Australia’s worst bushfire season in modern history, which is still far from over, began in the middle of the 2019 southern winter. By early spring, substantial areas in the states of Queensland and New South Wales were burning. And social media was already circulating attacks on the Australian Greens, blaming them for the bushfires. These groundless claims directly linked the bushfires to a fabricated lack of ‘hazard reduction’ activities, which was blamed on Greens’ policies.
These claims are manifestly false. The Greens are not in a position to dictate fire management policy anywhere in Australia. With the exception of the tiny Australian Capital Territory, the Greens do not hold the balance of power in any of the other seven states and territories or at federal level, and they have never been in government in a mainland state. What’s more, hazard reduction burning, which should not be confused with ‘back burning’ – a tactical firefighting method – is the remit of statutory authorities at the state level responsible for firefighting in rural areas and national parks.
Moreover, as has been made very clear by state fire commissioners, there has not been a lack of ‘hazard reduction’. And as has also been made very clear by Australia’s leading scientists in this field, the bushfires were not caused by a lack of ‘hazard reduction’. The severity of the bushfires have been caused by a drying up of Australia and extreme temperatures which has been linked to climate change due to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And the warnings bells have been ringing for years and years.
However, social media has been used to spread a range of lies about the causes of the bushfires. The ABC reports that it found ‘suspicious accounts were amplifying unproven suggestions arson had been the overwhelming cause of Australia’s disastrous bushfire season’. This ‘disinformation campaign’ has included a range of false claims aimed at denying the key role of climate change in causing the devastating bushfires of the 2019-20 season.
The moral hazards of mythical green tape
In early January 2020, News.com.au featured a New South Wales firefighter speaking out because he ’felt a strong need to say something here because I just can’t stomach some of the false science and outright lies being peddled on social media as news or facts’. These included false claims regarding hazard reduction and the supposed ‘locking up’ of forests commonly blamed on the Greens, Labor and/or environmentalists more generally. The Greens ‘haven’t been stopping hazard reduction burns from taking place’, firefighter Andrew Strunk said, while in the same breath advocating for more such burns.
In fact, both mainstream and social media have been rife with lies intended to divert blame away from the direct causative impacts that climate change has had on recent bushfire behaviour in Australia.
Sky News on 12 November 2019 interviewed former National Party minister and current member of parliament Barnaby Joyce. Just days after two people had been killed by the fires in his northern NSW electorate of New England, Joyce said that there were ‘conservation policies or green policies that I think have exacerbated these fires’. He listed the ‘lack of controlled burns, fire reduction burns’ to reduce ‘fuel build up’, the lack of dams in state forests and national parks, and Labor’s policy of not retaining fire trails. He also denied that use of coal or any other policies Australia could implement would affect the length of the fire season. Instead, he called for regulatory change to allow for more extensive preventative burning of forests, even though the fire authorities are not seeking such changes.
On 14 November, Sky News’ morally compromised Andrew Bolt provided a platform for the xenophobic and erratic right wing One Nation leader Pauline Hanson to repeat some of Joyce’s claims. Hanson squarely laid blame on the Greens and Labor, claiming that they had shut down the national parks, preventing prescribed burns of fuel on the forest floor.
In the real world, the heads of NSW and Victoria’s rural firefighting services categorically and emphatically denied these claims. On 7 January 2020, by which time 100,000 km2 of land had burnt across Australia, the Victorian Country Fire Authority chief, Steve Warrington, said: ‘The emotive argument is not supported that fuel reduction burning will fix all our problems’, calling some of it ‘hysteria’ and an ‘emotional load of rubbish’. He reported that fire had gone ‘right through’ areas that had been through hazard reduction burns.
This is what is referred to as weather driven fire behaviour, as opposed to fuel driven fire behaviour. Climate change has created such hot and dry conditions that fire will spread on its own, with only a bare minimum of fuel needed to keep it moving. These mega-fires have been so large and hot they have also created their own weather systems, including pyro-cumulus clouds, dry lightning strikes, and even fire tornadoes.
The next day, NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons clearly explained on breakfast television that ‘the environmental clearances are invariably not our problem with hazard reduction burning’, and that the ‘biggest challenge’ was the weather. This is because climate change has increased average temperatures in southeast Australia, resulting in smaller windows of cool weather to safely carry out preventative burning. As the climate has gotten hotter and the landscape has increasingly dried out, fire seasons have been getting longer – as shown by the mid-winter start to this year’s fire season.
The next major challenge Fitzsimmons cited was resourcing, which effectively means the availability of sufficient funding from state and/or federal governments to protect communities from fires. On ABC television, Fitzsimmons described the complex operational environment in which hazard reduction takes place, adding that the RFS are ‘not environmental bastards’. He sees prescribed burning as ‘a valuable tool … not a panacea’, and explained it has very little effect when moisture levels in the landscape are extremely low and under very hot and windy conditions, as has been the case this spring and summer in Australia, and particularly in NSW. An RMIT ABC fact check explains the vital importance of water in the environment for mitigating bushfire behaviour:
’The rate at which organic materials burns is directly related to its moisture content; the drier the fuel, the more fiercely it burns and the more intense the fire.
‘The moisture of a particular fuel load depends not only on the type of vegetation, but also the humidity and temperature of its surroundings’.
The central role of climate change in the reality of hazard reduction practice was clearly articulated by former Victorian Environment Minister John Thwaites:
‘What does stand in the way of planned burns is climate change: higher temperatures, dryer fuel and strong winds in autumn and spring making it unsafe to burn. A shorter timeframe for safe burning – not “debate by environmentalists” – is the overwhelming factor.’
Climate change creates fire conditions
The climate is very obviously changing, and quicker than we had expected. This 2019-20 summer was Australia’s hottest on record. Average temperatures across Australia for 2019 were 1.52oC above the historical average, and average maximum temperatures were 2.09 °C above average.
A recent overview by Australian National University climate scientists makes the case that ‘natural variability may be increasingly swamped by human influences on the climate.’ Despite the complexity of climate change and the specific local impacts on forest fires, the authors emphasise:
‘one thing is certain: unless there are global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures will continue to rise, increasing the risk that catastrophic bushfire conditions become Australia’s “new normal”’.
The direct link between climate change and more and worse bushfires has for many years been well established scientifically and widely known in political and public policy circles.
In 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is backed by all the United Nations recognised international states comprising 195 countries, reported with a high level of confidence that in Australia:
‘Heatwaves and fires are virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency.’
Economist Ross Garnuat, in his comprehensive 2008 review on climate change commissioned by the Labor government at the time, made the rather accurate prediction:
‘Recent projections of fire weather suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.’
His report also noted that forest fires were themselves a source of GHG emissions and therefore are both an effect and cause of climate change.
From 2012, climate change reports from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) presented increasingly dire warnings about the dangerous impacts of climate change on bushfires. The ‘State of the climate report 2012’ noted that:
‘Weather associated with high fire danger has shown a rapid increase in the late 1990s to early 2000s at many locations in southeastern Australia.’
In 2014 the situation was made even clearer:
‘There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s’
In 2015, a CSIRO technical report projected with a high level of confidence:
‘warming and drying in southern and eastern Australia will lead to fuels that are drier and more ready-to-burn, with increases in the average forest fire danger index and a greater number of days with severe fire danger’
In 2016, the ‘State of the climate’ report predicted that:
‘The number of days with weather conducive to fire in southern and eastern Australia is projected to increase.’
Also in 2016, a BOM report on climate change for Victoria, the most bushfire prone region in Australia, stated that:
‘There is high confidence that climate change will result in a harsher fire-weather climate regime in the future.’
And in 2018, we were told that:
‘There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia.’
This is what scientists have been telling us for over a decade about climate change, fire weather and bushfires.
Denial will destroy us
Despite all this, though, Scott Morrison still does not agree that there is a causative link between human made climate change and the most destructive bushfires in Australian history. He told 2GB radio on 10 January 2020:
‘The suggestion that there’s any one emissions reduction policy or climate policy that has contributed directly to any of these fire events is just ridiculous and the conflation of those two things, I think, has been very disappointing.’
This is a particularly poor argument, by any standards. Morrison is effectively claiming that because there is no single cause of climate change, and because the impact of climate change on individual events is complex, that government policy cannot be responsible for any of the impacts of climate change.
When the GHGs mingle together in the atmosphere to cause the global greenhouse effect and raise surface temperatures, resulting in a hotter and dryer climate, it does not make any sense to attribute the cumulative effect of global emissions to specific molecules from a particular source in order to determine who is causing climate change. Much less does it make any sense to directly link specific emissions directly to fire weather in a particular part of NSW or Victoria, or flooding in Queensland at the same time.
This is not how climate change works. And Scott Morrison knows it. He has set up an extremely flimsy straw man and feebly blown it down. The thing is, Morrison is actually having an entirely different conversation. He’s having a conversation with segments of the Australian community that are receptive to simplistic arguments that support their cultural preferences. Messages like this allow them to continue denying that GHG emissions are destroying their world, or that we can do something about it without … well, costing the earth. At the same time, they are being offered the false hope of a fake solution that directs anger and dissatisfaction towards persecution of a scapegoat.
