The Briefing: Bushfire Royal Commission emphatically warns of global warming, stops short of recommending emissions reduction

By Chris Woods

Monday November 2, 2020

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Crux of the issue

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Report has made extensive references to the role of global warming in exacerbating future disasters, while framing the threat in recommendations based on its terms of reference.

The debate

Released last Friday, October 30, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Report made 80 recommendations calling for increased jurisdictional collaboration, shared technology and communication systems, additional firefighting resources, powers for the federal government to declare a state of emergency, and more.

As The Mandarin covered at the time, the commission tabled its 594-page final report in parliament after hearing from more than 270 witnesses, almost 80,000 pages of tendered documents, and more than 1750 public submissions. Emergency management minister David Littleproud has since announced the Morrison government would “carefully and methodically” consider the report and its recommendations, according to the ABC.

Commission chair Mark Binskin’s declares in his forward that although the Royal Commission was born out of the 2019-2020 bushfires, it did not focus solely on that natural disaster. The commission also looked at natural disasters more generally –- “that is, naturally occurring, rapid-onset events that cause serious disruption to a community or region, such as floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, landslides and tsunami — and stressed that global warming means national disaster coordination arrangements need to be designed for a future “where such events will, regrettably, be more frequent and more severe.”

“Consecutive and compounding natural disasters will place increasing stress on existing emergency management arrangement. As the events of the 2019-2020 bushfire season show, what was unprecedented is now our future.”

The report makes a total of 67 separate references to the phrase “climate change” and discusses topics such as existing and expected impacts of global warming on natural disasters, Australia’s climate data capabilities, and the incorporation of required resilience capabilities into recovery efforts.

But while climate change informs a number of recommendations, none specifically cite climate change or greenhouse gasses; the closest is Recommendation 4.5’s call for Australian, state and territory governments to produce “downscaled climate projections” — (a system in which, as Climate Change in Australia explains, broad global climate model outputs are translated into finer resolution projections to better account for regional climatic influences, i.e. local topography) — in order to overcome a patchwork of climate datasets across Australia, and:

  1. to inform the assessment of future natural disaster risk by relevant decision-makers, including state and territory government agencies with planning and emergency-management responsibilities;
  2. underpinned by an agreed common core set of climate trajectories and timelines; and
  3. subject to regular review.

Leading up to the final version of the report, the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) — an organisation founded by former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins — called on the body to recommend stronger emission-reduction schemes.

Mullins, who has since applauded the report’s findings on climate change, had earlier told ABC’s 7.30 that the commission “have already said that climate change drove these fires, set the conditions for these fires to happen. Therefore, we need to drive down emissions. If there’s nothing in the report about that, the Royal Commission has failed.” ELCA also said in its submission to the inquiry that:

“It is hoped that the Binskin Royal Commission will also enter the history books – as the commencement of a national acknowledgement that the fight against bushfires and natural disasters must be underpinned by a concerted effort to stabilise, then reduce emissions, eventually reducing global temperatures that are driving worsening and more dangerous extreme wealth.”

In a piece at The Conversation following the release of the commission’s interim report on August 31, Australian Strategic Policy Institute visiting fellow and former United Nations Secretary General’s special representative for Disaster Risk Reduction Robert Glasser expressed a disappointment in the commission not discussing the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions in light of the fact “resilience to future disasters must start with action on climate change.”

Speaking to The Mandarin, Glasser argues that the commission’s terms of reference enabled it to call for emissions reduction, but that its comprehensive coverage of the role of climate change in future disasters means that “point is made very clearly in the document”.

Terms of reference

Announced February 2020, the inquiry’s central task was to examine and report on national natural disaster arrangements — “that is, arrangements involving all levels of government, the private and not-for-profit sectors, communities, families, and individuals [that] concern all phases of disaster management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.”

The terms of reference were broad and directed the commission to examine, among other things:

  • the responsibilities of, and coordination between, Australian, state, territory and local governments relating to natural disasters;
  • Australia’s arrangements for improving resilience and adapting to changing climatic conditions;
  • what actions should be taken to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters; and
  • whether changes are needed to Australia’s legal framework for the involvement of the commonwealth in responding to national emergencies.

Key points to note: Royal Commission crystal clear on climate change

In the report’s overview, the commission acknowledges that disaster-management arrangements must change to acknowledge that extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense due to climate change, and that further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable:

“Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.

“Natural disasters are expected to become more complex, more unpredictable, and more difficult to manage. We are likely to see more compounding disasters on a national scale with far-reaching consequences. Compounding disasters may be caused by multiple disasters happening simultaneously, or one after another. Some may involve multiple hazards – fires, floods and storms. Some have cascading effects – threatening not only lives and homes, but also the nation’s economy, critical infrastructure and essential services, such as our electricity, telecommunications and water supply, and our roads, railways and airports.

