The fires of climate change

The fires of climate change

20 February 2009

published by

Australia — “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” – George Orwell.

Victorian taxpayers are about to fund a full-scale royal commission into the catastrophic bushfires of February 7 in which 208 people – probably more – were burnt to death.

There will be no blame. Everything will be on the table: the adequacy of prescribed preventative burning or hazard reduction; the lethal crime of arson; escape clearways; warning alarm systems; ‘go or stay’ risk assessment and evacuation procedures; fireproof bunkers; planning regulations; building codes; the adequacy of fire fighting resources; and the usefulness of the forest fire danger index.

Submissions from everyone will be welcomed. Such is the local and national trauma and grief that the inquiry is expected to be therapeutic for those who need and want to tell their stories and those who listen to them.

It may be a year to 18 months before the royal commission completes its work.

It is significant to note that two stakeholder groups have already come to concluded views: the 13,000 professional firefighters of Australia and the Climate Institute, which commissions scientific research in Australia into fires and global atmospheric warming.

Climate Institute CEO John Connor toldStateline NSW (on February 20, 2009) that in his organisation’s concluded view: “These are the fires of climate change that we’ve seen in Victoria and perhaps indeed in Port Lincoln in South Australia in 2005. Climate change is not just about warmer weather. It’s about wilder weather. Climate change costs … climate change kills”.

In 2007 the Climate Institute ( commissioned research by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO Marine and Atmosphere Research. The researchers produced a paper, “Bushfire Weather in Southeast Australia”, which, like actuaries for the insurance industry, projected extreme and catastrophic fire weather risks for the regions of Australia through each increment in global atmospheric warming.

The paper did not then declare Sydney’s ‘Black Christmas’ bushfires in late 2001, the Canberra bushfires in January 2003 or the 2003 and 2007 eastern Victorian bushfire to be directly related to climate change. The language was equivocal: “The recent observed rise in fire danger may be due to a mix of both natural variability and human-induced climate change. The relative importance of these two factors is not known at this time. Observations from the next few years to decades will allow the determination of the role played by each of these factors”.

After the deadly Victorian bushfires of February 2009, the Climate Institute is now unequivocal. These were climate change fires. It is expected to make such a definitive submission and ask the royal commission to commission further research. There is much at stake: the lives of Australians living in bush settings; insurance premiums for all Australian property owners; the national economic impact from a massive increase in fire protection costs.

While some politicians have accepted that climate change is behind the exponential increase in extreme fire weather, no government – state, territory of federal – has yet declared the now deadly bushfire phenomenon in Australia to be by scientific definition ‘the fires of climate change’.

To make such a declaration, of course, would require a coordinated national, state and territory policy response. The people of Australia would be entitled to ask why they have to wait for the Victorian bushfires royal commission to produce its findings on something that is already staring them in the face. The Canberra bushfires of 2003 and Victoria 2009 were off the scale of the forest fire danger index.

The 13,000 professional firefighters of Australia have collectively determined that climate change is producing the extreme fire weather conditions which have confronted them over recent years. This again is a significant declaration in a body (the United Firefighters Union of Australia) which is known to have its share of climate change sceptics within the membership.

In the open letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (dated February 12), national secretary Peter Marshall said:

“Consider the recent devastation in Victoria. Research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and the Bushfire Council found that a ‘low global warming scenario’ will see catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every 5-7 years by 2020, and every 3-4 years by 2050, with up to 50 per cent more extreme danger fire days. However, under a ‘high global warming scenario’, catastrophic events are predicted to occur every year in Mildura, and firefighters have been warned to expect an up to 230 per cent increase in extreme fire days in Bendigo. And in Canberra, the site of devastating fires in 2003, we are being asked to prepare for up to a massive 221 per cent increase in extreme fire days by 2050.”

The union is calling for a national inquiry into the state of readiness of the country’s fire services to confront yet more climate change fires. And it has urged all governments to follow scientific advice by halving Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

When I challenged the union’s NSW secretary Simon Flynn on the practicality of Australia acting unilaterally on greenhouse gas emissions, which everyone understood was a global problem requiring a global response, he replied that firefighters on the west coast of the USA and the east coast of Australia had come to realise the enormity of the change in extreme fire weather conditions. After Victoria he now wanted Australia to take the lead in confronting climate change in particular, as well as the resourcing and preventative strategies for Australians living in all areas vulnerable to climate change bushfires.

Should we discount the urgings of the firefighters’ union as stereotypical self-interest for more resourcing and membership? As they put their lives on the line for us, perhaps we could cut them some slack on this occasion and give the firefighters the benefit of the doubt about their now collective declaration of a link between climate change and extreme fire weather.

Should we discount the urgings of the Climate Institute, a privately funded NGO? It could be a front for vested interests in the renewable industry. (On its website the Climate Institute declares that it is primarily funded by the philanthropic Poola Foundation, through the estate of the late Tom Kantor, a nephew of Rupert Murdoch). That might be a worry in figuring out agendas and motivations, but the research it commissioned does carry the signatures of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO.

It is obviously getting harder to put climate change fires into the too-hard basket.

The Climate Institute’s website gives a state by state, region by region break down of FFDI (forest fire danger index) tracking the annual change in fire weather.

“Of most concern to firefighters are days classified as having ‘very high’ or ‘extreme’ fire dangers. The number of very high and extreme fire-weather days is projected to increase in all scenarios. For example, in Canberra, if the rate of global warming is low, the number of extreme days increases around 8-10 per cent by 2020, and 17-25 per cent by 2050. If the rate of global warming is high, the number of extreme days rises 25-42 per cent by 2020 and 137-221 per cent (around double to triple) by 2050.”

As the politicians, economists, insurance companies and emergency services struggle to come to terms with what this means, Australians residing and working in the bush landscapes have clearly been warned.

Do they abandon their now-dangerous lifestyles, or do they push for policy responses which confront the fires of climate change?

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