Climate and weather are by their nature types of systems, and the causes and effects of systems work holistically. This means that many causes will interact to determine the state of a system, while the system itself can have many effects on its surroundings. A system cannot be understood in terms of single events or processes causing specific events. This should not create any difficulties, however, for we go about our lives confidently using many systems often without any clear understanding of their internal operations. Each morning, we might use a toaster, a television, a car, an elevator. We can successfully and beneficially utilise these systems without any knowledge of how our inputs into those systems create the outputs which we desire. This is because they are stable systems with predictable relationships between causes and effects.
Human caused GHG emissions have already dramatically altered the constitution of the Earth’s atmosphere, changing the climatic systems affecting temperatures and precipitation, creating increased variability. This has resulted in more heatwaves, droughts and flooding. The systemic effects of climate change interact with local conditions in complex ways that can be difficult to predict.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s no one’s fault. It is not a valid reason for policy inaction and the stymying of international efforts to reduce GHG emissions. Rather, it means that responsibility lies with everyone who has benefited, or more broadly who is implicated in the emissions, which is pretty much everyone in the western and other industrialised countries. At the centre of this web of implication are the governments that set policies, and in liberal democracies the people who vote for them.
Climate change is predominantly caused by human made GHG emissions, which find their way into the Earth’s thin atmosphere as a result of interactions between economic markets and government policy. Further, climate change causes hotter and dryer temperatures, which creates weather that increases the size and intensity of fire events, all else being equal. There is, then, a bona fide chain of causation between the Australian Government’s policy settings on climate change and the scale of this bushfire season.
However, the Scott Morrison government effectively has no policy on climate change. Former Liberal Party leader John Hewson weighed into the debate giving the government a straight-F scorecard for:
‘the unimaginable position of still having no climate action plan, no energy policy, no national disaster plan, no waste-management policy, no fuel security strategy, and no transition strategies to achieve a low-carbon society’
But having no policy on an issue is still a policy setting; it requires will and intent to decide to do nothing in the face of repeated reputable warnings of impending disaster. By not having an effective positive policy on decarbonising the economy, the federal Liberal Party government are intentionally allowing the market to determine how much emissions are generated – they are effectively handing over the power to decide whether we have a future worth living to unelected and unaccountable corporate and private interests.
Meta-debating the climate crisis
A number of political heavyweights have weighed in on the Australian climate change denial debate, including former prime ministers from both sides. Addressing the National Smart Energy Summit on 10 December 2019, the Liberal Party’s Malcom Turnbull decried the end of his prime ministership at the hands of an ‘insurgency’ from ‘within the Liberal and National Parties, from a minority of destructive climate change deniers’. Turnbull didn’t mince his words, going on to say:
‘Those people on the right, who say, claim to be conservatives, and hold up climate change denialism as one of their marks of identity, of political identity, are not conservative at all. They are reckless, they are reactionary, and they are putting our future, and that of our children and grandchildren, at risk.’
Labor’s Kevin Rudd identified climate change denialism as a ‘cult’ that has taken over the Liberal and National Parties and has ‘become the battle cry of the far right which now runs the entire conservative show in Canberra’. Rudd’s choice of words mocked the former Liberal Party prime minister Tony Abbott, who was shouting from the sidelines, so to speak, while his home state of NSW was burning. In fact, the coal loving, conservative wrecker was in Israel making bizarre claims about the world being ‘in the grip of a climate cult’, and ironically indulging in trite homilies: ‘Sooner or later, in the end, people get hit over the head by reality’.
That’s right, Australia is having a debate about a debate it didn’t need to have in the first place.
The physical impacts of climate change on the liveability of our communities is not an issue requiring moral consensus. It is an empirical fact that human activity producing GHGs is having serious and irreversible effects on the global climatic system. What is a moral issue, however, is the truthfulness of our politicians and their ability and intention to act in the community’s best interests.
It is wrong to represent an issue that requires scientific understanding as having two evenly valuable sides, based on whether any individual agrees or disagrees with a particular hypothesis. This is to misrepresent the very nature of science itself. If we were talking about, say, submarines or space rockets, then their cost, how many of them are built, and what they are used for are all important public policy issues that should be debated in a democracy. However, the technical specifications and operation of these crafts could never meaningfully or fruitfully be the subject of public debate. Like rocket science, applying the ‘pub test’ to the impacts of climate change will certainly result in catastrophic consequences.
