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Bushfires and climate change

Bushfire Fact Check & Info:

Climate Change, Land management & Government Inaction

Is there a link between climate change and bushfires?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on November 11:

Yes, there is a link between climate change and the prevalence and severity of fires. In fact, the research identifying a link between fires and climate change is "old hat", says Professor Ross Bradstock, director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong. "The research has all been done. We don't need to keep doing it."

As the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO pointed out in last year's latest State of the Climate report, the number of the most extreme 10 per cent of fire weather days based on the fire danger index "has increased in recent decades across many regions of Australia, especially in southern and eastern Australia".

"There has been an associated increase in the length of the fire weather season," it said. "Climate change, including increasing temperatures, is contributing to these changes."

Or, as Hamish Clarke, a former NSW government scientist and now with the University of Wollongong, puts it: "Across the country, at a number of high-quality long-term weather stations, there had either been an increase, or no change [in the fire danger index]. We didn't find a significant decrease anywhere."

In general, one consequence for fire authorities is that the fire season is getting longer. In eastern Australia, that means fire risks start to increase earlier in the spring and last longer into the autumn. The window for hazard-reduction burning is shifting into winter – if it's not too damp to do it.

How human activity and natural climate variability factored in bushfire ratings increases from 1973 to 2017 was the focus of research by Sarah Harris, from the Victoria's Country Fire Authority, and Chris Lucas in September.

While rainfall changes from one year to the next, with phenomena such as El Ninos in the Pacific and shifting Indian Ocean conditions playing a role, the researchers' findings were conclusive: "We propose that anthropogenic climate change is the primary driver of the [upward trend in the fire danger index], through both higher mean temperatures and, potentially, through associated shifts in large-scale rainfall patterns."

Abridged from: Peter Hannam, 11 Nov 2019, ''Old hat': Is there a link between climate change and bushfires?',

Climate change is bringing a new world of bushfires

Dale Dominey-Howes, Professor of Hazards and Disaster Risk Sciences, University of Sydney:

It's the first time Australia has seen such strong fires this early in the bushfire season. While fire is a normal part of Australia's yearly cycle and no two years are alike, what we are seeing now is absolutely not business as usual. And although these bushfires are not directly attributable to climate change, our rapidly warming climate, driven by human activities, is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires.

For a bushfire to get started, several things need to come together. You need fuel, low humidity (which also often means the fuel itself has a low moisture content and is easier to burn), and oxygen. It also helps to have an unusually high ambient temperature and winds to drive the fire forward.

To be clear, the current bushfires are not specifically triggered by climate change. However, as bushfire risk is highest in warm to hot, dry conditions with low humidity, low soil and fuel load moisture (and are usually worse during El Niño situations) – all factors that climate change in Australia affects – climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and intense bushfires.

Widespread drought conditions, very low humidity, higher than average temperatures in many places, and strong westerly winds driven by a negative Southern Annular Mode (all made worse by human-induced climate change) have collided right now over large areas of the eastern seaboard, triggering extremely unusual bushfire conditions.

Abridged from: Dale Dominey-Howes, 10 Sept 2019, 'Climate change is bringing a new world of bushfires'

Emergency leaders: Australia unprepared for worsening extremes

For the first time, 23 former fire and emergency leaders with more than 600 years of combined experience have banded together to call for stronger action on climate change, warning that worsening extreme weather is threatening Australian lives. The Emergency Leaders for Climate Action Group has issued a joint statement, with signatories from every state and territory. The statement reads, in part:

We, the undersigned, who are former senior Australian fire and emergency service leaders, have observed how Australia is experiencing increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events that are putting lives, properties and livelihoods at greater risk and overwhelming our emergency services.

Climate change, driven mainly by the burning of coal, oil and gas, is worsening these extreme weather events, including hot days, heatwaves, heavy rainfall, coastal flooding and catastrophic bushfire weather. Australia has just experienced a summer of record-breaking heat, prolonged heatwaves, and devastating fires and floods – there should be no doubt in anyone's mind: climate change is dangerous and it is affecting all of us now.

