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When is a bushfire like a coronavirus?

Jun 2, 2020 • 16m 43s

Instead of making us forget the bushfires, evidence suggests coronavirus will make us more conscious of the need for change. The urgent response to the pandemic makes political arguments against climate action less credible.

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When is a bushfire like a coronavirus?

236 • Jun 2, 2020

When is a bushfire like a coronavirus?

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Instead of making us forget the bushfires, evidence suggests the coronavirus outbreak will actually make us more conscious of the need for change.

And the response to the pandemic makes the political arguments against climate action less credible.

Today: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe, on what we’ve learnt so
far at the royal commission into the Black Summer.

**

Archival tape -- reporters:

For months, Australia has endured the most prolonged and destructive bushfire emergency in memory.

New record temperatures, and the length of time the fires have been burning, has turned this into a crisis.

The largest fire front in the country’s history.

The latest fire front stretches from the south coast of NSW all the way to eastern Victoria.

'Why', is naturally the first question the people want answered. Can we stop it happening again, is the next.
Scott Morrison also proposed a royal commission into the deadly bushfire crisis, that would also look at the effects of climate change.

Today the Governor General issued letters patent to establish the national royal commission into the black summer fires.

RUBY:

Mike, the royal commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements was set up to help us understand what happened last summer. Hearings are now underway. So what have we learnt so far?

MIKE:

Well, the first day of the hearings last Monday, the very first witness was the Bureau of Meteorology's head of climate modelling, Karl Braganza.

Archival tape -- Royal Commission:

Dr Braganza, good morning.

Archival tape -- Braganza:

Good morning to you.

MIKE:

He appeared to essentially explain why fire seasons were worse now. And he was quite clear that the tragedy of the black summer of last year, as people at the commission were calling it, was not a one off event.

Archival tape -- Braganza:

Really, since the Canberra 2003 fires, every jurisdiction in Australia… have seen some really significant fire events that have challenged what we do need to respond to them, and have really challenged what we thought fire weather looked like preceding this period...

MIKE:

He told the commission that the fire season is now starting three months earlier across much of southeast Australia. So the sort of fire danger index readings that would typically have occurred at the start of summer in the 1950s are now being recorded at the start of spring. So that's how much climate has already changed.

Archival tape -- Braganza:

All over Australia, we're seeing a longer fire season with more fire danger days during that season and the severity of the worst fire danger days is becoming more severe...

RUBY:

And what else has the royal commission been told?

MIKE:

We also heard, for example, that in the case of last summer's bushfires, bushfire smoke was one of the major dangers to public health. Associate Professor Fay Johnston from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research said that around 80 per cent of Australians had been affected by bushfire smoke at some point during the fire season.

Archival tape -- Fay Johnston:

It’s a hazard that causes harm in a lot of different contexts - in fire emergencies, in planned burning, and in fires that don't threaten communities.

MIKE:

On the basis of the analysis carried out by her team, Johnson said, there were 445 excess deaths attributable to smoke, and there were also 3340 extra admissions to hospital for heart and lung-related problems and another 1373 additional presentations to emergency departments for asthma.

Archival tape -- Fay Johnston:

And it's an unusual hazard in that it transports itself - smoke can travel hundreds of kilometres and affect communities hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres from where the fires are

MIKE:

In all, she said, the health consequences cost the economy around two billion dollars

Archival tape -- Fay Johnston:

And that's about 10 times higher...there’s fluctuation year to year of course with fire activity, but that was a major departure from anything we'd seen in the previous 20 years.

RUBY:

So those are both pretty serious and worrying types of evidence that the commission's heard there...

MIKE:

Well, yes, there was a lot more where that came from, too. I mean, it was not only climate scientists, it was also insurers and actuaries, you know, whose businesses essentially depend on accurately assessing and predicting risk. And they provided just a comprehensive and very dark picture about the increasing threats from climate change.

RUBY:

What was said about the role of climate change?

MIKE:

Well, they talked about rising sea levels, more intense, although slightly less frequent cyclones that would strike further south on the Australian continent. So, you know, in sort of central Queensland, for example, being particularly at risk would probably go as far south as northern New South Wales.

Archival tape -- unknown:

We believe there's going to be quite different impacts around the coastlines of Australia...

