Bushfire royal commission ‘useless’ if no action is taken on climate change

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Bushfire survivors have welcomed the recommendations of the royal commission into last summer’s infernos but say the whole thing will be ‘useless’ if the government does not overhaul its policy on climate change.

The commission’s report into Australia’s ‘black summer’ was handed down on Friday and prompted urgent calls for greater action on climate change and a more coordinated approach to increasingly severe disasters.

Jack Egan, who lost his North Rosedale home south of Batemans Bay to the New South Wales fires, said the Morrison government would ‘be letting down’ survivors if it did not change it’s the policy on climate change.

“To continue down the same path would be letting the bushfires’ survivors and the world down, in an egregious way that would be refusing to join the dots,” Mr Egan said.

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“One can easily join the dots, the only way to reduce the frequency and cost of natural disasters is to drive down emissions quickly.”

Bushfires victim Jack Egan standing in the rubble of his home. Photo: Supplied

Mr Egan and his partner, Cath Bowdler, are still organising to have their home rebuilt, which they hope will start before Christmas. He said they were lucky they had insurance but ‘still in shock’ over the loss.

“I feel emotional as I read through the report,” he said.

“How bad do we want it to get? It doesn’t make sense not to act on emissions, because until we do things will get worse.”

None of the report’s 80 recommendations specifically mention climate change or reducing emissions, but it warns traditional firefighting techniques and current models of predicting bushfire severity will become redundant if global temperatures continue to rise.

Former Deputy Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW Ken Thompson said there is no way Australia’s firefighting capabilities could keep up with the severity of the changing climate.

“It’s just going to become more severe,” Mr Thompson said.

“In firefighting, mitigation is something you put in place when everything else has failed. You put most of your efforts into prevention, and if they aren’t strong enough you mitigate.”

Mr Egan and Ms Bowdler’s home went up in flames. Photo: Supplied

Australia has had 51 bushfire inquiries since its first in 1939, but none have had to deal with the acute issue of climate change and worsening disasters like the summer’s catastrophes, Mr Thompson said.

Unless we get serious about this issue we’ll have the same conversation in 10 years,” he said. 

The report is littered with warnings that natural disasters will become more complex, more unpredictable ,and more difficult to manage.

Mr Thompson said it was too late to change much of that.

“We’re stuck with it now. We’ve had 30 years of inaction, now we’re paying the consequences,” he said.

“But if we take a longer-term view, future generations may not have to deal with the consequences.”

‘Recovery will take years’

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements began on February 20 after Australia’s horrific 2019-20 bushfire season claimed 33 lives, saw 24 million hectares of land burnt and destroyed, more than 3000 homes.

The commission heard evidence that the thick smoke that covered much of the nation contributed to more than 400 additional deaths.

The commission heard bushfire smoke impacted 80 per cent of the population. Photo: AAP

Whole communities were trapped, three billion animals were killed, and on many days the fires became so out of control they ran wild.

In his foreword, Commission Chair Mark Binskin wrote: “Recovery will take years.”

Beck Beverly lives in South Arm, NSW, a small community with just over 230 residents. The closest town, Nambucca Heads, sits on the coast 40 minutes away.

South Arm lost 60 homes last summer.

Ms Beverly said the recovery has been ‘stunted’.

“There are still some people living rough with no power, water, sewage, sanitation, things like that,” she said.

Beck Beverly from South Arm

“We’ve finally been cleaned up, and that’s only been in the last couple of months.”

Ms Beverly said the local community was on the front line of climate change.

“We went from the worst drought we’ve ever seen, straight into the most horrific fire season and then we had two huge floods. The pattern is very obvious as to what’s happening.”

Some local residents have been able to get Minderoo Foundation “recovery pods” to live in while they rebuild, but others haven’t been so lucky.

Ms Beverly said it was important for people to realise that for communities like South Arm, the the bushfires aren’t over.

“We’re a long way from being back to normal, we’re still reacting. We’re not living yet, no one is at a living stage,” she said.

Some have left, some can’t sell because their properties are now worthless, and others are struggling to build their homes while navigating confusing new building codes.

“There is no one overseeing it all,” Ms Beverly said.

“Because there’s a lack of solid communication and knowledge it’s kind of fracturing the community. People have hit the wall.

“I think it’s great to have recommendations, but I think the government needs to say ‘it’s not a recommendation anymore, from these fires, this is what we’re doing’.”

Climate change is already killing us

The federal government is spruiking a “gas-fired recovery” as the cure for Australia’s COVID-19 economic crisis, but the plan is attracting growing criticism, with scientists raising doubts over meeting the nation’s 2030 goal of a 26 per cent reduction in emissions.

Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management David Littleproud said that despite doubts the country was on track.

“The Australian government has a very clear plan to address emissions and meet our 2030 targets,” Mr Littleproud said.

“We are being good global citizens and we encourage our friends around the globe to step up and reduce their own emissions.”

Experts say severe bushfires will become more common without climate mitigation.

But public health physician and member of the Climate Council Kate Charlesworth said urgent action is required because climate change is already killing us.

Australians are paying very heavily for our inaction, we’re paying with our health,” Dr Charlesworth said.

“There are immediate health impacts, 400 deaths and 4000 hospitalisations, from the bushfires, but long term impacts as well.

“Health professionals have been concerned and frustrated for a while – we’re seeing this in our patients and in our communities.”

She said the medical industry would welcome the royal commission findings but stressed more needed to be done on climate change.

“There’s a clear link between climate change and extreme weather events, and in Australia we’re on the front lines,” Dr Charlesworth said.

“We saw that last summer. Bushfires aren’t even our biggest climate change health concern, it’s extreme heat.

“We should be leading, but we’re laggards.”

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