05 November 2013

McAneney on Australian Bushfires

Over at The Conversation, John McAneney of Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University, has an eminently sensible article on Australian bushfires and climate change.  He shows the figure above which updates through present the time series of "normalized building damage" from bushfires which we first presented in this paper (Crompton et al. 2010).

Here is an excerpt from his piece:
There’s no trend in the graph. Bushfire losses can therefore be explained by the increasing exposure of dwellings to fire-prone bushlands. No other influences need be invoked. So even if climate change had played some small role in modulating recent bushfires, and we cannot rule this out, any such effects on risk to property are clearly swamped by the changes in exposure.
The result is unsurprising given that it has been a consistent conclusion from many other studies in different countries and across many different hazards, in fact some 30-odd different peer-reviewed studies to date. And the IPCC (2012) underscored this conclusion. . . 
Some would like to see these latest fires as the climate change tipping point, the harbinger of things to come. But extraordinary claims demand, as they say, extraordinary proof and from the evidence available, this does not seem to be here yet.

Perhaps one day we will have conclusive evidence of a link between climate change and bushfire losses, but even then the suite of policy actions that make sense will continue to focus on land use planning, not emissions reduction, for which there are better arguments for action than bushfires.

We need to get serious about land-use planning. It is not a very sexy topic, it may not constitute the “great moral … challenge of our time”, but reducing our vulnerability to natural disasters is important and stands to benefit all Australians, directly or indirectly, now. Regardless of what you might think about climate change.
Do read the whole thing, it is a smart piece.