively few deaths does not mean it has been less of a ‘natural disaster’ than other previous fire disasters; rather it speaks to lessons learned and better preparation, particularly after the 2009 Victorian fires.

    Which brings us to the second element of how we as a nation can and should respond to Australia’s changing climate and the threats this poses. Here of course I agree with you, although we are talking about much more than ‘just’ fires: drought / water management; cyclones / floods; etc.
    It is clear that the federal government’s inability to acknowledge climate change has made it totally unable to prepare for the associated catastrophes. At least this might now change. Clearly “these are state matters” is now utter madness. The ability to mobilise resources at a national level, on a war-like scale, is now essential. In fact the formation of a government of national unity and a “war cabinet” would be entirely justified.

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