Facts you need to know:

  • Bushfire seasons are lasting longer and longer.
  • The number of days of Very High to Catastrophic bushfire danger each year are increasing across much of Australia, and are projected to get even worse.
  • Opportunities to carry out hazard reduction burns are decreasing because warmer, drier winters mean prescribed fires can often be too hard to control – so fuel loads will increase.
  • Higher temperatures mean that forests and grasslands are drier, ignite more easily and burn more readily, meaning fires are harder to control.
  • 'Dry' lightning storms are increasing in frequency, sparking many remote bushfires that are difficult to reach and control.
  • Fire seasons across Australia and in the northern hemisphere used to be staggered – allowing exchange of vital equipment such as aerial water bombers, trucks and firefighters. The increasing overlap of fire seasons between states and territories and with the USA and Canada will limit our ability to help each other during major emergencies.
  • A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, increasing the risk of heavier downpours and flooding events - like that which recently affected Townsville.
  • Current Federal Government climate policy has resulted in greenhouse gas pollution increasing over the last four years, putting Australian lives at risk. Communities, emergency services and health services across Australia need to be adequately resourced to cope with increasing natural disaster risk.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue chief Greg Mullins ‒ one of the founders of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action Group ‒ said the group sought a meeting with the federal government to discuss the issue in April and again in May, immediately after the federal election. "We have tried since April to get a meeting with the Prime Minister," Mullins said. "It's clear now we won't get that meeting."

"It is very, very disappointing that we weren't listened to earlier because we actually predicted exactly what's happening now. Measures could have been taken months ago to make the firefighters more effective and to make the community safer," Mullins said.

More information

Prescribed burning: What do the experts have to say?

The ABC's Kate Doyle:

Could prescribed burning have prevented recent fires in NSW and Queensland? Dr Ross Bradstock, a bushfire risk management expert at the University of Wollongong, acknowledged that not a lot of prescribed burning took place this year. "Generally speaking, there hasn't been a lot of hazard-reduction work in places like NSW this spring because the fire season was declared early."

David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, said it was important that media commentary didn't unnecessarily sow seeds of doubt in the community regarding the quality and concern of fire management agencies.

"It's really quite disingenuous to suggest that biodiversity concerns, or the concerns of environment, have substantially changed fuel-management programs," he said. "I freely acknowledge that among ecologists there is concern and debate about the ecological effects of fuel management. There is research and discussion and naturalists hold points of view about fuel management, but frankly, those concerns are really very much to the side and haven't significantly impeded fuel management programs."

Dr Bowman said fuel management had been impeded by a constellation of practical constraints, including that fire can escape, smoke pollution, ill health, resourcing, coordination, legal liability, cost and safety.

"The debate we are having is really the society sort of catching up with the internal trade-offs that fire managers had been thinking through about how they can manage fuel," he said. "You can't just go into the landscape and start burning it."

Abridged from: Kate Doyle, 13 Nov 2019, 'Fire, climate change and prescribed burning: What do the experts have to say?'

Is there really a green conspiracy to stop bushfire hazard reduction?

Graham Readfearn writing in The Guardian on November 12:

Large parts of NSW have been in the grip of catastrophic fire weather this week as firefighters desperately work to save homes, properties and lives.

But as firefighters try and beat back the bushfires, a familiar blame game began with critics pointing fingers at "greenies", claiming they get in the way of hazard reduction efforts that might have reduced the size and scale of the disaster.

The chief accuser is Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce who says "greens policy" gets in the way "of many of the practicalities of fighting a fire and managing it". Among Joyce's claims, made in several interviews this week, are that Greens policies have made hazard reduction activities more difficult.

This claim, just to be clear, is about the policies of a party that has never been in government. Joyce also blamed the Greens for "paperwork" that made it harder to carry out hazard reduction activities.

A former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, Greg Mullins, has written this week that the hotter and drier conditions, and the higher fire danger ratings, were preventing agencies from carrying out prescribed burning. He said: "Blaming 'greenies' for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim."

Preparations for bushfire season are done outside the most dangerous periods using a suite of methods known as hazard reduction. Methods include prescribed burning where authorities identify at-risk areas close to developments, or in areas known for being sites where large fires ignite, and "reduce the load" with controlled burning.

In some areas, hazard reduction is carried out by removing trees and vegetation. Another method is to create fuel breaks, also known as fire breaks, where trees are cleared to prevent the spread of a fire to protect developments and infrastructure. This is also done routinely around power lines.

It is activities like this which Joyce claims are being suppressed by bureaucracy.

A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has told Guardian Australia that the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) carried out hazard reduction activities across more than 139,000 ha in 2018 and 2019.

The NPWS had a hazard reduction target to treat 680,000 ha of parks and reserves in the five years from 2011, which the spokesperson said it had exceeded.

The Public Service Association has also attacked the NSW government for what it said was a "35% cut to fire-trained positions" in national parks. Its acting general secretary, Troy Wright, said: "It is the Nationals who hold the purse string. Rather than funding the NPWS properly so that they can undertake strategic reductions they have crippled them with massive budget cuts and devastating restructures."

Abridged from: Graham Readfearn, 12 Nov 2019, 'Factcheck: Is there really a green conspiracy to stop bushfire hazard reduction?'

Indigenous leaders say Australia's bushfire crisis shows approach to land management failing

The ABC's Marian Faa:

Indigenous leaders, who have been warning about a bushfire crisis for years, are calling for a radical change to how land is managed as Australia faces some of its worst bushfire conditions on record. Indigenous leaders are calling for a new workforce of 'fire practitioners' to implement traditional burning practices across Australia. Traditional burning techniques involve regular, controlled burns that reduce fuel load and decrease risk of bushfires.

When Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen walked outside his house in far north Queensland this week he felt a sense of dread. "I look into the sky and I see the misty haze coming up from down south all through the landscape," he said. "You can see the ashes on the air, landing on the trees up here and it's like a mourning for the country. When we walk outside and we get that sort of feeling … we know something is wrong."

Mr Steffensen has been teaching traditional Indigenous burning practices for the past two decades. He said the bushfire crisis sent a clear message to politicians that current land management practices are not working. "We can't keep doing this," he said. "It's really frustrating to see country get torched like that when you know they're not doing anything about it."

Mr Steffensen said the dangerous conditions resulted from a build up of fuel loads and decades of mismanagement. "People are too scared to burn because of how dry it is," he said. "There is grasses that are up to the roof and landscapes that have no vegetation except for large amounts of rubbish. The bottom line is that we need to start looking after the landscape."

Mr Steffensen called on the state and federal governments to establish a new workforce dedicated to managing land and fuel loads through the use of traditional ecological knowledge. "We need a whole other division of people out there looking after the land," he said. "People need to be on country. Looking after the land is a full-time job, not a seasonal job. A fire practitioner of the future is going to be full time."

Abridged from: Marian Faa, 14 Nov 2019, 'Indigenous leaders say Australia's bushfire crisis shows approach to land management failing'

Mr Morrison, I lost my home to bushfire. Your thoughts and prayers are not enough.

Assoc. Prof. Janet Stanley, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne:

In Australia, weekly bushfire frequencies increased by 40% in the five years to 2016, particularly during summer months, suggesting a serious climatic shift. Scientists and meteorologists have for years warned of more frequent and extreme bushfires as climate change worsens.

Their messages have been met by policy inertia. Nationals leader Michael McCormack went so far as to dismiss those who link bushfires to global warming as "raving inner-city lunatics".

If the Morrison government seriously wanted fewer Australians to experience a bushfire crisis, it would use the current situation to galvanise public sentiment, shift the political agenda, and make meaningful inroads into emissions reduction.

The mountain of irrefutable evidence linking global warming to bushfires makes the federal government's failure to act ‒ or even talk about the problem ‒ extremely hard to explain.