MIKE:

We believe the worst storms and floods, more intense rainfall and many more days of extreme heat. And that's the big one here: the stats that were presented show that heat waves are Australia's deadliest natural hazard...

Archival tape -- unknown:

And they account for almost half of the total number and almost five times the number of fatalities then do bushfires.

MIKE:

And even those statistics are probably undercounted because, you know, death certificates quite often record another cause of death, even though heat stress is an underlying factor. All the evidence in sum just served to remind us that there was a bigger crisis that preceded the coronavirus crisis and that will persist long after Coronavirus.

RUBY:

Let's talk about that because we have been faced with these dual crises over the past few months. First the bushfires and now the pandemic. Are they comparable?

MIKE:

Well, it's difficult to compare the impacts of the Black Summer with those of the coronavirus. I mean, the toll of the virus could have been orders of magnitude larger than it was if swift action hadn't been taken. The chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, said this week that the nation's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has avoided about 14000 deaths, on the basis of modelling. But, of course, timely action was taken. And as of Wednesday, when I last checked, the federal health department had recorded 103 fatalities from Covid-19 in this country, which is, by way of comparison, a little less than one fifth of the 478 direct and indirect deaths attributed to the fires.

Of course, Coronavirus doesn't touch property and it doesn't touch the natural environment, so there are significant differences there. The thing that intrigues me, though, is that in response to the health emergency, our national leaders were prepared to shut down, just close off large sections of our economy, tolerate the loss of maybe a million jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars, and enforce major changes to the way all members of society live and work. So why are they prepared to do all this in response to one crisis while doing so little in response to another, arguably even greater, threat?

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Mike, we're talking about the government's response to climate change vs. its response to the pandemic. Remind me, what did the federal government say about its plans to combat climate change after the bushfires?

MIKE:

All right. Well, let's take it back a little further. One of the first acts of the current government, then led by Tony Abbott, was to repeal the successful emissions reduction scheme that had been introduced by the Labour previous Labour government with the support of the Greens. And so emissions that had been falling have been rising ever since. The science tells us that we must achieve net zero emissions by 2050 if we're to avoid the worst of climate change. And Scott Morrison has repeatedly refused to make this commitment.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

What I’ve said is that we favor technology over taxation. What I’ve said, is that anything we sign up to will be signed up to, if we were to go down that path, having thoroughly looked at what is the impact on jobs, what is the impact on electricity prices, what is the impact on rural and regional Australia...

MIKE:

Unlike many other countries, governments, unlike all Australian states and territories, he will not commit to zero emissions by 2050. And when he was asked about this on February 17, ie. just before the start of the Coronavirus crisis, he said he wouldn't do it because no one could convince him it wouldn't cost jobs and a lot of money.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And currently, no one can tell me that going down that path won’t cost jobs, won’t put up your electricity prices, and won’t impact negatively on jobs and the economies in rural and regional Australia...

MIKE:

What strikes me, and I suspect many other people as odd, is his inertia in the face of that crisis that so sharply contrasts with his sense of urgency on the other. You know, within a month of dismissing the need for an emissions target, Morrison and his emergency cabinet of state and territory leaders responded to the coronavirus threat with the national lockdown.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

There’s a lot of uncertainties around this, and I can’t shield people from uncertainties when they are genuine. But what we can do is ensure we put in place the most sustainable set of restrictions...

MIKE:

You know, while this decisive action was driven by the states, Morrison went along, you know, enthusiastically serving as the chief marketer for their collective decision.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And so from midnight tomorrow night, all of these following activities - and they include some that I’ve already announced from earlier - will no longer be taking place

MIKE:

But at no point did he cavil on the basis that jobs might be lost. Instead, he followed the advice of the experts and he did what had to be done in order to avoid the greater catastrophe. Which, of course, is exactly what he hasn't done in relation to climate.

RUBY:

So why do you think that is when you have these two crises that both threaten lives and livelihoods? That the reaction is so different?

MIKE:

Well, this was something I spoke to Professor Warwick McKibbin about. He's an economist. He's a specialist in public policy at the EU's Crawford School. He's an expert in both pandemics and climate issues. PHD at Harvard, served on the board of the Reserve Bank. So, you know, he's to be taken seriously. And he made a couple of very good points. The first is that in the case of pandemics, it's always the case that the cost of the response vastly exceeds the cost of the disease itself. I mean, that's par for the course. The second point he made was that even without a government-mandated domestic lockdown, much of the economic loss that we've seen would have happened anyway as people self isolated for fear of infection.