“Australia needs to be better prepared for these natural disasters. They may not happen every year, but when they happen, they can be catastrophic. The summer of 2019-2020 – in which some communities experienced drought, heatwaves, bushfires, hailstorms, and flooding – provided only a glimpse of the types of events that Australia may face in the future.”

 

Source: Bureau of Meteorology via Royal Commission.

The report dedicates a chapter to Australia’s natural disaster risk, where the commission dedicates subsections to explaining that natural hazards have already increased and intensified — citing conclusions from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) that Australia has warmed by approximately 1.4 degrees Celsius since 1910 and experienced its hottest year on record in 2019 — and that climate-driven natural hazards are expected to become more frequent and intense.

Climate change also informs a number of the subsequent subsections, for example, a discussion of individual natural hazard outlooks notes that heatwave events “have increased in intensity, frequency and duration across Australia in recent decades.”

“Hot temperatures are occurring earlier in spring, and later in autumn. 2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record, with a record 42 days when Australia’s area-averaged daily mean temperature was above the 99th percentile.

“Further warming over the next two decades is inevitable, in response to past and future greenhouse gas emissions. Hot days, warm spells and heatwaves are all projected to occur more often and with increased intensity. Extreme hot days that now occur every 20 years are expected to occur every two to five years by 2050.”

‘Confidence’ in a climate projection is a measure of how plausible the projected range of change is for a given emission scenario. Source: The Climate Measurement Standards Initiative via Royal Commission.

Finally, the report offers an in-depth explanation of climate projections — specifically those from CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, which draw on “an ‘ensemble’ (or collection) of models from around the world called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP), which includes the Australian model ACCESS” — and how they depend on greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.

The figure below shows the projected change in average temperature in Australia using both CMIP5 — the current global ensemble, which was used in the 2018 State of the Climate Report — and CMIP6, which is part of updated climate modelling being undertaken to inform the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sixth assessment report. It shows the projections using CMIP5 and CMIP6 across “low” (green) and “high” (red) greenhouse gas emission scenarios.

Source: Grose et al, ‘Insights From CMIP6 for Australia’s Future Climate’, AGU Advancing Earth and Space Science via Royal Commission.

Voices of experience: Could the Royal Commission have recommended emissions reduction, and would it have mattered?

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the report’s findings on climate change have drawn praise from ELCA, Labor, the Greens, the Investor Group on Climate Change and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Mullins has also argued that the findings should mean Australia creates no new coal or gas projects, but the Morrison government has responded by restating its 2030 emissions reduction target of 26% on 2005 levels — which, according to analysis published by the Academy of Technology and Engineering in June, Australia is not on track to meet in real-terms (i.e., without the controversial attempt to use 2020 emissions “credits” — for more, see RenewEconomy’s coverage of the report).

Speaking to The Mandarin, Glasser argues that the inclusion of “mitigation” in the commission’s terms of reference allowed the body “to make a comment about climate change beyond the impacts of climate change” and recommend climate-mitigation efforts such as direct emission reduction or advocacy efforts:

“If we’re talking about building Australia’s resilience to natural disasters, everything we’re doing to build our resilience will be overwhelmed if the climate warms to beyond two degrees, beyond three degrees,” Glasser says, labeling emissions reduction the “single most important priority” in mitigating this threat and calling on Australia to “whatever we can as a medium-sized power — but with still a lot of influence — to encourage others to cut faster.”

“And in order to do that, we also, of course, need to be taking ambitious action on climate mitigation.

However, citing the report’s emphatic findings concerning climate change, Glasser believes it would not have made a “huge impact” if the commission-recommended climate mitigation because, “politically, that point is made very clearly; links to climate change are really clear in the document.”

On top of the call for improved climate projection systems, Glasser welcomes a number of recommendations and points to Recommendation 3.5’s call for the federal government to establish a “standing entity that will enhance national natural disaster resilience and recovery, focused on long-term disaster risk reduction” as potentially very important.

He points to the fact that the commission, in highlighting the need to bring resilience under disaster recovery as means of “building back better”, notes that the remit of the recently-established National Bushfire Recovery Agency — which works to coordinate disaster recovery arrangements with stakeholders across jurisdictions, sectors and different levels of government — could “well be expanded to encompass resilience.”

“This is one of the things that changed between the [commission’s] initial observations and propositions that they put out a month or so ago,” Glasser says, arguing the suggestion indicates that “what they’re going to do is rename that agency and add on resilience.”

“I think it will become the recovery and resilience agency. And it’s also already reporting to PM&C, which is one of the recommendations I know they were — at least earlier, when I discussed with the commission — they were interested in pursuing, rather than having it report to Home Affairs or any one ministry, because the risk cuts across all government departments.”

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