Of course, worsening bushfires are not the only signal that climate change has arrived. The Murray-Darling Basin, like much of Australia, is in the midst of drought. It reportedly averaged 887 millimetres of rain over the 34 months to the end of October - the lowest on record. Climate change cannot be directly blamed for causing a specific drought, but makes a drought more severe.

Meanwhile, Australia's national emissions are rising year-on-year. In particular, emissions from fossil fuels and industry are now 7% above 2005 levels.

But it's not too late to turn the ship around. The current bushfire emergency is an opportune moment to join the dots and prepare to implement significant climate change policies. Experts say such a plan would include setting a credible pathway to net zero emissions and defining clear policy routes to renewable energy, such as replacing existing coal generators with clean energy by 2035.

My first-hand experience of bushfire was traumatic. I was a young mother and the trauma was particularly felt by my children. It challenges your personal identity and security, which is significantly defined by your "home" and living location.

My direct experience leaves me unable to comprehend why politicians would not take every opportunity through climate change policy to reduce ongoing and increasing risks to the Australian population.

When a bushfire emergency is current, it affords the opportunity to better understand the many personal, community and environmental costs of climate change ‒ and galvanise politicians to act.

Abridged from: Janet Stanley, 12 Nov 2019, 'Mr Morrison, I lost my home to bushfire. Your thoughts and prayers are not enough'

Bushfires should make us think about energy resilience, and micro-grids

Mark Byrne, energy market advocate at the Total Environment Centre:

Bushfires and other extreme weather events are becoming more common. More people are moving to areas which are either close to the bush, or in coastal towns serviced by long powerlines which go through national parks and state forests.

Networks are starting to think more about what will be required to improve the resilience of rural communities, though. AusNet has just installed a one megawatt-hour battery in Mallacoota, an isolated coastal town in Gippsland 'at the end of a long radial high voltage line which has been historically susceptible to power outages caused by storms, vegetation and animals.'

Like solar gardens, community scale batteries are a great opportunity not only not only to increase the resilience of local communities, but also to share the benefits of solar energy with households and businesses which cannot install their own solar systems.

Microgrids don't need to involve a lot of expensive new infrastructure, though. They can link existing rooftop solar systems and home batteries via virtual power plants to service the wider community when there are blackouts up the line.

Going local to increase energy resilience is not a foolproof option. Even a local microgrid can be vulnerable to bushfires under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Having local generation and storage plus the ability to island from the main grid just gives local communities another option when the going gets tough.

Abridged from: Mark Byrne, 15 Nov 2019, 'Bushfires should make us think about energy resilience, and micro-grids'

The broader context

Richard Denniss, chief economist at the Australia Institute:

It's not just climate protesters who powerful voices are trying to silence in Australia, it's anyone who wants to talk about the bigger-picture causes to the problems Australia is facing. In modern Australia it has become "inappropriate" to talk about why our rivers are running out of water, why our aged care centres are running out of food and nappies, and why our fire brigades are running out of firetrucks. But it's impossible to solve problems when you can't talk about the underlying causes.

When people crash their car going around a tight bend we can sympathise with their families while discussing whether speed, fatigue, alcohol or poor road design were to blame. It's not impossible to be sensitive to victims and serious about the cause at the same time.

Climate change makes bushfires worse. Even if we catch an arsonist who lights a fire, the fact is the fires they light will burn further and faster than they would have if the world had burned less coal, and the temperature was lower than we have made it. …

Australia is one of the richest countries in the world and, if we wanted to put more resources into reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the number of firefighting vehicles or even paying volunteers to fight our fires, there is nothing to stop us doing that. Except that we have repeatedly elected governments with a preference for cutting taxes over investing in solutions.

But just as we can't talk about how climate change makes bushfires worse, we aren't supposed to talk about how Australia's choice to be one of the lower-taxed developed countries in the world comes at the cost of us having some of the most poorly funded public services in the developed world.

