As part of the prime minister’s catch-up response to Australia’s terrible bushfire season, Scott Morrison seems to be tweaking the government’s stance on climate change. Whether there is anything to reports that Morrison will do more to reduce emissions remains to be seen over the coming years. More interesting is his new emphasis on ‘resilience and adaptation’.
Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Morrison acknowledged that cutting emissions and adaptation go together, while defending Australia’s widely-criticised climate targets. He also stated that in bushfire prone areas, ‘hazard reduction is even more important than emissions reduction’. Dams, new crops and better disaster planning would all be part of the fight against climate change, ideas he has highlighted previously.
While it is refreshing to see Morrison talk about the importance of climate adaptation, critics have pointed out the ‘sinister’ side of this reframing. The ideas Morrison is proposing could in fact make bushfires worse, and push species along the road to extinction. But done smartly, adapting and building resilience to climate change are an excellent idea. Here is why.
The climate will continue to warm as long as we keep adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. As we are still doing so, and even under the most ambitious responses to climate change expect to keep doing so until 2050, the planet will continue to heat up. It has already warmed 1.1℃ (Australia is warming at a similar rate). Depending on how quickly we reduce emissions, that means the climate could warm another 1-3℃ this century.
2019 in Australia was 1.5℃ above average, driven by an extraordinary series of climate events and background global warming. It is a glimpse of the future. Already Australia is seeing more heatwaves, less rain in the south, and more extreme fire weather, not to mention coral bleaching and irrevocable damage to sensitive ecosystems. People have been talking about the recent fires as a ‘new normal’. But that is not how climate change works. It is still changing, and will continue to change, in an ever-worsening direction. We have not yet reached the new normal.
Adaptation is essential because it will help us cope with the climate change that is locked in. Adaptation can look like lots of things: building sea walls in the Torres Strait, making better heatwave plans for cities, and transplanting trees to more friendly climates so they can survive. The now-defunded National Climate Change Research Facility (NCCARF) has an excellent library of reports on how to think about adaptation.
In the current bushfire crisis we’ve seen several experts come out with adaptation proposals. Professor David Bowman on The Conversation argued we should think about shifting our summer holidays so people would not be heading into the most bushfire-prone areas at the riskiest time of year. It sounds crazy, but as Bowman noted ‘that’s the nature of adaptation. Things that once seemed absurd will now need serious consideration.’
Professor Kevin Tolhurst proposed on the ABC a property buyback scheme that would see the most at-risk neighbourhoods turned into buffer zones. In the same vein, a CFA chief has argued against rebuilding a local school in Victoria. These are difficult, unappealing ideas, but they are the kinds of things we will have to think about.
Jane Rawson and I wrote about some of the things individuals can do in The Handbook. Find out your risk, make bushfire plans (and practice them), think about building bunkers or fire-proofing your home, and about moving somewhere safer. Our adaptedness to fire got a big boost after Australia introduced a ‘catastrophic’ or ‘code red’ fire danger level after the 2009 Black Saturday fires, meaning people are now encouraged, and sometimes forced, to leave on the worst days before fires even start.
So adaptation works. But on the scale we’ll need to cope with the climate change that is coming we will need to think bigger and smarter. One concern in particular is making sure that adaptation is fair. Climate change vastly hurts underprivileged people more. We have to make sure we are prepared to offer help to those who need it most, both within Australia and without. An excellent starting point for a government keen to demonstrate action on adaptation might be to find some more money for a research body such as NCCARF.
But, as you might have twigged by now, adaptation cannot be separate from reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is because there is very likely to be an amount of climate change we cannot adapt to. We don’t know exactly what that number is, but the IPCC suggests that we should aim to hold global warming to below a ‘safe’ level of 1.5℃, a threshold we will likely cross. Ross Garnaut writes in his recent book, Superpower, that even if we cut emissions strongly, ‘We will still leave for our grandchildren an awful job of cleaning up our mess. Awful, but not impossible’.
Incidentally, his book is an optimistic blueprint for what Australia can and should do now to reduce emissions, in doing so aiding the global effort that will ultimately determine how bad things get.
The difference between a 1.5℃ world and a 4℃ world might be the difference between a world we can survive in and a world we can’t. Australia in a 1.5℃ world will have more frequent and more severe bushfires, but it might be manageable. Australia in a 4℃ world will have far worse bushfires, on top of serious damage to all the systems we rely on such as food and water. So it is essential Australia does its fair share in the global challenge of bringing climate change to a halt.
Morrison has consistently downplayed Australia’s role in cutting greenhouse gases, saying that it ‘is not going to specifically stop or start one fire event’. That attitude ignores the role Australia plays in encouraging other nations to reduce emissions. Adaptation is vital. But it cannot be an excuse to do nothing about stopping climate change.
James Whitmore is a Melbourne-based writer. He is a co-author of The Handbook: surviving and living with climate change (2015), with Jane Rawson. He was previously an editor at The Conversation.