Archival tape -- McKibbin:

My guess is that about 10 percent of the economic activity, 10 percent of the total loss, is probably due to government lockdown requirements.

MIKE:

And McKibbin says that the reason one crisis is responded to more urgently than the other, I guess, is the coronavirus was perceived as being both personal and immediate. You know, the threat horizon for the virus was days or weeks. Climate change, however, you know, has loomed for decades and action now will only forestall things that might happen in decades to come. So there's a sense of urgency about one and not about the other. The virus, as he said, sets out a very clear either or proposition.

Archival tape -- McKibbin:

If you don’t do anything In Australia, you're going to get it. If you do do something in Australia, you may not get it, right? With climate change, if Australia does nothing, climate change is gonna happen anyway if nobody else does anything.

MIKE:

In relation to climate change, though, the perception and this perception is encouraged by the government is much more fatalistic, that regardless of any actions Australia might take, climate change is going to happen anyway if no one else does anything either. That sentiment, I think, is the subtext to Scott Morrison's words back in February. You know, why suffer the costs of change if no benefit will flow?

RUBY:

And so, Mike, do you think that Covid-19 has changed anything or can teach us anything about how best to respond to a crisis?

MIKE:

Well, I've got to say that the signs from our federal government are not promising. It doesn't seem to have changed anything as far as they're concerned. But it seems the Covid-19 crisis actually hasn't distracted people from the climate emergency. There was an essential poll conducted in mid-March, which was right at the height of the Coronavirus outbreak in Australia, and it found that 31 per cent of the people it surveyed were actually more concerned about climate than they were a year ago before the fires. That set me wondering about the possibility that rather than supplanting concern about climate, the Covid-19 episode has actually accentuated people's sense of urgency. So I went looking for people to talk to about that.

I spoke to Kate Reynolds, who's a professor of psychology at the Australian National University, and she thought that was the case. She says that having successfully faced down one existential threat, people are more inclined to believe they can deal with another.

Archival tape -- Reynolds:

Y’know people's attitudes and behaviours can change. And we know how that happens. And we saw some of it on show with Covid-19.

MIKE:

She says that people came to feel in some ways a greater efficacy, as she put it, in the psychological sense.

Archival tape -- Reynolds:

Very consistent messages, mobilising people to action, sending messages of care and support, crafting this sense - we call it a social identity - this sense of a shared social identity with a common cause and people we could see led to attitude and behaviour change...

MIKE:

At the very least, she suggests, it will be much harder for governments now to make excuses on the basis that change is too big and too costly and too hard.

RUBY:

So you're saying there could be a benefit or a path forward here?

MIKE:

Well, yes. I mean, humans are social creatures. We're motivated to protect the group and to act in the best interests of the group, or at least most of us are. And as civilisation has advanced, our understanding of what the group is has on the whole grown more encompassing, you know, from the family to the tribe to the nation-state. Well, what coronavirus has shown - and this stands equally true for the climate crisis as well - is that our conceptualisation of who is part of the group will need to further expand. Because when it comes to the really big issues, we have to consider everyone in the world to be part of the group. I mean, there is no immunity to the risk: no one is safe, unless we all are.

RUBY:

Mike, thanks so much for your time today.

MIKE:

No worries. Thank you.

RUBY:

That was Mike Seccombe, the national correspondent for The Saturday Paper.

**

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RUBY:

Also in the news -
There have been violent scenes in the United States, with protests sparked by the death of unarmed black man George Floyd continuing.

More than four thousand protestors have been arrested since George Floyd’s death, and anger has been mounting at increasingly aggressive tactics by police.

**

Speaking on 2GB yesterday, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was disturbed by images of the protests.

He also commented on a Black Lives Matter solidarity protest scheduled in Sydney today, saying "The United States is going through a difficult time ... (but) there is no need to import things that are happening in other countries... into Australia."

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

Instead of making us forget the bushfires, evidence suggests coronavirus will make us more conscious of the need for change. The urgent response to the pandemic makes political arguments against climate action less credible.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Bushfire hearings spotlight climate change in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthy

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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236: When is a bushfire like a coronavirus?