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Experts called during the opening week of the bushfires royal commission warned the Black Summer will not be an isolated event. By Mike Seccombe.

Bushfire hearings spotlight climate change

Ian Livingston and his son Sydney, 6, among the ruins of their family home, lost to the New Year’s Day bushfires in Cobargo.
Credit: Brook Mitchell / Getty Images

It was February 18, and Scott Morrison was being pressed for government action in response to a growing emergency.

The prime minister justified his refusal to act with these words: “No one can tell me that going down that path won’t cost jobs.”

The emergency at hand was not the coronavirus; Australia was almost two weeks away from recording its first death from Covid-19.

The focus then was the summer of bushfires and the role climate change had played in the devastation. Morrison had been asked why his government, unlike many others around the world, and all Australian states and territories, had refused to commit to a target of net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

His answer – that it would cost jobs and money – rang hollow in light of the lived, breathed experience of Australians during the summer. Climate change already was costing jobs, thousands of them. And vast sums of money. And lives.

But it looks even more hollow now, not least because his inertia in the face of that crisis so sharply contrasted with his urgency on the next.

Within a month of dismissing the need for an emissions target, Morrison and his emergency cabinet of state and territory leaders responded to the threat posed by Covid-19 with a national lockdown.

While the decisive action was driven by the states, Morrison went along, enthusiastically serving as chief marketer for their collective decision. At no point did he cavil on the basis that jobs might be lost. Instead, he followed the advice of the experts and did what had to be done in order to avoid a greater catastrophe.

Then this week, the bushfires royal commission – more properly, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements – began its public hearings. And the evidence given by a succession of expert witnesses served to remind us there was a bigger crisis that preceded Covid-19, one that will persist long after it.

The Bureau of Meteorology’s head of climate monitoring, Karl Braganza, gave a PowerPoint presentation filled with alarming graphs and maps, showing the extent to which carbon pollution had altered Australia’s climate, and how much worse things will get in the absence of action.

Already, he told the commission, the fire season is starting three months earlier in much of south-eastern Australia. Fire danger index readings that would typically have occurred at the start of summer in the 1950s are now recorded at the start of spring.

Temperatures are higher, rainfall and humidity lower, soils and vegetation drier, and westerly winds, blowing from the arid centre of the continent, are more frequent.

Indeed, Braganza said, referring to one of his frightening maps, “almost over all of Australia we’re seeing a longer fire season with more fire danger days during that season, and the severity of the worst fire danger days is becoming more severe”.He was clear: the tragedy of the so-called Black Summer was not a “one-off event”.

“Since the Canberra 2003 fires, every jurisdiction in Australia has seen some really significant fire events … [that] have really challenged what we thought fire weather looked like.”

In the first two decades of this century, there were only four wet years, Braganza said. The 10-year period from 2009 to 2019 was the hottest decade this country had seen, with 2019 the hottest and driest year on record.

Not every coming year will be so bad, of course.

It seems the coming season will be less severe, assuming the good rains so far this year persist as forecast. But the longer-term trends, Braganza said, “probably load the dice towards worse fire seasons in general”.

Karl Braganza and the other experts who followed him – not only climate scientists but also insurers and actuaries whose businesses depend on accurately assessing risk – provided a comprehensive and dark picture of increasing threats from climate change.

They spoke of rising sea levels; more intense cyclones that would strike further south, if less frequently; worse storms and floods; many more days of extreme heat.

Ryan Crompton of Risk Frontiers, an outfit that provides risk-assessment services, including what it calls “catastrophe modelling”, told the commission that between 1900 and 2015, heatwaves were “Australia’s deadliest natural hazard”.

“They account for almost half of the total number and almost five times the number of fatalities than do bushfires,” he said.

The two phenomena – heatwaves and fires – often coincide. Crompton pointed to the example of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, during which 173 people died as a direct result of the fires, while a further 374 deaths were attributed to the preceding heatwave. Melbourne saw three days above 43 degrees the week of that tragic Saturday.

