Images of the unprecedented Black Summer bushfires are seared into the psyche of all Australians. Unfortunately, reading the report of the royal commission into national natural disaster arrangements will not provide any relief from the anxiety that many people feel; especially the thousands of brave souls who fought tirelessly to protect and support their communities, families who had to huddle on beaches to escape the inferno, and millions more who spent months breathing the burnt remnants of our precious bushland.
Last summer forever changed us, ushering in a new age of fear, and bringing home the brutal reality of the extreme weather that a rapidly warming planet is serving up to us with increasing frequency and intensity.
In nearly 50 years of firefighting I had never seen fires behave like they did last summer. At Batemans Bay on New Years Eve I saw kangaroos unable to outrun the flames and fires burning across people’s lawns, setting their homes on fire. At Blackheath, I was scorched by towering flames burning at midnight when conditions should have eased – but hadn’t. I saw once-rare but now common fire-generated storms driving explosive walls of flame, and we all saw images of fires burning in places, at intensities and at times of the year never before experienced.
The royal commission report details how record temperatures, record dryness, years of reduced rainfall, and unprecedented fire weather fuelled these fires, and explains that this was climate change in action. The commission warns that climate change has ushered in a new era of natural disaster risks, and that the way we used to deal with fires, floods, cyclones, heatwaves and other catastrophes probably won’t work in the future as conditions get even worse.
The report is long, detailed and comprehensive, and the commissioners have done an outstanding job. It will shape emergency and disaster management for decades to come, just as the Stretton royal commission did after the 1939 fires. There will be fundamental changes to relationships between states, territories and the federal government to simplify and improve the provision of support during catastrophic events. The commission’s report deals with wide-ranging issues including standardising warnings and fire danger ratings, educating communities about disasters and increasing their resilience, developing our own aerial firefighting capabilities, and improving building standards in fire-prone areas.
If you only read the recommendations, you won’t see specific propositions about climate change mitigation. But climate is infused through the report – mentioned almost 100 times. It details how, even if we stop greenhouse gas emissions now, decades of increased disaster and fire risks are already locked in. It calls for mitigation as well as adaptation, across all sectors including environment and energy, because we are already at the point where our emergency response capabilities are no longer a match for increasingly extreme weather events.
The royal commission report echoes and builds on earlier findings of bushfire inquiries in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland – all concluding that climate change is responsible for longer fire seasons, more intense and more damaging fires, and extreme fire conditions resulting in record property losses.
The commissioners have done their job. Now, the government and opposition must endorse the 80 recommendations and commit to funding and implementing them no matter who is in government in the future. The states and territories must also support them, even if there are some issues about current roles and responsibilities that will possibly put a few noses out of joint. The top priority must be our safety, and how we adapt to a far more dangerous environment.
Lastly, but most importantly, Australia must now take climate change seriously. We must phase out coal, oil, and gas; and invest in the proven solutions that will take us to 100% renewable energy while strengthening our economy. A “gas-led recovery” from Covid-19 will lock us into a high emissions future, more warming, and worsening climate change driven catastrophes. That would be unforgivable.
• Greg Mullins is a former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and a climate councillor