Will a Devastating Bushfire Season Change Australia’s Climate Stance?

With Australians experiencing first-hand the risks of climate change, Madeleine Forster and Tim Benton examine the influencers, at home or abroad, that could push the government towards more action.

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Madeleine Forster

Former Academy Associate, International Law Programme

Residents look on as flames burn through bush on 4 January 2020 in Lake Tabourie, NSW. Photo: Getty Images.

Residents look on as flames burn through bush on 4 January 2020 in Lake Tabourie, NSW. Photo: Getty Images.

The 2019–20 fire season in Australia has been unprecedented. To date, an estimated 18 million hectares of fire has cut swathes through the bush – an area greater than that of the average European country and over five times the size of blazes in the Amazon.

This reflects previous predictions of Australian science. Since 2008 and as recently as 2018, scientific bodies have warned that climate change will exacerbate existing conditions for fires and other climatic disasters in Australia. What used to be once-in-a-generation fires now re-appear within 10–15 years with increased ferocity, over longer seasons.

In a country known for climate denial and division, debate has erupted around bushfire management and climate change. One of these is whether controlled burns are the answer to Australia’s climate-affected fire conditions.

There is no single risk reduction strategy. Controlled burning remains key, if adapted to the environment and climate.

But when three out of four seasons in a year can support destructive bushfires, there are clear limits to what controlled burning and other fire management techniques can achieve. Other ‘adaptation’ measures are also likely to provoke intense debate – including bush clearance. As one Australian expert offered to highlight where Australia has got to, families should probably not go on holiday to bush and beach during the height of summer when temperatures and fire risk peaks.

So, unless Australia is prepared to debate radical changes to where people live and how land is used, the limits to adaptation imply the need for mitigation. This means supporting ambitious global greenhouse emissions reductions targets. As research from Victoria, one fire-prone state in Australia, highlights, ‘the emissions pathway we follow is the largest determinant of change to many variables [such as temperature] beyond the next few decades.’

Can Australia become a more active global partner on emissions?

Australia accounts for just over one per cent of global emissions, so reducing domestic emissions – even though on a per capita basis they are the highest in the world – will not reduce Australia’s climate risk. Showing international leadership and supporting a powerful coalition of the willing to tackle climate change is the only way ahead. By showing a willingness to adopt climate ambition, Australia can help more constructive worldwide action, and thereby reduce its own risk exposure.

Leading by example is a politically difficult issue for Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was re-elected in May 2019 on an economic stability platform, and a promise not to imperil employment growth through climate action. Australia has contested UN estimates that it will not meet its existing modest goals for domestic emissions, by seeking to rely on carryover credits from action under the Kyoto Protocol as proof of progress.

It has also distanced itself from concerns over global supply and demand in fossil fuels. Australia remains a global supplier for fossil fuels, including coal – the nation’s coal exports accounted for $67 billion in revenues in 2019 in an expanding but changing Asian market, supplying ‘some of the cheapest electricity in the world’.

Possible influencers of change

With Australians experiencing first-hand the risks of climate change, there is already pressure to do more. Many are sceptical this will translate into domestic targets or export policies that give Australia the moral authority to ask for more action on the global stage.

Here, diverse groups who share a common interest in seeing Australia recover from the bushfires and address future climate risks could be key.

Importantly this includes rural and urban-fringe communities affected by the bushfires. They were part of Morrison’s traditional supporter-base but are angry at the government’s handling of the crisis and increasingly see how tiptoeing around emissions (including exports) has also ‘buried’ open discussion at home on climate-readiness.

Australian states could also find themselves taking a lead role. Virtually all jurisdictions have now committed to their own goals, most based on zero-carbon goals by 2050 (as has New Zealand). These can support modelling for Australia’s energy transition from coal, through gas, to market competitive renewables, while also help to ensure this reflects community expectations on jobs, electricity prices and other costs.

Other emerging voices include the insurance and banking sectors (the Reserve Bank of Australia warned of the long-term financial stability risks of climate change before the fires) and indigenous Australians (one group of Torres Strait Islanders have filed a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee which, if heard, will place Australia’s emissions record under the spotlight again). Their challenge now is finding a common language on what a cohesive approach to addressing climate change risk looks like.

The international picture is mixed. The United States’ poor federal climate policy is a buffer for Australia. French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to raise the cost of inaction for Australia in current EU–Australia trade negotiations, but many large emitters in the Indo-Pacific region remain key Australian trading partners, investors and buyers of Australian coal.

In the meantime, the United Kingdom is preparing for the meeting of parties to the Paris Agreement in Glasgow in November. A key global event following Brexit, the UK will no doubt be hoping to encourage a leadership circle with national commitments that meet global need to make the Glasgow meeting a success.

The UK public has expressed enormous sympathy for Australia in the bushfires and outrage over ‘climate denialism.’ Australia’s experience will be a cautionary tale of the effects of climate change at the meeting. Could the UK also support Australia to become a less reluctant partner in global climate action?