A study undertaken by a team at the Australian National University medical school – published last week in The Lancet Planetary Health – re-examined the causes of more than 1.7 million deaths in Australia between 2006 and 2017 and found that heat was likely to have contributed to at least 37,000 of them.

In the case of last summer’s bushfires, there was another peril, too. Smoke.

Associate Professor Fay Johnston, of the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania, said about 80 per cent of Australians were affected by bushfire smoke at some point during last year’s fire season.

On the basis of analysis carried out by her team, Johnston said, there were 445 “excess deaths” attributable to smoke, along with 3340 admissions to hospital for heart- and lung-related problems and 1373 additional presentations to an emergency department for asthma.

She estimated the cost associated with premature loss of life and admissions to hospitals at $2 billion.

This did not include a range of other health impacts that her team had not modelled, including, among other things, “loss of work time, missing school, needing medications, impacts on diabetes, impacts on ambulance callouts”.

There is also the cost, unquantifiable in dollar figures, to the mental health of the tens of thousands of people who lost loved ones or homes in the fires.

Professor Lisa Gibbs, of the University of Melbourne, an expert in disaster recovery and community resilience, and child health and wellbeing, told the hearings that advancing climate change introduced a worrying new element for mental health, in that such disasters were “no longer perceived as rare events”.

She expressed concern the perception of a “new reality”, wherein devastating fire seasons keep happening, could undermine the sense of hope that those affected need to get their lives back on track.

The commission was provided with a long list of other costs, too: 3117 homes and 6310 outbuildings destroyed; 89,000 kilometres of fencing and 880 kilometres of roads burnt.

Some $2.2 billion of insurance claims have already been lodged, says the Insurance Council of Australia.

The loss of economic output is “in the order of $3.6 billion”, according to the consultancy group EY. Hundreds of millions in welfare payments have been made by the federal government, hundreds of millions more for clean-up and recovery from state and local authorities. The average cost of removing the debris from one destroyed home is more than $50,000.

There are dollar costs, but there are also intrinsic values that are harder to assess.

How do you value 8.27 million burnt hectares of land, an estimate that doesn’t even include Western Australia and the Northern Territory, when most of it is covered by bush? Or the deaths of a billion native animals?

How do you calculate the impact of habitat loss on 300-odd plant and animal species already considered endangered or threatened, or the many others that were considered “secure” before the fires but now are not? The entire range of some species was burnt, according to evidence Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box gave the commission this week. Extinctions could follow, perhaps even the end of species not yet known to science.

It is difficult, of course, to compare the impacts of the Black Summer with those of the coronavirus. The toll of Covid-19 could have been orders of magnitude larger, if swift action wasn’t taken. The chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, says the nation’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has avoided about 14,000 deaths.

But timely action was taken and, as of Thursday, the federal Health Department has recorded 103 Covid-19 fatalities in this country. This is a little more than one-fifth of the number of deaths attributed to the fires – 33 direct and another 445 from smoke.

Yet in response to the health emergency, our leaders were prepared to shut down large sections of our economy, tolerate the loss of maybe a million jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars, and enforce major changes to the way all members of society live and work.

To the question of why our government was prepared to do all this in response to one crisis, while doing so little in response to the greater threat, Professor Warwick McKibbin, economist, specialist in public policy at the ANU’s Crawford School and an expert in both pandemics and climate issues, offers some insight.

With pandemics, he says, the cost of the response always vastly exceeds the cost of the disease itself. It’s par for the course. Even without a government-mandated domestic lockdown, much of the economic loss would have happened anyway as people self-isolated for fear of infection.

“I haven’t got the final numbers yet, but my guess is that about 10 per cent of the lost economic activity – that’s 10 per cent of the total loss – is probably due to government [lockdown],” he says.

The rest was largely attributable to other factors, including the impact on international trade and the spontaneous behavioural change by the populace.

McKibbin cites a real-time case study in the differing responses of two otherwise similar nations: Denmark and Sweden. The former imposed a tight lockdown; the latter didn’t. While the Swedes hoped their response would keep their economy humming, it didn’t.

“The death rate in Sweden is orders of magnitude bigger than Denmark, and the economic costs are about the same,” says McKibbin. “The Swedish central bank is forecasting a contraction in the economy of about 8 per cent.

“So, if all Sweden’s trading partners have a recession, then the chances are they’ll have a recession.”

This is compounded by the fact that in Sweden, even without a mandatory lockdown, many people changed their behaviour.

It is all very interesting but only broadens the question about the differing responses to the two crises from both the government and the community.

McKibbin says one crisis was perceived as being personal and immediate. The threat horizon for the virus was days or weeks; climate change, meanwhile, has loomed for decades.

“We were watching morgues in New York overflowing, watching people dying in the streets in Italy,” McKibbin says. “The impact of the pandemic was already real.”

The virus set down a clear either/or: “If you don’t do anything in Australia, you’re going to get it. If you do something in Australia, you may not get it.”

In relation to climate change, though, the widely held perception is fatalistic – that, regardless of any actions Australia might take, “climate change is going to happen anyway, if nobody else does anything either”.

This sentiment is the subtext of Scott Morrison’s words back in February: why suffer the costs of change, if no benefit will flow?

But there is growing evidence to suggest this is a false narrative.

The Australia Institute recently conducted a meta-analysis in response to claims that an ambitious climate response would “wreck the economy”, combing through 19 reports published in the past five years in peer-reviewed journals, and from academics and government agencies, along with three major Treasury reports from 2008 to 2013.

A number of these went to the electricity sector only, with five modelling a 100 per cent renewable grid. Others looked at the broader economy. Most of the models showed negligible economic cost would be incurred by meeting targets broadly in line with the goal of the Paris climate change agreement. And some showed positive economic gains.

Nonetheless, as McKibbin acknowledges, Australia cannot make much difference to the climate crisis on its own.

But, he says, Australia’s role is bigger than that, as “a laboratory” for the rest of the world when it comes to policy.

“If you do something on climate in Australia … and you demonstrate that a very high carbon economy can end up with a low carbon economy, cheaply, then people will copy your policies. And that can actually totally change the global emissions profile,” he says.

This country has served as such an example to the world many times before.

“We’ve done that when it comes to monetary policy. We’ve done it in fiscal policy with the tariff policy,” says McKibbin. “We’ve done it in health policy, [and] designing our education funding through the HECS scheme. We’ve demonstrated to other countries and they’ve adopted that scheme. And that’s improved the quality of life for everybody.

“So, Australia’s role is not to be the leader because we’re going to make a difference to emissions. It’s because we’re going to demonstrate policy that will make a difference to emissions.”

The question that remains, though, is do we have the will?

The signs from our current federal government are not promising. But it seems the Covid-19 crisis hasn’t distracted people from the climate emergency.

An Essential poll conducted in mid-March, at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in Australia, found 31 per cent of those surveyed were more concerned about climate than they were a year ago, before the fires.

Is it possible, then, that rather than supplanting concern about the climate, the Covid-19 episode has accentuated the popular sense of urgency?

Kate Reynolds, professor of psychology at the ANU, thinks so. Having successfully faced one existential threat, she says, people are more inclined to believe they can deal with another.

“Covid showed us a few things,” she says. “It showed that people’s attitudes and behaviours can change.

“We had leadership, crafting a sense of who we are and what we should do and how we should act in the interests of ourselves and our communities. Call it a social identity, a sense of shared social identity, and a common cause.”

She says that people came to feel in some ways a greater “efficacy”, in the psychological sense: “Things that seemed hard before Covid – in making profound changes in the way we went about our lives – proved possible.”

It will be harder for governments to now make excuses on the basis that change is too big, too costly, too hard.

Reynolds says that as social creatures, humans are motivated to “protect the group, to act in the best interests of the group”.

As civilisation has advanced, that understanding of “the group” has, on the whole, grown more encompassing.

What the coronavirus crisis has shown – and this stands true for the climate crisis, too – is that our conceptualisation of who is part of the group will need to further expand.

For when it comes to the really big issues, there is no immunity to the risk. And no one is safe unless all are.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Bushfire hearings spotlight climate change".

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Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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