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Bushfire analysis and opinion live blog by Policy Forum

24 January 2020

In the face of disaster, misinformation can move quickly, and solutions can be hard to come by. As part of Policy Forum’s mission to generate relevant, fact-based, policy-focused debate on crucial issues, over the coming weeks the team is running a special live blog covering analysis and opinion on Australia’s bushfires.

What are the underlying causes of the crisis? How can authorities be better prepared for the next disaster? Read our daily snapshots below and stay across all of the bushfire analysis and opinion via the live blog.

Tuesday 28 January

Longer bushfire seasons are “a big concern” for vulnerable communities living in bushfire-prone areas, Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services community preparedness manager Su Ferreira says. Regional communities in Victoria may have to wait another month for critical communications infrastructure to be restored, according to a report in The Age. Climate change is a serious threat to national security and Australia’s political class has failed to properly assess the risks, writes a UNSW Canberra academic. Tourism businesses in bushfire-affected areas have suffered major losses after visitor numbers nosedived as a result of the crisis. Authorities should burn five per cent of Victoria’s forests every year to reduce the risk of bushfires, says one bushfire expert.

This bushfire season has seen extreme pressure on water sources already under stress from drought, says The Australian National University’s (ANU) Dr Aparna Lal. This water contamination and shortage present serious risks to Australians’ long-term health, she writes in a new piece for Policy Forum. Former trade minister and now Distinguished Fellow at ANU Dr Craig Emerson warns Australia could become the target of tariffs if it fails to do more to reduce emissions.

Friday 24 January

Australia’s federal government is coming under increasing pressure to change course on its climate policies, but will it lead to tangible policy change? This week on Policy Forum Pod, our expert panel including Crawford professors Quentin Grafton and Frank Jotzo take a look at how the events of the last couple of months have shifted public views and how that might, or might not, translate into policy change.

Australia has been singled out for climate inaction by speakers at the ‘Doomsday Clock’ event in the United States. Dr Tom Beer, author of the first-ever research on the link between climate change and worsening bushfires, is “horrified” to be seeing his predictions coming true. While acknowledging the impact of climate change on worsening bushfire conditions, National Party MPs say hazard-reduction is one of the “vital factors” in recent bushfires in a recent letter to party members. “Stronger, fairer collaboration” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is needed to manage bushfire risks and the Australian landscape more broadly, says Vanessa Cavanagh from the University of Wollongong. Rising insurance costs for electricity networks could lead to rising power prices for consumers, says Energy Networks Australia (ENA). With bushfires set to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change, cross-border smoke as seen during Australia’s bushfires is likely to become a growing problem. While bold changes in Australia’s climate policies are unlikely, Scott Morrison has the opportunity to build a legacy by making incremental changes, writes Tony Wood from the Grattan Institute.

ANU Crawford School of Public Policy’s Professor Warwick McKibbin says “governments have not appreciated the extent of risk involved with climate change”. Crawford School’s Dr Siobhan McDonnell says climate and energy politics became “entrenched” in Australia’s Liberal Party once Malcolm Turnbull was toppled as prime minister in 2018.

Thursday 23 January

The Australian bushfires represent a tipping point, writes Australian National University climate expert, Professor Will Steffen. Ross Gittins, Economics Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, describes the bushfire crisis as Australia’s “Pearl Harbour moment” - the moment at which the country stops viewing climate change as a distant threat and starts seeing it as a present reality. While doing more to tackle climate change would help Australia address the bushfire threat, Australian Foreign Affairs editor Jonathan Pearlman says it would also have diplomatic benefits. Renowned research journal Nature has published an editorial criticising Australia’s inaction on climate change.

New South Wales state parliamentarian Andrew Constance has criticised charities like the Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army for not getting support to bushfire survivors quickly enough. Schools can play an important role in helping students cope with the bushfires, providing “a sense of familiarity, routine and security among chaos”, write researchers Rachael Jacobs and Carol Mutch. Hazard-reduction burning has roughly doubled in NSW in the last decade, find ABC Fact Check. While it’s possible to design safer buildings, completely bushfire-proofing a house is not possible, according to a CSIRO bushfire adaptation expert. Logging operators in New South Wales and Victoria are hoping to extract millions of tonnes of burnt wood from fire-ravaged forests across the two states.

Wednesday 22 January

Prime Minister Scott Morrison described hazard reduction as a “more practical” way to ensure people’s safety than reducing emissions in a recent television interview. The government’s promised May budget surplus may be in doubt due to the bushfires, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg telling reporters it was too early to say what impact the fires would have on the budget. The Treasurer also rejected the assertion in a Bank of International Settlements (BIS) report that national central banks may have to buy-back high emissions assets like coal mines in order to dramatically reduce emissions.

Recent rain hasn’t extinguished fires burning in Australia’s southeast, but it has made conditions more favourable for firefighters in containing blazes.An estimated one billion animals have been killed by the bushfires, but those that have survived may still be under increased threat from feral predators. Wild horses may also have to be culled in order to protect native species after the bushfires, says Australian National University (ANU) PhD student Renee Hartley. While bushfires are a feature of the Australian landscape, the pattern of fires in recent years has changed so significantly that native flora and fauna are struggling “to adapt and survive”, writes ANU Associate Professor Cris Brack. In a new piece for Policy Forum, Quentin Grafton and Tom Kompas argue it is illogical and contrary to self-interest for Australia not to do more to reduce its emissions and support global action.

Tuesday 21 January

Some bushfire survivors are struggling to access support, blaming bureaucratic hurdles. Despite bushfire relief donations reaching $250 million, that is probably not enough to cover the damage caused by the bushfire crisis, says the head of charitable organisation St Vincent de Paul. Former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW Greg Mullins has written a scathing assessment of the federal government, saying proposals for more resources and national coordination were “ridiculed”. Peter Marshall, National Secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia, has said a royal commission into the bushfire disaster will duplicate state inquiries triggered by fire-related deaths. Fire has seriously impacted the habitat of 25 critically endangered species, says one expert.

The Bank of International Settlements (BIS) has warned climate change could lead to the next global financial crisis in a new report. The Opposition health spokesperson Chris Bowen has called for a “national climate change health strategy”. The Australian National University’s Dr Rochelle-Lee Bailey says more research is required to understand the impact of the disaster on seasonal workers from the Pacific. The fires and smoke affecting Australia are a wake-up call to change course, writes Crawford School’s Professor Robert Costanza in a new piece for Policy Forum.

You can read more in-depth analysis of the crisis from leading policy thinkers via Policy Forum’s special In Focus section.

An ANU Crawford School of Public Policy initiative, Policy Forum is Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy debate, analysis, views, and discussion.

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Updated:  29 January 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team