The key to science is its ability to predict. If you are running a country, then being able to confidently plan for near and distant future events is going to be at the front and centre of success. Over the course of history, rulers everywhere have hung their very survival on all kinds of more or less ineffective rituals and devices for predicting the future.
In this sense, science is the supreme aid to governance. Science tells us how the world we live in works. By observing regularities and developing theories on the basis of those regularities, this enables us to do new things, and to do old things better – more effectively, more efficiently, more sustainably. When this happens, it confirms that the scientific theories we are working with are pretty accurate. If things don’t go to plan, further observations may show there was a problem with the initial observations or with the theory itself, allowing it to be improved, and the cycle starts again.
When the most qualified and experienced Australian climate scientists, as we find in specialist Australian Government agencies such as CSIRO and BOM for example, consistently predict strong trends in natural systems, this is the type of information that politicians and public servants need to successfully govern and administer a physically large and diverse nation-state. What the rulers of times past would have given for the benefits of science…
When we witness scientists’ predictions happening, as with this summer’s bushfires, this confirms that the scientific theories were in fact pretty accurate. But the trust we place in science to provide accurate and relevant information that can help us make things better, is derived from science’s immense body of useful knowledge and the integrity of the processes producing it. This is not to say we shouldn’t retain some healthy scepticism about science, because we should. But understanding how science works and why it works will help us survive the climate crisis.
My kingdom for a waterbomber
The warnings weren’t just coming from the premier government institutions specifically tasked with scientific research and communication of climate change and its impacts. They also came from the Liberal Party’s own special administrative creation, the Department of Home Affairs, under the ministership of chief anti-Turnbull ‘insurgent’, Peter Dutton. Obtained by the Guardian through the Freedom of Information Act, this incoming government brief was stark in its message:
‘Life in Australia is increasingly disrupted by disasters. Australians will experience – as we did this summer – more frequent and severe heatwaves, bushfires, floods, and cyclones. These will increasingly occur concurrently’.
Despite this and all the other evidence that climate change was going to increase the frequency and severity of environmental disasters, in 2017 the federal Liberal government decided it would stop funding the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCARF), which started in 2008 as a $50 million a year research program to help Australia manage the impacts of climate change. In 2014, Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party government abolished CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation portfolio at the same time as slashing NCARF’s funding by 80%.
More than this, Scott Morrison was warned specifically about the impending bushfire catastrophe. The coming of a savage summer was flagged well in advance and with sufficient weight by a group of 23 former fire and emergency chiefs from around the nation. This group was led by former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins, who wrote to Morrison in April 2019 and again after the May election. One of their 20 or so recommendations last autumn was for additional funding to secure the availability of more medium and large firefighting aircraft, which have been absolutely essential in containing fires where this strategy has been successful.
However, these pleas for action fell on deaf ears, and they were denied a meeting with the prime minister. Nor was a response forthcoming from Scott Morrison’s alleged lieutenant, allegedly Angus allegedly Taylor. This comes after the federal Liberal government rejected a proposal in 2016 from the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, which manages the nation’s fleet of waterbombers, for a major capability expansion.
But there were those in the halls of Parliament who did hear the calls for action. Labor leader Bill Shorten took a promise of a $100 million funding boost for aerial firefighting to the 2019 election, where he was defeated by the incumbent Scott Morrison and his fellow climate denial acolytes. Morrison and his band of Liberal Party climate-deniers-cum-ministers-of-state went on to wilfully ignore this bushfire catastrophe waiting to happen.
Australia, particularly the southeast, had dried to tinderbox conditions, and more heatwaves were expected, making conditions ripe for an unprecedented season of catastrophic bushfire weather. And our futures were being held hostage by the measured inaction of those elements of the Liberal Party that, in the words of their former leader Malcolm Turnbull, were willing ‘to blow up the joint’ to maintain their climate denialism.
But if this wasn’t enough political bastardry already, that is not all they stand accused of. For in order to divert attention and deflect blame away from this gross disregard for the interests of the Australian nation and all its inhabitants, members of the Liberal-National Coalition blatantly lied about the role of fuel loads in the spread of fires and spread malicious rumours that their political opponents and other concerned citizens were directly responsible for the fires. While Liberal and National Parties were carrying on with a campaign of denial and blame, people and animals were dying, homes and businesses were being destroyed, and irreplaceable natural habitat was being devastated on an unimaginably large scale.
Part 2 of this series looks at the role of media and state control in the hazard reduction story, while Part 3 will explore implications for the future of the forests of south east Australia.
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