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Policy File: Australia's bushfire nightmare

10 January 2020

While we all still grieve for the victims of Australia’s devastating bushfires, in this In Focus section, Policy Forum will take a look at what comes next. Angus Blackman kicks us off by asking the crucial questions: how do we protect against future disasters, help communities recover, and cope with a changing climate?

With the new year barely begun and nearly two months of summer still remaining, Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season has already caused unprecedented destruction.

At the time of writing, 27 people have lost their lives and several more are still missing. Over 1,600 properties have been lost, millions of livestock have died, wildlife has been destroyed, and over 10 million acres of land has burned.

Amidst the fear and sadness, ordinary people have leapt into action, making extraordinary contributions to volunteer rural fire services, relief organisations, and impacted communities. One comedian’s Facebook campaign to raise money for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service led to $30 million in donations, obliterating her original $30,000 target. Canberran tennis player Nick Kyrgios pledged $200 per ace he serves this summer to the effort, prompting a flurry of sportspeople to join in.

It hasn’t just been Australians pitching in. Overseas sportspeople have followed Kyrgios’s lead and pop music superstar P!nk pledged $500,000 to the relief fund.

But with images of the destruction blanketing the news cycle around the world, many have been offering less-than-charitable assessments of Australia’s political leadership throughout the crisis. Heavily criticised for taking a Hawaii family holiday in December while the fires raged, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was forced to return home early and acknowledged his departure had caused “great anxiety”.

Yet he was unable to soothe anxieties during his visit to the fire-ravaged New South Wales town of Cobargo, where he was criticised by residents whom he attempted to console. Frank Bongiorno, an historian at The Australian National University (ANU), noted that “Morrison’s return to the country was worse than the bad publicity generated by his Hawaiian frolic”.

With fires still burning and recovery just getting underway, attention has already turned to how to manage future bushfire threats.

The issue of hazard reduction has been contentious in public debate. In a press conference on 4 January, Prime Minister Morrison said that “the most constant issue that has been raised with me has been the issue of managing fuel loads in national parks”.

Yet many experts argue this is no clear solution to the problem. Professor David Bowman, bushfire expert at the University of Tasmania has said that “to frame this as an issue of hazard reduction in national parks is just lazy political rhetoric”. Land management specialist at ANU, Associate Professor Philip Gibbons, wrote that “bad fire seasons are often seasons when the window for safe hazard reduction burning is small, and therefore little hazard reduction burning can be safely undertaken”.

Managing health impacts is another area of concern. The psychological impacts of disaster are real and prolonged, as is the impact of heat and bushfire smoke.

Canberra, Australia’s capital city, broke records for maximum temperature and made headlines on 1 January when its air became the most polluted in the world. Air Quality Index readings below 200 are considered safe, yet readings in the city peaked at 7,700 and hovered between 3,400 and 5,000 for much of the day.

Long term exposure to every 20 units is equivalent to smoking one cigarette per day, according to one expert. The city ran out of protective P2 masks well before the worst pollution settled and businesses, universities, and government departments shut their doors.

One woman died after exposure to bushfire smoke at Canberra airport, with the impact on the vulnerable being noticed by hospital staff and medical experts.

Contributing to the devastating conditions are unusual climate conditions. With 2019 officially becoming Australia’s hottest year on record, scientists point to the effects of greenhouse emissions on the climate.

With Australia in drought, uncharacteristically low sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean are also cutting off a critical source of moisture to the Australian continent. This phenomenon is known as a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) event, and 2019 was one of the most severe on record.

“Again, climate change is part of the story, because anthropogenic warming is causing positive IOD events to become stronger and more frequent,” wrote ANU climate scientist Associate Professor Nerilie Abram.

As the scientific evidence has continued to mount, so too has criticism of Australia’s climate change mitigation efforts. At international climate negotiations in December, Australia was heavily criticised for its insistence on using ‘carry-over credits’ to meet its Paris Agreement commitments.

While Prime Minister Morrison claims Australia was pulling its weight, the country has also been criticised for its export of fossil fuels, the emissions from which totalled nearly three times its domestic emissions in January to June 2019. Writing in the Australian Financial Review, Richard Denniss called on the government to be more ambitious with its targets and fund the fire recovery with a climate tax.

Pacific Island countries, which are among the first affected by rising sea levels, have been vocal about what they see as Australia’s climate policy failures. After Australia disappointed Pacific Island countries by failing to endorse climate commitments at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu called on Australia to earn its seat at the 2020 PIF by coming prepared with strong commitments.

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama echoed these sentiments in the wake of the bushfires. “If we choose inaction, we will only be fanning the flames of this crisis for future generations,” he wrote.

Again, for scientists and commentators, the question returned to leadership. UK television presenter Piers Morgan blasted Australian parliamentarian Craig Kelly in an appearance on British morning television for denying the link between the current crisis and climate change.

Crawford School’s Professor Frank Jotzo said the bushfires could act as a turning point for Australia’s climate policy. “The bulk of Australia’s business community will be behind you, they yearn for sensible national climate policy,” he said, addressing the Australian prime minister and cabinet.

With the continent ravaged by bushfires, how can governments best protect against future disasters? How can Australia deal with the increasingly stark reality of a changing climate? How do we help those who have lost it all start down the long path towards recovery? This Policy Forum In Focus section will tackle these questions and more in the weeks to come.

If you would like to donate, here is a list of organisations working on the bushfire relief and recovery effort you might like to consider.

This piece was originally published on Policy Forum. You can also read it here.

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Updated:  23 February 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team