Similarly, while it's considered responsible to have royal commissions into the failure of the "markets" we have created for water, aged care and financial services, it is crazy talk to suggest we need to have a royal commission into the complex mess that is the last 20 years of privatisation and deregulation of government services.

There aren't always simple answers to complex problems, and it's not just OK, but essential, that we vigorously debate the veracity of evidence, ideas and priorities. But Australia isn't having vigorous debates, it's not even having vicious debates. On the big issues there is plenty of vicious but absolutely no debate.

Australia is governed by people who refuse to listen to inconvenient evidence and who attack their opponents instead of debating them with opposing ideas. The last election suggests such a combination of apathy and confidence is a successful electoral strategy. But denial is no substitute for preparation when it comes to natural disasters. Denying the truth doesn't change the facts.

Abridged from: Richard Denniss, 13 Nov 2019, 'Climate change makes bushfires worse. Denying the truth doesn't change the facts'

NSW Minister blames 'miscommunication' for bushfire message to staff

Journalist Pallavi Singhal writing in the Sydney Morning Herald:

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean blamed departmental "miscommunication" for a note telling public servants not to discuss the link between climate change and bushfires at a forum specifically on the issue.

Bureaucrats in the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment who were attending the AdaptNSW forum on November 12, when the state was experiencing some of its worst fire conditions, received a note from the department telling them to refer questions about the link between climate change and the fires to "bushfire reps".

"For those attending AdaptNSW today, Public Affairs has issued advice not to discuss the link between climate change and bushfires," department staff were told in an email.

NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro said on November 11: "it is an absolute disgrace to be talking about climate change while we have lost lives and assets".

Abridged from: Pallavi Singhal, 13 Nov 2019, 'Environment Minister blames 'miscommunication' for bushfire message to staff'

Fire Department sets government bullshit meter to "catastrophic"

The Shovel:

November 14 ‒ Emergency services have responded to this week's political shitstorm by setting the government bullshit meter to "catastrophic" – the highest possible rating. The rating system warns the public to be vigilant in the face of an increased risk of bullshit spewing from the mouths of politicians, particularly in NSW and Queensland.

"Political bullshit is a natural phenomenon in this country; it's part of the ecosystem. But this season's bullshit is piling much higher than usual and it's incredibly dangerous," a local fire chief said.

Government Ministers have denied that this week's bullshit is in any way remarkable and certainly not a result of a change in the political climate.

Australia has traditionally engaged in 'bullshit backburning', a preventative measure designed to release political bullshit at unpleasant but controllable levels. A Barnaby Joyce press conference is one such favoured measure.

Abridged from: Martin Ingle, 14 Nov 2019, 'Fire Department Sets Government Bullshit Meter To "Catastrophic'

Barnaby Joyce "ludicrous and grossly ill-informed"

Barnaby Joyce's claim that changes to the sun's magnetic fields were linked to the bushfires burning out of control across NSW have been rubbished by climate scientists. The former deputy prime minister told Sky News he accepted that the climate crisis was making Australia hotter and drier. But the Nationals member for New England said other factors including changes to magnetic field of the sun were also to blame.

Assoc. Prof. Nerilie Abram, a climate researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, called his comments "ludicrous and grossly ill-informed".

"We can measure the energy we get from the sun, and it does have a natural variability. But it's very small, and it has not shown any long-term trend over the past century, when we have seen this dramatic warming. It is clearly not one of the factors that has caused this warming," Abram said.

Assoc. Prof. Pete Strutton, from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, said it was difficult to analyse Mr Joyce's claim because it was so bizarre.

"I don't even know what he means. We know what causes climate change," Strutton said. "What exactly would the magnetic fields influence? I can't even ... Are they influencing the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth? It is hard to respond to because it is so wacky."

Abridged from: Liam Mannix, 12 Nov 2019, 'Barnaby Joyce says sun's magnetic fields cause bushfires. Science says ...''


Published in Chain Reaction #137, December 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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