Australia Releases Report on 2020 Fires, Admits Climate Change Was the Driving Factor

Experts issued a grave warning about natural disasters in the years to come, claiming that "what was unprecedented is now our future".
November 2, 2020, 1:50am
australia bushfire
Photo by Peter Parks / AFP

A royal commission into Australia’s 2019-20 bushfires—and how the nation responds to natural disasters in general—issued its final report on Friday, presenting a dire warning of a future shaped by global warming and describing the country’s disaster outlook as “alarming”.

The commission made a total of 80 recommendations, including new legislation to allow the prime minister to declare a national state of emergency. And while none of these recommendations explicitly outline ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, the report broadly acknowledged that global warming will play a central role in future disasters.

In the report’s foreword, the commissioners point out that their inquiry required them to “look to the future. 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 arrangements,” they warned. “As the events of the 2019-2020 bushfire season show, what was unprecedented is now our future.”

The commissioners also called for a more proactive rather than reactive approach to environmental disasters like bushfires, stressing that "We need to do much more than put out fires. A resilient nation will seek to mitigate the risk of disasters through a wide range of measures, and it will attend to all of the complex and sometimes long-term consequences."

Elsewhere, they note that “Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable.”

The report stops short of recommending ways to respond to global warming, but makes its case clear: human-caused climate change fuelled the 2019-20 bushfires, and Australia as a nation urgently needs to do more to reduce its emissions.

"The Bushfire Royal Commission has laid out the facts in no uncertain terms: climate change drove the Black Summer bushfires, and climate change is pushing us into a future of unprecedented bushfire severity," Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, said in a statement.

"The Federal Government absolutely must act on the root cause of worsening bushfires in Australia, and take urgent steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This clearly means no new coal or gas, and a rapid transition to renewable energy."

Australia’s federal and state governments have been less-than-convincing in their willingness to adopt these measures. In late September, the New South Wales Government was given approval to build a proposed 850 coal seam gas wells as part of a controversial, $3.6 billion development that environmentalists labelled “disastrous”. A week earlier, Prime Minister Scott Morrison also refused to commit to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050—a decision that puts Australia out of step with more than 70 other countries that have adopted the target.

While the Australian government announced on Saturday that they had accepted all 80 of the bushfire royal commission’s recommendations, the extent to which they will actually be implemented remains unclear. In their report, the commissioners acknowledge that there have been some 240 natural disaster inquiries held in Australia over the years, and "while many recommendations have been faithfully implemented and have led to significant improvements, others have not".

“Our recommendations should be implemented, some as a matter of urgency,” they add. “Several will take time to achieve the intended outcome, but meaningful steps should be taken now towards timely implementation. Each recommendation would improve our national natural disaster arrangements, but taken as a whole, they will have [the] greatest effect.”

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