The Royal Commission bushfire report must lead to a national Climate Adaptation Policy

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Bushfire RC) report is eagerly awaited not only by eminent fire fighter Greg Mullins who hopes it will lead to action to reduce climate change emissions but by all anxious Australians who recognise our government’s negligence by not preparing a national climate adaptation plan. Hopefully the Bushfire RC report will be a first step in its delivery.

Credit – Unsplash

Climate adaptation is the process by which society attempts to anticipate and manage the impacts of climate change.

Anxiety on climate change inaction has been expressed recently by many P and I contributors including Mark Beeson, Mike Scrafton, Noel Turnbull, and Peter Sainsbury. All those working in their own sphere for a better Australia and World now recognise that their endeavours are severely threatened.

The urgency for adaptation

This arises because the analysis by Dunlop and Spratt indicates that government has little chance of meeting its Paris Commitments on mitigation ie limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees which it boasts will be delivered “in a canter”. Neither can many other governments deliver because a rise of 1.5 degrees will now occur around 2030. The 2°C upper limit is likely to be reached before 2050 even with actions better than the current Paris commitments; 3°C would be reached early-to-mid second half of the century on the current global emissions trajectory, with 5°C possible before 2100

According to Bloomberg Economic Transition Scenario to keep global warming well below two degrees, emissions need to fall 10 times faster at 6% year-on-year to 2050. For 1.5 degrees the required rate is 10%. Present policies bring reductions of less than 1 per cent p.a.

Australia’s weak endeavour isolates it from major countries now aiming for zero 2050 emissions and even this target is insufficient given the size of the task but it does show intent. Unfortunately this task is being compromised further by some wealthy countries led by Australia and its “gas bomb” development policy, methane being the most potent green house gas.

But Australia’s most crucial problem is Mr Morrison’s mind set. After speaking to Boris Johnson, Morrison said “Our policies won’t be set in the United Kingdom, they won’t be set in Brussels, they won’t be set in any part of the world other than here, because it’s Australians’ jobs, and it’s Australia’s economy, and it’s Australia’s recovery from the COVID-19 recession that matters to me and my cabinet and the decisions we take”.

This is a Trumpian or Bolsonaro-like response which tells us that Morrison has learned little about climate change even to the extent that his own policies are irrelevant to the effort needed and that this is a world problem that can only be solved by international cooperation and leadership.

Morrison tells us that he has been unable to consider the much needed national ICAC because he has been consumed by Covid. This cannot be the excuse for years of inaction on climate change. Could it be that an effective ICAC might tell us why government is subservient to the fossil fuel industries?

Climate change adaptation in Australia

The recent history of climate change adaptation in Australia is one of quiet demolition.

The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) was established in 2008

Its aim is

“to lead the research community in a national interdisciplinary effort to generate the information needed by decision-makers in government and in vulnerable sectors and communities to manage the risks of climate change impacts’.

Four networks were established by NCCARF to maintain and build adaptation research capacity in key areas; natural ecosystems (terrestrial and marine); settlements and infrastructure; social, economic and institutional dimensions; and vulnerable communities (incorporating human health).

A national statement of intent was issued in 2015. Funding of these networks was reduced in 2017 and ceased in 2018

It is instructive to consider what advances might have occurred had the 2015 statement been pursued. Most other developed countries have had adaptation policy and action for several years with both social and economic benefit. Adaptation in each European country is displayed here

In the UK the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008. The latest report to parliament is “Progress in preparing for climate change 2019

Report to Parliament” prepared by a national team which includes public health.

Currently adaptation in Australia resides with the states; most have some degree of policy framework, all different and without coordination. The disadvantages of this were seen in the 2019-20 bushfires.

Climate adaptation is the most important sustainability issue

Clearly bushfires are but one of several climate related national emergencies, flood and storm, drought, and as climate change progresses, from heat waves which are presently the main cause of death from climate related events in Australia.

The Bushfire RC will be reporting this weekend and no doubt will ask the question how we avoid a series of Royal Commissions for the different extreme climate events. Hopefully the report will suggest a national structure which coordinates state actions on all emergencies but also on the relentless changes in the environment from temperature rise and water scarcity. The overriding concern must be the lack of national water policy and failure to manage the complex interactions between water, land, biodiversity and the many human activities such as land development, mining and irrigation. Few scientists see any future for the Murray Darling system without replacement of rorting and state politics by an independent and statutory Sustainability Commission, an issue discussed here, pages 24-28

The Bushfire RC asked “Whether the Commonwealth has power to declare a “state of national emergency” Such a declaration would allow the use of armed forces by the Commonwealth. The current Defence Legislation Amendment Bill 2020 (Enhancement of Defence Force Response to Emergencies) may be intended to do this though concerns have been expressed about a lack of parliamentary discussion.

Inadequate climate mitigation will bring untold damage to the environment and economy of Australia with lives and livelihoods lost. It is the responsibility of government to prevent these calamities. Their inaction is already culpable.

The Victorian government and community responses to Covid lockdown have been heroic. But we should recognise this as a 100 meter sprint compared to the marathon of effort required on Adaptation. The important lesson was that informed and dedicated leadership helped Victorians through this crisis. We need a leader who on a regular basis explains, side by side with a climate scientist, the complexity of climate change policy. No politics, no blaming Oppositions. The Victorian Premier pointed the way for the greater challenge to come and we thank him.

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Dr David Shearman AM PhD FRACP FRCPE Emeritus Professor of Medicine, Adelaide University

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