Australia must shift from climate laggard to leader

It breaks my heart to read about the devastating bushfires in Australia. Each day, new horrifying accounts emerge, seemingly with no end in sight. Thankfully there are some heart-warming stories too, stories of the courage of firefighters — affectionately known as firies — and the generosity of strangers.

While I’m a world away in London now, I grew up in a small town called Cockatoo in Victoria, Australia. Our home was a tree-changer’s delight — a big isolated plot surrounded by eucalyptus trees, with a forest just across the road. But in summer, it was a fire trap — the threat hung over our heads.

Before I was born, my parents almost lost their home in the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Dad told us fragments of stories and several clues were dotted around the property — blackened tree trunks here, a cracked window left unfixed there. My parents were amongst the lucky ones though. In that tiny town, 6 people lost their lives and 307 buildings were destroyed. In total, 75 people lost their lives across Victoria and South Australia.

The fires burnt an enduring fear into my mind; a fear shared by all in our community, but rarely discussed. I shuddered whenever I heard the alarm of the local fire-station, it sounded just an air raid siren from the war films.

While children in most countries are taught a little about fire — stop, drop and roll — my sister and I were taught detailed fire survival strategies: to fill the bathtubs; to have thick woollen blankets to hand; how to find and use firehoses; how to fight ember attacks; how to locate a fire bunker; and to have your life packed into a box, ready to flee if the time comes.

Sadly, a lot of kids living in the Australian bush are taught similar things. Only now, it must be so much harder for them, as they know that the fires are likely to become more ferocious and frequent over time.

Yes, Australians are used to fire. It is no surprise that they are amongst the best in the world at preparing for and responding to bushfires. Yet no amount of skill, training and resolve could have prepared Aussies for the megafires of 2019/20. Even though I grew up in a fire zone, I can’t even begin to imagine what the affected communities have been through.

At the time of writing, the fires have burnt through more than 10 million hectares, an area larger than Portugal. To put that in context, the 2019 Amazon fires, the 2018 California fires and the aforementioned Ash Wednesday bushfires all burnt less than 1 million hectares each. At least 27 people have died and more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed.

News headlines read like dystopian fiction: an estimated 1 billion animals have died; smoke has blanketed Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and has even discoloured New Zealand’s glaciers; some fires are creating their own weather systems, called pyrocumulonimbus clouds, which can create dry lightning that ignites further fires; the navy was called in to evacuate stranded residents and tourists; and the army reserves were called up to fight the fires.

Leaders throughout history have stepped up at such trying times, not Australian Prime Minister (PM) Scott Morrison — he has proven himself feckless and heartless. To cite some examples: he has regularly tried to blame others, particularly the states; he drew the ire of citizens by taking a holiday in Hawaii during the height of the crisis; and when he returned and toured the affected communities, he forced a pregnant lady to shake his hand and then turned his back when she asked for help. Just when it seemed the PM couldn’t be more tone-deaf, he ran self-promoting advertisements online, which took people to a page where they could donate — not to affected communities, but to his political party.

The reaction of one weary firefighter summarised the nation’s sentiment perfectly. After spotting a film crew, he slowed his fire truck to deliver a message “Tell the prime minister to go and get f**ked from Nelligen” before driving off. He later collapsed through exhaustion.

Scott Morrison is in a bind, not that I or anyone else cares. He was installed as PM after hardliners in his conservative party ousted Malcolm Turnbull after attempting to introduce emissions reduction targets (I’ve previously written on Australia’s struggle to introduce a carbon price). Scott Morrison then won an election in 2019, gaining seats in coal-rich areas of Queensland thanks to his support for mining.

The last thing Scott Morrison wanted to do is to make the link between the fires and climate change. Doing so would draw attention to his utter lack of both mitigation and adaptation policies. So, he tried to downplay the extent of the fires — Australia has always had fires after all. Only, that approach made him look (or revealed him to be) callous, dishonest and evasive.

Of course the fires are unprecedented, Australians are in shock and can hardly think or talk of anything else right now. The fires have been burning since September and at times have flared up with alarming intensity.

And of course climate change has played a part. The 2008 Garnaut Climate Review commissioned by the government (albeit by a different party) found that “fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.”

One of the underlying studies cited by the review, predicted a 15 to 65% increase in extreme fire days by 2020 under 1°C of warming (which is where we are now) and a 100% to 300% increase by 2050 at 2.9°C warming (which is where we seem to be heading). The report defines an extreme fire day as “Fire suppression virtually impossible on any part of the fire line due to the potential for extreme and sudden changes in fire behaviour.”

The report also warns that “Early season starts suggest a smaller window for pre-season fuel-reduction burns,” blunting one of the key tools that firefighters have to reduce risk.

The current Australian government has effectively ignored these warnings by not pulling its weight on climate change action, nor investing sufficiently in adaptation measures. Its do-nothing strategy is exposing firies to increasingly unrealistic demands and inflicting misery on countless communities.

