Tackling the bushfire challenge through better preparation and lower emissions
Australia’s response to the devastating bushfires of the 2019 summer must be two-fold. First, adaptation – how we prepare for and respond to fires. And second, mitigation – which means a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Outlining the scope of his work this year on both adaptation and mitigation, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, delivered the second annual Laurie Hammond Oration on 19 August, a speech entitled ‘Fire, flood, storm and cyclone: applying science to the challenge’.
Dr Finkel pointed out that Australia already has a hefty body of data, research and experts to draw on, as set out in the CSIRO Report on Climate and Disaster Resilience requested by the Prime Minister, completed in June and published at the bushfire Royal Commission in August, and in the bushfire mapping project prepared by his office on the request of the request of the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews. The mapping project serves as a single reference point for current research and expertise across the gamut of national coordination initiatives, the university sector, and publicly funded research agencies.
This work shows how far Australia has progressed since a 1939 Royal Commission into devastating bushfires in Victoria, where the commissioner was frustrated by the inadequate evidence. “The truth was hard to find,” Judge Leonard Stretton commented in his forthright report of May 1939. “Much of the evidence was coloured by self interest. Much of it was quite false. Little of it was wholly truthful.”
While we have come a long way since 1939, the CSIRO report recommends more that can be done, in building and infrastructure standards, hazard reduction research, land use and zoning. It highlights the enormous potential of technology for modelling, monitoring and fighting fires.
Mitigation means tackling greenhouse gas emissions, and in February, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, asked Dr Finkel to chair a Ministerial Reference Panel for the preparation of Australia’s first annual Low Emissions Technology Statement. The approach is to build on the country’s research base and comparative advantages to lead the development of low emissions technologies so they can be deployed at scale in industry, agriculture, the built environment, transport and in electricity generation.
The Laurie Hammond oration, hosted by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, is an annual speech in honour of Dr Laurie Hammond, the inaugural chairman of the CRC, who died in 2018.