Australia — One way we deal with the unthinkable is to pretend it isn’t there. On the basis of its published proceedings so far, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission seems to be ignoring the relevance of climate change as a major causal factor in Black Saturday. Yet the Commission’s first Term of Reference was to inquire and report into the causes and circumstances of the bushfires.
So far, the Royal Commission is addressing Black Saturday as if it were just another major bushfire in the series that includes Black Friday in 1939 and Ash Wednesday in 1983. The Commission is examining how particular bushfires started and spread, and how particular agencies and individuals responded to these emergencies.
The opening statements of the Chairman and of Counsel Assisting did not refer to climate change. Public hearings ended last week, yet no scientific witnesses have been called to testify on how climate change contributed to Black Saturday’s unprecedented ferocity.
Yet it was already clear to the public in the days after the fires that Victoria was in new climate territory. A feature article by Michael Bachelard and Melissa Fyfe in The Age reported climate scientists’ views that these were fires of climate change.
The article set out the science behind the Bureau of Meteorology’s warning on February 6 that February 7 was in danger of becoming the worst day in Victoria’s history; in many areas, Forest Fire Danger Index values were predicted to be a terrifying 150 to 180. By comparison, Ash Wednesday in 1983 had a FFDI value of 102.
The Age journalists drew on the expertise of Professor Neville Nicholls, a distinguished climate scientist who spent 35 years as a senior researcher at the Bureau of Meteorology. Black Saturday was Melbourne’s hottest-ever day – 46 degrees. The fires were spurred by fierce winds and unprecedented heat on the day itself. But to understand the intensity of the fires, one must consider that even the deepest wettest mountain gullies had been cured bone-dry during preceding weeks of unusual heat.
Because these gullies burned too, there was nothing to slow down and contain the fires.
Climate change played a major role in Black Saturday’s severity. These fires came after the state’s longest-ever 12-year drought, a string of the hottest years on record in the previous decade, a 35-day dry spell for Melbourne (the equal second-longest in history), and one of the most severe heatwaves on record.
The January 2009 heatwave – with record-breaking jumps in average local temperatures of more than two degrees in places – was so extraordinary that Nicholls described it as mind-boggling:
The crucial thing linking Black Saturday to climate change is the preceding three-day heatwave, rather than the really hot temperatures on the day of the fires. By then, the situation was already primed. It is beyond reasonable doubt that global warming and the enhanced drying effects on Victoria’s mountain forest country exacerbated the severity of this tragedy.
Nicholls lodged a detailed written submission to the Royal Commission. Other submissions addressing the climate change dimension of Black Saturday were lodged by climate scientist Professor David Karoly, and by the Australian Conservation Foundation. None of them were called to testify.
Nicholls’ conclusions were:
The unprecedented drought of the past 12 years, the unprecedented three-day heat wave of late January, and the unprecedented high temperatures on 7 February, must all have contributed to exacerbating the bushfire situation on 7 February. In turn, there are strong grounds for concluding that human-caused climate change, specifically the enhanced greenhouse effect caused by increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, contributed to each of these three unprecedented meteorological features. The obvious conclusion is that human-caused climate change exacerbated the bushfire situation of 7 February, even though it did not cause the bushfires.
Climate models, and our understanding of the climate system, lead us to expect even stronger warming, perhaps with further rainfall declines, over the next few decades, leading to increased frequency of days with extreme bushfire risk. Any actions taken to reduce fire risk in the future will, as a result, need to be more extreme than might have been considered a sufficient response if the climate of southern Australia had not been expected to continue warming and drying.
Why didn’t the Commission want to explore further in its public hearings such powerful scientific analysis and warnings, centrally relevant to its mandate? One might ask whether the Commission plans to set climate change issues aside: to refer to them, but essentially report on Black Saturday as just another big bushfire.
Royal Commissions are independent of politics. So it must be a coincidence that, under federal and state governments determined to downplay climate change as a clear and present danger to Australians, and to pursue policies which worsen it, this Royal Commission seems disposed to shrug off climate change science too.
The possible awful truth – that Victoria’s cool mountain ridges and valleys may be drying out as a result of climate change, to the point that their rich forest ecologies may no longer be sustainable, and that such ferocious bushfires may be nature’s way of transitioning these areas to a hotter, drier climate – might be a truth too much to bear. Maybe that is why the Royal Commission seems not to want to go there.