Australia must urgently create effective policies to lead on climate change action. It must also make tough decisions on how to cope with the projected increased frequency and severity of fires and other natural disasters.

Climate change must be treated as a non-partisan issue, as it once was and as it currently is in the UK and many other parts of the world. After all, the effects of climate change do not respect party lines.

Unfortunately, despite the warnings and the traumatic bushfires, we’re unlikely to see Scott Morrison or his party change their stance any time soon. Expect the same three arguments against climate change mitigation to be dusted off and wheeled out again. As the planet cannot afford further delay, let’s debunk all three now.

Myth 1: Australia is too small to make a difference

Opponents of meaningful climate action argue that Australia can’t make a difference, because it only emits 1.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

There are many issues with this argument:

a) Climate change action requires a joint global effort, with everyone pulling their weight. Australia is not currently doing that. It has the single highest per capita emissions of all OECD countries and has higher total annual emissions than the UK despite having a third of the population. It was recently ranked dead last out of an assessment of the climate policies of 57 countries.

b) It is impossible to encourage others to make deeper emission cuts from position of weakness. Australia has lost all credibility at climate conferences. However, if it set its own ambitious target, it could shame other countries into stronger action.

c) Australia has been accused of actively obstructing global and regional climate agreements, including the COP25 and the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum. That is, it is using its purportedly limited influence to push in the opposite direction.

d) Australia is the largest exporter of coal and the third largest exporter of total fossil fuels by CO2 potential, trailing only Russia and Saudi Arabia.

e) Australia is ramping up its coal and LNG exports. If government and industry projections are realised, Australia could be responsible for 13% of global emissions by 2030 (assuming a Paris Agreement pathway).

f) Other countries who emit less GHGs than Australia have led by example, raising the standard for everyone else. Finland has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2035, the UK has legislated net-zero emissions by 2050, even Australia’s friendly rival New Zealand has legislated net-zero emissions by 2050.

Myth 2: Australia is on track to meet its Paris Agreement targets

Scott Morrison often states that Australia will meet its Paris Agreement targets “in a canter”. The only problem is, it isn’t true — Australia’s emissions continue to rise. The 2019 UN Emissions Gap report mentions that it will be “challenging” for Australia to meet its reduction target, particularly as it has “no major policy tool to encourage emission reductions”.

The reason for Scott Morrison’s confidence is that he is planning to use an accounting trick to help Australia meet its commitments on paper. The UN states that “it appears that the Australian Government intends to use carry-over permits from the Kyoto Protocol to do so”.

To put it simply, the Australian government isn’t planning to reduce emissions in real terms at all: “The latest projection published by the Government shows that emissions would remain largely unchanged up to 2030”.

Climate change doesn’t recognise questionable accounting techniques, however, so Australia is effectively exacerbating the issue, while other — and in most cases poorer — countries bear the burden of reducing global emissions. It is difficult to see how this meets Scott Morrison’s much repeated mantra of a ‘fair go’.

Myth 3: Strong climate action will ruin the economy

The Garnaut Review — like the UK’s Stern Review before it — found that the benefits of mitigating climate change greatly outweigh the cost, “Australia’s interest lies in the world adopting a strong and effective position on climate change mitigation”.

Australia’s economy will suffer from the effects of climate change more than most. In particular, climate change will have adverse impacts on tourism (the Great Barrier Reef is expected to perish at 2 degrees warming), agriculture and will cause increasing physical damage to infrastructure and properties.

A report by the Australia Institute found that Australia’s economy is more diversified than other fossil fuel exporters and is relatively better placed to cope with a transition out of this sector.

By ramping up coal and fossil fuel exports, Australia is exposing itself to increased transition risk — the risk that the world’s response to climate change will strand assets and affect valuations of carbon intensive companies.

Outgoing Bank of England governor Mark Carney has warned that companies that ignore climate risks will go bankrupt and that a large proportion of fossil fuel investments may become worthless. The tide already seems to be shifting, with asset managers and insurers increasingly divesting from coal and refusing to provide insurance cover to new projects.

Australia could make its economy more resilient to transition risk by committing to a plan to transition out of coal, as Germany and others have done. It should divert resources to technologies that will prosper in the new carbon economy, like funding research and supporting new Australian technologies to become commercially viable. For example, CSIRO has developed technology to efficiently transport hydrogen to the world — Australia could become a leader in clean fuel exports if only it backs technological breakthroughs like this instead of doubling down on coal.

Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and reintroducing carbon pricing would further equip Australia’s economy to thrive in a low carbon world.

Bushfire relief

If you too have been touched by the fires, you can help by supporting relief charities. I have listed some examples below.

Relief and recovery efforts:

· Red Cross

· Salvation Army disaster appeal

Local fire services:

· New South Wales Rural Fire Service

· Victoria’s Country Fire Authority

· South Australia’s Country Fire Service

Help for wildlife:

· WIRES Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service Emergency Fund

· WWF bushfire emergency

The ABC appeals website includes further information on how you can help.

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