Image: Takver

News from the front desk, issue 459: The mood of the nation is as volatile as the landscape this week, as science and ideology collide during the bushfire emergency.

Let’s start with some facts. By 2pm on Wednesday, the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) was reporting that its members had received 450 bushfire-related claims from New South Wales and Queensland, with insured losses estimated at $50 million.

Many more claims are expected in the coming days including from Western Australia, where major fires destroyed at least two properties on Wednesday.

Back in June this year, the ICA announced that it supported the science of climate change and recognised the need to plan for more frequent and more severe events.

Specifically, it flagged a number of concurrent pressures on the insurance industry and the wider Australian community including “changing physical risk, extreme weather patterns, and the need for new tools, modelling and investment to inform decision making, climate adaptation and mitigation”.

Even though this is coming from one of Australia’s most risk-savvy and fact-driven sectors, where bottom-line considerations and financial impacts are fundamental to the business, we have not seen the required investment from governments.

In NSW, for example, the documents for the 2019-2020 budget show a decrease in funding for the Rural Fire Services and for Fire and Rescue NSW.

Capital and operational spending received less money, which makes the state premier’s widely-reported claim that cuts reflected only a reduction in capex spending questionable.

The premier also had to field questions around an email sent to public servants attending a climate change adaptation workshop on Tuesday – the day Sydney was facing catastrophic fire risk – that told them not to mention any link between bushfires and climate change.

The federal government also came under fire for cutting funding to disaster response agencies. This has not been confirmed by examining the Commonwealth budget papers, but while looking for it, The Fifth Estate did note that the 2019-2020 budget reduced funding to National Parks, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Climate Change Authority.

In contrast, this year, the Queensland government increased spending allocations in its budget for Queensland Fire and Emergency Services and the state’s rural fire service.

Health impacts ignored

Aside from immediate threats to life from the current fire emergency – with four lives already lost and dozens injured – new research published today in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) by researchers from Monash University and partner institutions of the 2019 MJA-Lancet Countdown report shows a lack of engagement at the federal level on the health impacts of climate change.

The report examined progress on climate change and human health in Australia, tracked across 31 indicators divided into five broad sections: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation, planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; finance and economics; and public and political engagement.

Increases in temperatures are the leading source of risks, with impacts including higher infectious disease rates among children, increased child malnutrition, air pollution from coal-burning power generation leading to respiratory disease and premature deaths, and higher suicide rates.

According to Associate Professor Yuming Guo from Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, the researchers found “little evidence to suggest that Australia is acting effectively to mitigate these multiple heat-related risks for physical and mental health”.

The crux of the debate is, at what point do we act on the information provided by science?

The science community this week has explained repeatedly that climate change is making fires worse because of changing weather patterns, including rising average temperatures.

We just had one of the warmest, driest winters on record. And as the experts have stated, warm, dry conditions can severely narrow the window for when it’s safe to conduct hazard reduction burns.

It’s nothing to do with politics; it’s simple science.

Sadly, science is one area where the Coalition has been playing politics to ill effect.

On funding, among the first acts of the new government in 2013 was to scrap the Australian Climate Commission and slash funding for the CSIRO. By 2017, CSIRO had lost one in five staff.

Funding for the highly-successful cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional cooperative research centres has been cut, and research grants are increasingly directed into medical research to the exclusion of many other dimensions of human health and wellbeing, such as climate-related health risks.

Worst-case scenarios

University of Sydney science graduate and international renewable energy researcher and author Ketan Joshi, who is based in Norway, is in the final stages of writing a book about how Australia is dealing with climate change.

The Fifth Estate asked him if the fire emergencies here and in California, melting glaciers, recent fires in the Arctic Circle and flooding in Venice is enough evidence to prompt us to start planning for worst-case scenarios rather than debating the science.

He says there was enough scientific evidence decades ago to justify planning for the worst.

“From a practical perspective, big, impactful and very novel disasters will, hopefully, lead to stronger action to both mitigate emissions and also plan for impacts,” he says.

So, should we be using economics, ethics, politics or emotion to justify action on climate change?

Joshi says it depends on context, but emotional appeals tend to be the ones that have the most impact.

Maybe that’s where David Attenborough could break through to the so-called quiet Australians.

His new documentary series Seven Worlds One Earth premiered on Australian TV, this week. It is a passionate love letter in pictures about the natural world and a heart-breaking eulogy for the world we are losing.

Attenborough’s narration explains how climate change is irreversibly altering the habitats of the beautiful creatures his film crew so intimately capture. It’s entirely emotional – and it’s also science.

The time to act is now

Not so long ago, Attenborough took aim at the Australian government’s inaction on climate change and the country’s approval of more coal projects.

“What you do matters,” he said.

What is the one message Joshi would like the Australian government to hear?

“Reducing emissions isn’t scary. Please help get it done,” he says.

“It would be beneficial now and later, the entire country is behind it. The time is right, now.

“Small-scale personal lifestyle changes are good, but it’s not enough. Being ‘quiet’ for two decades on this has resulted in a government that can get by on doing nothing and consequently hurting Australians.

“’Quiet’ isn’t neutral, anymore. Quiet is active participation in the problem, when it’s easy to be part of the solution.”

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  1. I don’t care if there’s a climate crisis or not. It’s not about that. I’m a forest scientist who’s been managing native forests for more than 30 years and you’ve just got to fight what’s in front of you. It’s no good putting your head in the sand and saying “it’s climate change, there’s nothing we can do”. That’s just a cop out!!

    Fire requires heat, oxygen and fuel. Fuel load is the only factor of the fire triangle we can hope to influence. Double fuel load, quadruple fire intensity!!

    There has been a trend in NSW of decreasing HR’s and not a blame game. NPWS, RFS, FCNSW doesn’t matter who it is. In NSW, the area of fuel reduction has decreased from 474,000 hectares in 2000 to just 148,000 in 2018. Meanwhile the RFS budget has increased from $84M to $370M over the same period.

    Call me old fashion but I’ve always believed that prevention is better than cure. My issue is that fire management has gone from prevention and mitigation to purely asset protection (RFS don’t consider forests, even plantations to be assets- only buildings, etc), aircraft and media.

    I was at properties last night that RFS have already told the owners that they won’t be back, they’re on their own. These houses are in forested areas with fresh firebreaks constructed around them. The fire front was coming slowly downhill to them with low flame heights. It would have been the perfect opportunity to burn back off the breaks and create a secure, burnt out area around all the properties but it was only us there, no RFS, etc. The local RFS shed was shut, all cars gone (probably having a well deserved break) but it would have been the ideal night to backburn.

    Fire management agencies are going to the effort of putting containment lines in but then they’re failing to backburn off them to create a decent break. When the fire gets going today as the day heats up and the westerly gets behind it, a dozed line will never hold it. And if you try backburning then, the wind in your face will just blow embers back over your shoulder across the line. At least one of those houses will probably be lost today.

  2. Plenty of emotional words that flogs an old story to death. Australia has had floods, fires and dry seasons for time eternity. Since Federation, successive federal and state governments have paid lip service to the problems, and only when it has been politically useful. This year is no different than previous years with federal and state politicians squabbling about responsibility and funding. Promises are made and few have any strength: furthermore, when the hullabaloo recedes the politicians will also fade into their caves again. Nothing changes and nothing will. Its up to the people to react and respond because the politicans are a dead loss.