Every morning millions of Australians are waking up to the smell of bushfire smoke. It's inescapable. It's been happening in Canberra for weeks. You can drive hundreds of kilometres to the coast or to the Blue Mountains and still not escape the smoke. I can't remember anything like it in my lifetime, a fierce "unprecedented" bushfire season that started months early and has no end in sight.
Any time you turn on our emergency broadcaster, local ABC Radio, there are reports of up to a hundred fires burning, some of them out of control, as well as highway and road closure announcements and messages for some communities that "it's too late to leave". A more alarming five words are hard to conjure.
For years Liberal prime ministers and National deputies have told us that reducing pollution would cost jobs, cost too much money and harm the economy. But this horrendous summer has modelled the astronomical costs of climate inaction better than anything Treasury could produce.
Firefighters have been working for months on end, using up all their leave and sometimes losing income. There are reports of volunteer firefighters reaching into their own pockets to pay for equipment like chainsaws and face masks. Hospitals are dealing with the health costs of respiratory problems caused by the smoke haze, while some people are simply missing work. The NSW town of Balmoral came under attack from multiple firefronts coming from different directions over several days, eventually running out of water for firefighters to use. Authorities estimate 10 per cent of homes in the village were lost, and up to 90 per cent of the surrounding bush is gone.
Then there are the less direct costs of climate-fuelled disasters. Tourism-heavy communities like Batemans Bay have been empty during what should be peak periods because the highways are closed due to bushfires (last year I tried to book three different holidays in three separate states, but all of them fell through because of bushfires). Just before Christmas, the owner of the pie shop at Braidwood Bakery, John Woodman, told The Canberra Times that natural disasters had "decimated" trade in Braidwood and on the South Coast. "We're about 70 per cent down. That's the best gauge to put on it. That's across the board," he said.
Scott Morrison was shamed into returning from holidays to show some leadership on this bushfire emergency. But when he got home, he made no changes to climate policy, rejected suggestions there was anything more the federal government could be doing and basically told everyone to calm down.
Retired press gallery veteran Laurie Oakes put it best when he tweeted: "He might as well rack off back to Hawaii then."
Morrison said it is "not a credible suggestion" to make a direct connection to any single fire event. Fair enough, we can't attribute any single fire to climate change, but attributing an "unprecedented" 100 bushfires burning simultaneously during catastrophic fire conditions (a new "catastrophic"-level fire condition was introduced in 2009) to climate change is plenty credible.
It's clear the Coalition government is not going to address the causes, but what can it do about the costs of these climate-fuelled natural disasters? The government has spared no expense when it comes to assisting drought-affected communities, so let's assume they will take a similar approach to climate disaster-affected communities.
The Australia Institute has proposed a National Climate Disaster Fund to help meet the growing costs of climate-fuelled disasters, through actions such as assisting businesses to recover, providing more firefighting equipment including water bombing planes, and paid leave for volunteer firefighters. Grants could also be made to at-risk households and businesses to assist with fire-prevention measures, or to help communities like Balmoral recover and rebuild.
Natural disasters are estimated to cost Australia around $13 billion each year. The catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009 lasted a single day and are estimated to have cost over $7 billion. Australia Institute modelling shows that a climate disaster levy, set initially at $1 per tonne of carbon pollution from fossil fuel production in Australia, would currently raise around $1.5 billion a year.
Most states have some kind of fire or emergency services levy already. NSW's scheme is funded by a levy on property insurance, while in the ACT and other states it is funded by ratepayers. Insurers pick up part of the costs of natural disasters, but on the whole, it is ultimately taxpayers who pick up the costs of climate-fuelled disasters - either directly or through their taxes. Isn't it time those primarily responsible for climate change - fossil fuel producers - picked up their fair share of the tab?
It is a fundamental principle of economics that companies profiting from activities that cause damage to others should pay the costs of that damage. Every tonne of coal or gas mined in Australia adds approximately 2.5 tonnes of heat-trapping gas to the atmosphere, making bushfires more frequent and more intense. Nationals minister Matt Canavan says Australia doesn't need a levy on fossil-fuel production to pay for climate disasters they are fuelling because the "mining sector" pays billions in taxes each year. What he failed to mention is that almost all coal and gas companies paid zero corporate tax in 2016-17. Zilch. The Greens calculated that of the top 100 companies that paid no tax, 22 were fossil fuel companies, meaning most coal and gas companies are not contributing a cent to the cost of the natural disasters their product is fuelling.
But it gets worse than fossil fuel companies paying no company tax. Two days before Santa came over the verandah, the Morrison government metaphorically delivered every Australian a lump of coal for Christmas when it announced it will underwrite two new gas-fired power stations, and may still approve coal-fired generation for Queensland and NSW. Announcing two gas-fired power stations during an unprecedented bushfire crisis and record-setting heatwaves wouldn't sound credible as satire. But here we are.
As it turns out, the Morrison government "doing nothing" on climate change was a best-case scenario. Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, the Morrison government is there to pour fossil fuel on the bushfires.
But pretend you're the Morrison government for a minute and forget the climate science. Let's consider the economics. The cheapest form of new energy to build is renewables. If the government cared about reducing power bills, that's what it would be underwriting. New gas-fired and coal-fired power stations are more expensive to build and run than renewables - the only thing more expensive is nuclear, which is orders of magnitude more expensive and slower to build than everything else - lose-lose! Gas used to be cheap, but since we linked our domestic market to the international gas market our gas prices on the east coast have tripled, crippling household and industry gas bills. Then there's the fact that gas and coal-fired power stations regularly break down in the heat, making them unreliable when we need them most during summer heatwaves.
So, here we are with a federal government that won't address or talk meaningfully about one of the major contributors to this unprecedented bushfire season, and that's using taxpayers' money to invest in power stations that will make the problem worse. The Morrison government's continued stubbornness on climate change is the gift that will keep taking from the nation each holiday season.
- Ebony Bennett is the deputy director at independent think tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett.