Consumed by fire

by John Quiggin on January 11, 2020

It’s been hard to think straight with the fires that have burned through most of Australia for months. Brisbane was among the first places affected, with the loss of the historic Binna Burra lodge, on the edge of a rainforest, a place where no one expected a catastrophic fire. But, as it turned out, we got off easy compared to the rest of the country. Heavy rain in early December helped to put out the fires in Queensland, and we can expect the delayed arrival of the monsoon in the near future. By contrast, southern Australia normally has hot, dry summers and this has been the hottest driest year ever. The increased likelihood of catastrophic fire seasons was evident when I started work on this topic back in 2012 [1], and the risks for this year were pointed out to the government months in advance. The warnings went unheeded for two reasons.

First, the government had been re-elected partly on the basis of a promise (economically nonsensical, but politically powerful) to return the budget to surplus. Any serious action to prepare for and respond to a bushfire catastrophe would wipe that out, as indeed has almost certainly happened now.

Second, any serious assessment would have to focus on the fact that climate change is causing large-scale losses in Australia right now. The government is a combination of denialists and do-nothingists, neither of whom are willing to address the issue.

Of course, Australia is only a small part of the problem. Our government’s policies are helping to promote climate catastrophes in the US, Brazil and other places, and theirs are returning the favor. A policy shift in any one of these countries, with no change elsewhere, would make little difference to the country concerned. That’s the nature of a collective action problem. But on any ordinary understanding of justice, we are reaping what we, and the governments we’ve elected, have sown.

Over the fold, some links to pieces I’ve written on this topic.


Australia is promising $2 billion for the fires. I estimate recovery will cost $100 billion Article I wrote piece for CNN Business in the US.

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires, article for Inside Story

The opportunity cost of destruction, extract from Economics in Two Lessons

Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better, from my blog

Burning the surplus, from my blog

Mainstream media remains quiet on Scott Morrison’s untimely holiday from Independent Australia. As the worst of the disaster started to unfold, our appalling Prime Minister skived off to Hawaii for a luxury holiday, without telling anyone. Most of the media were happy to cover for him.

fn1. Instant social media reactions have their problems, but the academic alternative, endless rounds of refereeing, is far worse. I started work on this topic with a colleague Tyron Venn, in 2012, but it didn’t get past the referees until 2017, by which time the central point (the case for mandatory evacuation, rather than encouraging people to defend their homes against fire) was generally accepted. And the demand for a tight focus meant that the discussion of climate change, my original motivation for doing the project, was cut down to a single sentence. For anyone interested, here’s a link.

{ 54 comments }

1

Mark Pontin 01.11.20 at 9:00 am

‘First, the government had been re-elected partly on the basis of a promise (economically nonsensical, but politically powerful) to return the budget to surplus. ‘

They’re idiots. Don’t they know Clinton ran a budget surplus in the US and it was a disaster?
https://www.businessinsider.com/how-bill-clintons-balanced-budget-destroyed-the-economy-2012-9

2

Hidari 01.11.20 at 9:26 am

‘Mainstream media remains quiet on Scott Morrison’s untimely holiday from Independent Australia’.

Given their role in this unfolding apocalypse, it might be worthwhile changing the phrase ‘mainstream media’ to something more appropriate and accurate like ‘extremist media’. Certainly, given that in Australia so-called ‘mainstream’ media is dominated by the extreme right wing Christian fundamentalist anti-Semite Rupert Murdoch, who presumably is looking forward to the oncoming eco-geddon as a sign of the Rapture, it’s difficult to see how the media has earned the phrase ‘mainstream’. It’s easy to see however that in a capitalist state the media’s role is not to reflect ‘public opinion’ but to shape and control it.

‘Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better.’

They certainly are, but why do they get treated better? The reason is, presumably, anti-vaxxers are mainly (not wholly) harmless loons, whereas climate change deniers are backed by billions of dollars of corporate money.

If and when sanity returns to this fraught field, (which will not happen anytime soon) and long jail terms are handed out to the climate criminals, e.g. the CEOs of the ‘Seven Sisters’, and their companies are taken away from them with no compensation and shut down, it might also be the time to look at legal proceedings against those who deliberately spread lies about the situation, deliberately covered up for the guilty, deliberately created a media environment in which life-saving action was delayed and prolonged. The brutal fact is that tens of thousands of people are dying because of climate change every year, this will be hundreds of thousands in a few short years, and by 2050, 2060*, it will be millions (every year), and the climate change denial machine of Murdoch et al has some responsibility for these deaths.

While liberals clutch their pearls, may I point out that if one looks at the history, even a few hundred years ago, (or even in the 1940s) people have been hanged for a hell of a lot less.

*I’m ignoring the usual caveat of ‘unless we do something about this fast’ because, let’s face it, we ain’t going to do shit, are we.

3

john 01.11.20 at 1:01 pm

Deepest sympathy to citizens/residents of Australia.

4

ccc 01.11.20 at 1:56 pm

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/10/perspectives/australia-fires-cost/index.html
“Perhaps largest of all, but impossible to measure, is the destruction of natural ecosystems. It has been estimated that 480 million native animals have died, and whole species have almost certainly been wiped out. The results of billions of dollars spent on preserving these ecosystems have been wiped out in just a few weeks.”

Many of those hundreds of millions of individual victims died suffering.

Shifting to talk about “ecosystems” diverts attention from the suffering of those individuals.

Is refusal to take seriously the suffering of the individual victims of climate change a form of climate denialism?

5

Hidari 01.11.20 at 6:34 pm

‘Well, what we have here is a prime minister who was elected by fossil fuel interests. He was assisted by the Murdoch media empire because he advocates for their cause. Murdoch, of course, the Murdoch media empire is the sort of greatest proponent of climate change denialism and Murdoch himself has ties to fossil fuel interests and he has literally polluted the public discourse here in Australia when it comes to climate change and has assisted in the campaign of those politicians like Prime Minister Morrison who support that agenda, that fossil fuel agenda, that agenda of climate inaction…

Murdoch has a stranglehold on the media here. He owns much of the print media and the television media, and he has used that as a megaphone to promote climate change denialism. In this case all sorts of false claims about these wildfires, bogus claims that they were caused by arson. The authorities are already weighed in and said that that was not the case. These wildfires were started by lightning strikes and the ignition isn’t the important point here.
The reason that these wildfires are spreading so quickly are becoming so large are covering such a large area is because of the unprecedented heat and drought that Australia is experiencing right now. That’s an inconvenient truth to the Murdoch media and to the conservative establishment and they’ve done everything in their power to try to promote myths about what’s going on so that the public won’t connect the dots. They won’t connect the dots between a prime minister and a government is unwilling to act on this problem and the death and destruction that’s arising because of that failure to act….

there is the danger of tipping points. You know when things get dry enough and hot enough, you can see a very dramatic escalation of these wildfires and bush fires here in Australia. And arguably that’s what we’re seeing in California and the Western US. That’s what we’re seeing here in Australia and in any many other regions around the world where summers are getting hot enough and dry enough that you just see this almost exponential escalation in these wildfires.
So we may indeed be starting to cross a tipping point where, in the very best case, we are dealing with the new norm. That is to say, if we stop warming the planet and we sort of stabilize temperatures, we don’t worsen the problem…

Australia is playing a major role in exporting coal to the rest of the world at a time when we need to be dramatically lowering our carbon emissions. We need to bring them down by a factor of two within the next decade if we’re going to avert catastrophic warming of the planet. And here Australia is continuing to export. In fact, Scott Morrison supports the construction of the Adani coal mine. This is a coal mine that would actually double Australia’s coal based carbon emissions at a time when they need to be bringing them down. Morrison and those fossil fuel interests, coal interests that he represents are doubling down in the mining, the extraction, and the burning of fossil fuels.’

https://therealnews.com/stories/australia-fire-denying-climate-change-wont-save-you

6

Orange Watch 01.11.20 at 10:38 pm

The reason is, presumably, anti-vaxxers are mainly (not wholly) harmless loons, whereas climate change deniers are backed by billions of dollars of corporate money.

They’re far from harmless, but the second clause points to why they’re ostracized when climate deniers aren’t. Climate deniers are backed by moneyed interests, while anti-vaxxers oppose the moneyed interests of the pharmaceutical industry. Of course they’re treated worse.

7

Chetan Murthy 01.12.20 at 12:05 am

Orange Watch @ 6:
While I’m sure you’re right, that part of why anti-vaxxers get grief is that they’re opposed to pharmas, I would have thought that the biggest part of why they’re treated as the imbeciles they are, is that vaccines have been shown to save lives and health for …. literally centuries (1796, first vaccination against smallpox, right?) I mean, it takes a willful blindness to much of modern history, to be anti-vax.

8

Alan White 01.12.20 at 1:02 am

I’ve always been an Anglo/Austral-phile, especially philosophically, and I can’t express the agony I feel about the news from my favorite continent. Not just the horror of the fires, but the fact that both in GB and Australia the political winds are blow-harding like our own President Bone Spurs/Agent Orange. There is so much deliberate and side-effect anarchy in the everyday media that huge ongoing roll-backs in EPA regulations in the US are barely even noticed. I’m going to contribute a record amount to “Any Reasonable Adult in 2020” (as one bumper sticker I recently saw said) to try and put a stop to this insanity. The insanely rich are killing this world just so they, and maybe their kids, can do anything they want without reprisal. There should be a category for Future-Undermining-Criminally-Kahoot-Upper-Percent-Sickos–I have several to nominate for that label.

9

Ignava Ratio 01.12.20 at 1:48 am

Exporting 30% of the worlds coal does not make us a small contributor to the problem.

10

Doctor Science 01.12.20 at 2:48 am

Are younger/saner Australians organizing to force political change? In the US, the fact that Trump has been impeached is due to orgs of which Indivisible is the flagshit, which pressured Democrats to stay in line, and then flipped the House in 2018. Is anything comparable possible in Oz? How would it work?

11

John Quiggin 01.12.20 at 7:05 am

ccc @4 A good point, which I mentioned in an interview I did for CNN International today. Of course, that makes the loss more catastrophic and harder to convert into monetart terms.

12

Hidari 01.12.20 at 9:31 am

‘Any Reasonable Adult in 2020”

Ah ha ha ha ha. Ah ha. Ha ha. Ha.

Just a reminder that global warming as a scientific concept was discovered in 1856 by Eunice Newton Foote, and that in 1938 Guy Stewart Callendar compiled data from 19th century and early 20th century sources, which essentially proved the theory (Callendar published a number of papers based on his findings in the 1940s and 1950s which have proven to be remarkable accurate).

It is, in other words, nearly 2 centuries since we have known about climate change and nearly 1 century since we have known it as an objective scientific fact (global temperatures of course, as we now know, began to rise around about 1900, although some argue that there was a warming period (albeit slight) before then and that temperatures started to rise almost immediately after the industrial revolution, certainly from the mid-19th century)).

And you will notice that even though ‘Reasonable Adults’ have been in charge for various times in the post-war period literally nothing, not one single thing, has been done to ameliorate or slow down the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Indeed, one might go so far as to say it was the Reasonable Adults who helped to create this problem.

And why not? After all Trump, Murdoch etc. are simply behaving as self-interested utility maximisers, as neo-classical economics says they should. The free market is triumphing in the Australian media: profits are high, what else matters? And Australian politics are working precisely as they are supposed to in a capitalist ‘democracy’: in other words, (fossil fuel) capitalists give orders, and the politicians meekly obey. It”s in the interests of Australia PLC that coal mines be built to create profits for capitalists, and so politicians obey their orders from their paymsters and build the coal mines.

Again, what’s the problem? This is not the system not working, it’s the system…working. This is not a dysfunctional system. It’s a functional system. And like all systems it functions in the interests of those who set it up and run it.

Why wouldn’t it?

There’s nothing in neo-classical economics that even hints that anyone needs to give a shit about whether your grandchildren or great grandchildren will have a habitable planet to live in.

13

bad Jim 01.12.20 at 9:55 am

I have not heard from my cousin in Canberra, but her daughter said conditions are dire. I had to evacuate last spring, due to a rather modest brush fire, but conditions in California are such that it does not seem unreasonable to heed an automated call from the police department to get out. This fire season has so far not been as bad as the last fire season. Yay?

My father was afraid of bears, and acquired a 9 mm pistol to defend himself. The one time he went backpacking he drew down on a chipmunk, and realized he was being ridiculous. I’ve been menaced by lightning on mountaintops: BOOM! Much scarier than bears. Home invasion? My shotgun’s ammunition is 30 years old: should I replace it? The question practically answers itself. Earthquakes? I downloaded an app just so I wouldn’t miss any.

Two evacuations for fires, though, the big one back in 1993, which took out several neighborhoods. I was treated to a tour through the canyon to view the aftermath. The Santa Ana winds that sped the conflagration to the coast and spread it to the hillsides were so strong that some spots were skipped, and the chaparral greenbelt has since recovered. Of course, the modest homes that were destroyed were replaced by extravagances.

I do not like this timeline, and respectfully request another.

14

john 01.12.20 at 1:10 pm

@A White. Concerned Scientist have initiated law suit; also watch for local action.
Sad it is that beauty, natural resources, nature itself must be monetized to get attention–usually when it’s far too late.

15

absurdbeats 01.12.20 at 4:49 pm

I think both Hidari and ChetanMurthy nail it on the disparate treatment of vaccine vs climate deniers: there’s greater financial support for climate than vaccine denial, and the evidence for vaccine efficacy is straightforward while that for climate change, however overwhelming, is also far more complex.

One additional piece may be that anti-vaxxers are coded as feminine: Andrew Wakefield aside, women are prominent among anti-vaxxers and concerns are centered on “the children”. Climate deniers are not so similarly burdened, and in fact like to present themselves as hard-headed and concerned with really-real realities like jobs and growth and whatnot rather than such soft-headed speculations about suffering and animals and nature.

16

Martin Lenz 01.12.20 at 6:29 pm

17

J-D 01.12.20 at 9:21 pm

I do not like this timeline, and respectfully request another.

Can we have the one in which Frederick the Great is killed at Kunersdorf?

(Maybe in that timeline there’d be people saying ‘Can we have the one in which Frederick the Great is not killed at Kunersdorf?’)

18

Not Trampis 01.12.20 at 10:29 pm

John misses out on one important point on why the budget surplus is no longer the main game for the government.
Most of the towns destroyed are in safe liberal or national party seats. although safe they are highly prone to be won by independents if the government is poor in recovery following the bushfires. It appears on evidence to date most of these people believe in climate change. Indeed we can see the government changing their tune on this every time they speak.
Also important is the number of uninsured or under insured people. This will lead to more pressure for the government to spend money.

19

Moz in Oz 01.13.20 at 12:27 am

Martin Lenz: The time for being sympathetic to habitual flyers has passed, all we can do is hope they stop.

There is a fair bit of action in Australia, from the Quiggin/Garnaut academic analysis and suggestions to a horde of NGOs asking/begging for action, to protests in the streets. On both sides of the issue, as elsewhere, and most of the political action has been pro-heating because that’s what the voters want. Absolutely consistently voters here are faced with a range of choices from “Burn it. Burn it all” to “I’d like to live” and they get to rank them from most liked to least. Consistently nine out of ten voters choose catastrophe-loving parties. So we can say with some confidence that insofar as the climate catastrophe matters to voters, survival is not their first choice.

I’m really hopeful that the recent wave of social media statements that amount to “voted for catastrophe all my life but I’m going to stop” actually results in a wave of people choosing anti-warming parties. But I fear that by the time the next election rolls round they will forget. As mentioned above Our Rupert controls the majority of the media and influences the rest, so the voter choice is portrayed as between “the safe hands of the Coalition” (who are talking about building a state-owned coal fired power plant) vs “the union-run socialist Labour” (mining jobs matter more than anything else) with “the wild irresponsible greenies on the fringe” (ie, anyone who thinks we should try to mitigate the climate catastrophe).

20

Fake Dave 01.13.20 at 2:08 am

Wrt the climate denial vs anti-vax debate, another obvious difference is that only one is an existential threat to fundamentalist religion. Some Christians reject climate change (and climatology in general) for the same reason they reject plate tectonics and evolution. Climate science contradicts a 5,000-year-old Earth and must be a devilish trick just like carbon dating.

Then there’s Christian Dominionism — the all too common belief that God created nature for us to use as we see fit. This is an obvious and incontrovertible fact to most fundies (even the “intellectuals”), so the idea that humans could destroy the planet “ourselves” would be tantamount to saying we are more powerful than God and can defy his will. We obviously aren’t that powerful, so climate change (if it’s real) can’t really be our fault but rather part of God’s plan. It’s only the foolish pride of non-believers that could make someone question the very basis of Creation. That’s where you get the incredible animosity toward environmentalists (who allegedly worship God’s creation instead of the Creator) as well as the strangely blase attitude toward catastrophic natural disasters and loss of life. They’re called “acts of God” for a reason. Who are you to threaten God’s plan?

There are more people who think this way than non-ignorati might realize. Blind faith has a certain allure — a purity almost — that people can derive self-confidence and security from. The scientific way of describing the world is always refining and updating itself and can become less familiar and comfortable as people age. Traditional religious worldviews don’t change and that persistence can be comforting to even non-believers. So even people who believe in science can still be influenced by this claptrap.

A lot of the anti-vaxxers are the dumb kind of Christians, but that’s more about identity and anti-intelectualism. Only a few of the more hardcore sects/cults like the Christian Scientists treat modern medicine as an existential threat the way they do evolutionary biology, ecology, etc. Most have figured out that leaving a trail of dead kids behind you is bad look, but it’s taken lot of dead kids and not everyone has come around yet and, again, vaccines are much less threatening to religion than climate change.

With enough burnt koalas and drowned polar bears, maybe the fundies will come around, but even the cuddliest animals still exist for human beings to use/abuse as we see fit. Maybe massive losses of human lives will wake people up, but even that is still God’s will. So if we’re waiting for the crisis so big that it can’t be ignored, I’m not sure there is one. Fatalism is baked into the worldview, as is a belief that everything happening in this world is just testing us for the next. We just have to hope that (more) compassionate and reality-based ways of thinking will prove too compelling for future generations to ignore.

21

Chetan Murthy 01.13.20 at 2:53 am

absurdbeats @ 15:

One additional piece may be that anti-vaxxers are coded as feminine: Andrew Wakefield aside, women are prominent among anti-vaxxers and concerns are centered on “the children”. Climate deniers are not so similarly burdened, and in fact like to present themselves as hard-headed and concerned with really-real realities

I could be wrong about this [heck, probably am] but …. I’ve never seen anti-vaxxers as *evil motherfuckers* the way I see climate-change deniers. I mean, sure, you’re almost certainly right that anti-vaxxers (and anti-fluoridation nuts) all code “rich white moms in Marin with nore money than sense,” whereas climate-deniers code as “the fucking Koch brothers and all their evil greedy lecherous hump brothers from other mothers.”

In that sense, that “coding as female” doesn’t hurt anti-vaxxers, just as MADD and Moms Demand Action coded as female. Or, heck, the Women’s March[1] was all middle-aged moms (right? remember that? I mean, the cops made it plain they weren’t gonna be aggressive, b/c they knew it was a bunch of women, and that would be *bad* juju to beat ’em up).

[1] Just to be clear: it is my belief that the Women’s March in 2017 was the pivotal event that convinced the silent majority of Americans (and humans) (rather than American *voters*) that they could oppose the Orange Pustule and win. And from that March has come all the progress we’ve seen. I don’t mean it as a bad thing that the Women’s March “coded as female.” I think that was key to its success. Really, really pissed-off middle-aged women are going to save us all.

22

eg 01.13.20 at 5:11 am

Mark Pontin@1

The “household budget analogy” has eaten the collective brains of virtually the entire political class across the western world.

Denial of empirical macroeconomics is at least as widespread (and likely more so) than climate change denial.

I certainly hope for improvement on both fronts, but I’m not holding my breath …

23

Mike-SMO 01.13.20 at 6:37 am

Odd that there is no mention of the hundreds of arests for those people starting fires (Arson and/or negligence). After all, flames are so much more news-worthy than dry grass and “adjusted” temperature records.

This is a standard denialist talking point in Australia, pushed hard by the Murdoch press. Truth is given here. Mike, thanks for letting me note and refute this lie. You’re permanently banned.-jq

24

Hidari 01.13.20 at 8:45 am

As the nation burned, the ASX, the Australian stock exchange, hit record highs last Friday. Huge amounts of Murdoch created propaganda are currently being created such that no one sees any relationship between these two events.

Incidentally, there are still, in Australia, not a few white male academics who are keen to propound the virtues of invasion, colonialism, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Given this may I point out that the native Australian inhabitants successfully stewarded the country for a minimum of 50,000 years (some scholars say 100,000). The White Man invaded Australia in 1788.

In other words, native Australians successfully cared for Australia for over 50,000 years. The European colonists have been in charge for slightly over 200 years and they’ve already succeeded in burning the entire country to the fucking ground.

Does this give us any insights into the benefits of ‘civilisation’? *

https://www.smh.com.au/business/markets/asx-hoists-white-flag-after-hitting-record-highs-20200113-p53r4b.html

*And yes, Mr United States Man, this will be you in 30 years time, and the native Americans will be asking you almost exactly the same question.

25

faustusnotes 01.13.20 at 8:52 am

Another reason that climate denialists get a good run is that climate change is the topic which will show without a doubt that the hippies were right all along. Mainstream media are all hippy-punchers, and they cannot, will not accept that the crusties were right all along. They’ve spent 40 years deriding any attempt to point out how environmentally destructive our lifestyles are, and admitting that global warming is exactly as bad as the hippies say it is, and for all the reasons hippies said it would be, and that the required change is exactly what the “eco-terrorists” were talking about all along, is the final admission of the failure of capitalism. They simply won’t accept it, and the people in power will burn it all down before they admit they were wrong.

The next Labour government in Australia can fix a lot of this problem overnight by putting a moratorium on coal exports. Or maybe we could have a “three mine policy” haha. Strand those assets and then watch the global elite begin to squirm.

26

notGoodenough 01.13.20 at 9:11 am

John Quiggin @ OP

Thank you for writing this. Even now I think it is difficult to fully grasp the extent of the devastation, and the needless harm inflicted on Australia is heart-breaking – my sympathies go out to everyone in this tragic time.

I think the point you make about the economics of it all is a rather pertinent one. Unfortunately, it seems as though the economic arguments will be those that resonate strongest within the corridors of power. Interestingly, it seems as though these are consistently underestimated. While I haven´t had a chance to investigate it myself, if I recall correctly Dr Mann has raised concerns regarding the IPCC economic impact evaluations (e.g. claiming that the evaluation suggests the impact of losing major cities in America will be minimal), which seem somewhat troubling to me.

Furthermore, and as many others have pointed out, anthropogenic climate change is well established and sufficiently backed by evidence as to be as certain as anything can be. While in principle that alone should be enough to motivate changes in behaviour, sadly we as a species seem to have a strong tendency to prioritise short-term over long-term. Though I think, as recent events are demonstrating, the long term is actually a lot sooner than most people imagine (despite numerous predictions getting it pretty close).

Given that we can reasonably expect things to get more extreme, more unpredictable, and for the knock-on effects to be more drastic (particularly as we now exist in world of just-in-time goods production), one would hope that this disaster is serving as a wake-up call. However, that doesn´t seem to be the case.

Does anyone have a perspective on how people are responding to recent events? Does there seem to be a dawning realisation (amongst the convincible people, at least) about the scale of action required and the imperative to do so, or is the Murdoch-style disinformation campaign winning?

I must confess I am not overly hopeful for the future – as far as I can tell we are beyond the point of avoidance, now it is a matter of trying to minimise the disasters to be merely civilisation altering rather than species collapsing. Unfortunately, it seems that many would rather engage in the “you complain about climate change, yet I can´t help but notice you don´t live in a yurt” style arguments than actually do something – or, indeed, do anything at all.

27

Collin Street 01.13.20 at 9:23 am

The thing about arson is that it doesn’t actually explain anything. It’s pure dormitive principle stuff; it has the shape of an explanation, but none of the substance. Is there more arson? If so, are there figures to show this? what’s the cause? what’s the public policy implications? Or is it that there’s actually the same amount of arson but that it’s more dangerous for some unstated other reason, why are you focussing on the unchanged arson instead of the thing that’s changed that maybe can be changed back?

People on the right write stupid arguments, even among themselves. I conclude that they do this because they are morons.

[in a lot of ways, conservatism behaves like the operation of a fairly conventional affinity-fraud scam. My [relative] insists that my medicalising… essentially the entirety of politics… is a problem, but if we’re going to roll back the carceral state and focus on treatment and management we have to do that to social criminals as much as anyone else.]

28

SusanC 01.13.20 at 10:38 am

@Fake Dave: that’s an onterestibg take, though I’m more convonced by Mary Douglas’ clultural theory of risk: that an organization’s structure is what affects its responsiveness or orherwise to environmnentalrosks.on tbat account, the tendency to ignore global warming would derive from the religious groups structure, and the theological doctrine would be picked to fit as a consequence.

If we’re just talking Christian doctrine: humans have free will, and so can choose to do good or bad things: possibly (depending on which Cristian sect) including the destruction of humanity itself, there’s the who,e question of the Last Judgement, and whether it can occur in your own lifetime or is an even outside of time.

More prceisely: that the last judgement can occur for you, personally, at tge end of your own life is relatively uncontrevsial. That it can occur, collectively, for all of humanity, in your own lifetime more controversially so.

But if everyone in tbe entire human race is killed by the same event that killed you, arguably your personal last judgement happened to coincide with the collective end of humanity. This is more cnteoversial…

(And in any case I’m not a Christian, more of a Buddhist Jew, so take this with a pinch of salt)

29

notGoodenough 01.13.20 at 12:09 pm

As an addendum to my previous post, I should note that my lack of hope is mainly a result of people blah-blahing things. It is important to remember that – just as we cannot afford denial – we also must try to avoid giving in completely to despair.

We still have the opportunity to act, and if we commit – rapidly and firmly – we could still be looking at a relatively good quality of life for people. While the future looks grim, if we can push (individually and collectively, and make no mistake we need both) there is still the possibility that we and future generations won´t have it too bad.

In essence, to make a bad metaphor, the fire alarms have been ringing, the smoke is visible, and we now need to decide if we are prepared to act and just lose the sofa and TV, or if we don´t act and lose the whole house.

30

Trader Joe 01.13.20 at 4:43 pm

Is there really any debate that the hot/dry conditions which were condition precedent to the fires were not climate linked? I can’t really equate to how this is a climate question. Even if one doesn’t believe in climate change – the fact is its been hot, its been dry and sparks cause fires. These are facts that don’t need global warming or anything else to require being addressed.

It seems like JQs point #1, an unwillingness to spend money to get in front of a potential problem, was the actual failure here. Point #2 may have in part motivated that thinking, but this is ultimately a problem of not taking precautions when faced with a set of circumstances – not really a question of yes or no on climate.

While it certainly could have been the case that there would have been no fires (or no worse than normal) that’s never a good bet. California had multiple years of drought before several years of bad fires, I don’t know Australia’s prior history but this year is clearly unprecedented in terms of land mass impacted (also a bit higher than usual from an insurance loss stand point, though not really the best way to measure).

31

eg 01.13.20 at 8:08 pm

Can someone more conversant with the literature point to something useful about Australia’s net water exports? I am thinking here primarily in terms of the export of agricultural products containing water, but presumably more imaginative observers would know of other products that impact this import/export balance of water.

I’m wondering if these net water exports are also playing a role with respect to the hot and dry conditions.

32

Hidari 01.13.20 at 8:44 pm

@25

What Atrios calls the ‘Dirty Fucking Hippies’ have been consistently (almost unerringly) write about things since roughly the late 1960s and the Very Serious White Men have been wrong about almost everything over the same time period. The Very Serious White Men ignored and laughed at the new movements of feminism, gay rights and the environmental movement (all of which developed out of the New Left of the late 1960s, although it had its roots as far back as the mid to late 1950s) but they were wrong. The Dirty Fucking Hippies argued that the Thatcherite and Reaganite counter-revolutions would be a complete disaster, leading to spiralling inequality and economic disaster, and they were right, although it took decades for that to become obvious. The DFHs were write that Blairism and Clintonism while apparently being successful were simply planting seeds that would flower into poisonous weeds. The DFHs predicted that Afghanistan would be a disaster, and then Iraq, and then Libya, and then (though this attempt at regime change failed) Syria. And the DFHs, e.g. the much laughed at ‘Swampy’ types, said that the endless emphasis on (fossil fuelled) growth would be a disaster and they were right about that too.

The Clever White Boys have persistently been rewarded for being wrong, and the Dirty Fucking Hippies have persistently been penalised for being right. That’s the way the Western media works, because the Western media is not about Truth it’s about propaganda and safeguarding power.

‘They simply won’t accept it, and the people in power will burn it all down before they admit they were wrong.’

Yes that is precisely what is going to happen and any analysis of the situation that depends on liberal bromides such as ‘well ultimately the ruling elite will see sense and do something about this’ is useless.

Incidentally the climate crisis now looks as if it might be spiralling out of control.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/13/ocean-temperatures-hit-record-high-as-rate-of-heating-accelerates

33

Chetan Murthy 01.13.20 at 10:38 pm

Trader Joe @ 30:

Is there really any debate that the hot/dry conditions which were condition precedent to the fires were not climate linked? I can’t really equate to how this is a climate question. Even if one doesn’t believe in climate change – the fact is its been hot, its been dry and sparks cause fires. These are facts that don’t need global warming or anything else to require being addressed.

TJ, I’m sure you’re of good faith, so I’ll answer your question (from my understanding). Sure, everybody agrees that we’ve had years of hot, dry weather (C), and that that causes more fires (D). Most will agree that a hotter climate (B) causes C, which causes D. The entire dispute is about what is causing B: is it just natural variation, or is it our production of greenhouse gases (A) ?

Clearly, if you believe that A is the (current in the instances we see before our eyes) cause of B, then it follows that we need reduce GHG emissions, right? But OTOH, if you believe that GHG emissions (A) are NOT the cause of a hotter climate (B), then hey, ROLL COAL amirite?

34

Chetan Murthy 01.13.20 at 10:40 pm

Trader Joe @ 30:
Some more: suppose we DID not believe that GHGs were the cause of the hot, dry climate. Then we might believe that there’s nothing we can do, and hence, we just need to get used to living under the new conditions. We might believe that we have to -adapt- to these conditions, and that there’s absolutely NOTHING we could do, to prevent/remedy them. Certainly, if it looks like, in the future, the seas are going to rise (and maybe precipitously), we might invest in moving back from the coasts, etc, etc, etc.

But one thing we would NOT do, is cut back on burning coal — that’s my point. To cut back on burning coal, we would need to believe that that would improve the outlook for the future, right?

35

Moz in Oz 01.13.20 at 11:11 pm

> any debate .. fires were not climate linked?

The Prime Minister of Australia, whatever Craig Kelly is, the Mayor of Kangaroo Island and a bunch of other people widely quoted in the media?

The standard line in Australia that we can’t talk about climate change because that’s political (ie, something only looney far left greenies and inner city elites care about), while forgetting that two people have just died in the place he is currently visiting is completely normal.

36

Not Trampis 01.14.20 at 3:27 am

Can I add a further problem for the government.

Many small business will be greatly affected as it is the Christmas holiday season when they make most of their money.
A lot simply won’t have the cash flow to continue. A big problem for small country towns

37

bad Jim 01.14.20 at 7:40 am

People are generally unwilling to admit that what they’re doing is wrong. The popularity of trucks for personal transportation, sport utility vehicles more generally, demonstrates the triumph of the appeal of convenience over conscience or environmental concern. The best selling Porsches are the Macan and the Cayenne, not the quick little sports cars. I think that sums it up.

38

Dipper 01.14.20 at 10:33 am

from Hidari. “Incidentally the climate crisis now looks as if it might be spiralling out of control.”

So, what do you propose we do? And specifically, what do you propose is done to make China and India stop burning so much coal?

39

Jim Buck 01.14.20 at 1:21 pm

Get a production of The Fire Raisers on the Sydney stage, then tour it round:

40

hix 01.14.20 at 4:52 pm

Cutting back on burning coal pretty much to zero is already the smart move independent of the global warming impact, due to the negative local health impact.

41

Tm 01.14.20 at 7:22 pm

https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/trial_climate-activists-behind-credit-suisse-tennis-stunt-acquitted/45490210

A very small piece of good news: Swiss climate activists cleared in court

42

Moz in Oz 01.14.20 at 9:12 pm

Dipper, one easy answer for Australia is to stop exporting coal.

Sure, customers can substitute other sources of coal, but it changes the economics because they’ll be paying more for a generally inferior grade. There’s also the problem that a lot of banks are no longer financing coal mines, so expanding capacity or building new mines might be tricky. For context, Australian supply is about 1/4 of international steaming coal, so it’s not just “open a new mine”, it’s a pretty significant change in total supply.

43

politicalfootball 01.14.20 at 9:41 pm

Dipper@38: So, what do you propose we do? And specifically, what do you propose is done to make China and India stop burning so much coal?

Why should we do anything? Why does the fact of a warming planet imply to you that some action is required?

And if you believe that some action is necessarily required under the circumstances, what do you propose we do? And specifically, what do you propose is done to make China and India stop burning so much coal?

44

Chetan Murthy 01.14.20 at 9:42 pm

Dipper @ 38:

And specifically, what do you propose is done to make China and India stop burning so much coal?

Bravo! Leave it to Dipper to ask the really hard questions!

45

notGoodenough 01.14.20 at 10:39 pm

Dipper @ 38

It is worth noting that even if we discount the potential moral side – I mean, do you really want your kids to have a significantly worse standard of life than you? – there are incredibly strong advantages to pushing to green tech.

Investing in technologies to limit and prevent CO2 emissions will help boost the economy, provide jobs, and stimulate industry. Reducing subsidising coal will make it less economically advantagoues to use, level the playing field for green technologies, and reduce spending (something a conservative should approve of). Moreover, it makes sense even from an isolationist and nationalistic perspective – countries which don’t master new technologies tend to get left by the wayside. If you don’t like immigration, addressing climate change is probably the best way to reduce the number of dispossessed people. If you truly want the UK to have any say on the world stage, leading the technolgocial revolution for renewables, carbon capture, and CO2-free technologies is a good way to maintain economic, political, and technological advantages.

If you want to know what you can do – a mixture of personal and public action. On a personal level, commit to actions which will help (e.g. reduce meat consumption, double check you’ve got good insulation, reduce food waste by composting, etc., whatever is feasible for you). On a public level, lobby your local politicians – ask your council and MP what green initiatives they are planning, or to ask that in Commons. You are, I believe, a member of the conservative party? Surely you should be able to ask your fellows to exert some pressure – after all, Boris Johnson is relying on you all to keep him in power. Exercise your rights as a consumer, and as a citizen.

Will it involve effort on your part – I’m afraid so. But if you look at the impact of the alternative, it beggars belief that anyone would be complacent. Even if you don’t care about other people, the economic impact due to increased weather and climate uncertainty alone should be enough to motivate you.

What about India and China (and, though I note you missed them out, the USA and Australia)? As countries begin to push a green agenda, and because this will increase the economic pressure, even countries like India and China – behemoths though they may be – will push green initiatives. People are not stupid – if it is affordable, and looks to be the next step-change in energy, countries will follow so as to not get left behind. China is, in fact, quite well placed as they have access to a lot of the rare earths and minerals useful in 1st generation renewable technologies. If a country thinks it could be placed to start early with energy dependence which is cost comparable (or even cheaper), requires low supply chain and resource risks, and could set them up nicely to dominate the energy market for the future, do you really think anyone is stupid enough to let that pass by? If you don’t think it would be an advantage, I would point out how wealthy oil-producing nations are currently, now that they are dominating this sphere (even if the benefits are, shall we say, not evenly distributed) .

It is also worth noting that in the past actions have made a huge difference. Remember the hole in the ozone layer? CFCs are dying a death. Remember leaded petrol? One company in Britain is the last place on earth still selling the additives. Are these unmitigated successes – no, but the problems are now no longer quite as terrifying as they once were (though there is still room for improvement, of course). It seems as though pushing for action on these was not impossible – why should it be for fossil fuels?

In short, a mixture of regulation, private action, investment, and economic pressure could address this – if we are willing to push for it. Or alternatively, sit and watch the world burn because you can’t be bothered – your choice!

46

derrida derider 01.15.20 at 1:38 am

“what do you propose is done to make China and India stop burning so much coal?”
– dipper

Well you could start by setting a good example. Serious effort by middle sized rich countries like Australia is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for serious effort by poorer countries. A cartel of such serious effort makers can discourage freeloaders through sanctions – that’s how collective action problems are generally managed.

And you could also start by not selling your coal to massive new projects that only make business sense because of deep corruption on the customer side, and which ignores local, let alone AGW, environmental effects on both buyers and sellers (the upcoming Adani project which John has written extensively on, including on this blog).

47

Moz in Oz 01.15.20 at 6:15 am

Australia also has a lot of this kind of negative activism from people who have decided that one particular course is the only right one and will relentlessly criticise anything and everything else. At best it’s “People’s Front of Judea” stuff, but too often it’s like David Spratt’s writings for The Australian – he writes a lot of good material, but the only stuff News Ltd is interested in is his critiques of Labour’s environment policy and actions.

https://newmatilda.com/2020/01/15/greener-power-comes-with-its-own-increased-risks-of-bushfire/

48

Dipper 01.15.20 at 5:19 pm

In reply to my question about what to do to stop India and China burning coal, we have Moz in Oz saying Australia should stop exporting coal, politicalfootball saying nothing needs to be done, and Chetan Murphy replying with what I assume is sarcasm. Fantastic (and that is sarcasm).

Civil disobedience in countries leading the way in cutting emissions is at best a waste of time and at worst counter-productive as it alienates the people needed to support carbon reduction.

A carbon tax would seem to be the obvious step. And a really big carbon tax at that. Applied to products made using carbon energy as well as directly on carbon itself. Enough to generate the revenue needed to implement clean energy on a global scale.

49

Mister Blister 01.15.20 at 9:13 pm

38.

I strongly believe you should volunteer and offer your carbon body for burning. In India and China, this act can also show your reverence for citizens who engage in either a primary or secondary Eastern religion.

It’s the proper and manly thing to do.

Win One for the Dipper!

50

ph 01.15.20 at 9:43 pm

Thanks for the post. Let’s hope we see policy changes that reduce the chances of any similar such fires in the future.

Absent from the CT comments and your excellent linked pieces is any objective reference to fire management such as we find in other nations, such as Canada: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/wildland-fires-insects-disturban/forest-fires/fire-management/13157

Turns out prescribed burning is a policy in Western Australia: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/fire/prescribed-burning and is certainly part of the ongoing discussion of fire management/blame in New South Wales, with the National and State Greens fighting back against charges that the Greens oppose prescribed burning.

Reading over that discussion it seems clear that the authorities did not make enough effort to reduce the risk and damage in the affected area during periods when controlled burning risks were relatively low.

While longterm solutions remain elusive (see above), better and less partisan discussions about preventive discussions about fire management can and should begin now. That’s the assessment of Rod Keenan, of the University of Melbourne and other forestry-management scientists.

And, yes, prescribed burning does mean destroying flora and fauna and outraging various sensibilities.

The Greens need to do far more to convince voters and the public that Greens value money and the investments Australians have made in their homes and businesses more than Greens value plants and insects, or risk losing even more ground in the broader debates on climate change.The carnage confirms that prescribed burning policies and other forestry management practices clearly failed. More can and should have been done.

51

Hidari 01.16.20 at 10:24 am

‘A carbon tax would seem to be the obvious step. And a really big carbon tax at that. Applied to products made using carbon energy as well as directly on carbon itself. Enough to generate the revenue needed to implement clean energy on a global scale.’

While a variety of carbon taxes are unquestionably part of the solution to the problem of climate change, it’s worth pointing out that it is definitely not a ‘magic bullet’ that can solve the problem once and for all. Problems include:

1: Income tax is progressive. VAT (and equivalent) is regressive. A flat tax on goods or services bought will increase inequality.

2: If the tax is big enough, presumably a lot of companies’ products and services will no longer be economical and they will go out of business. This will increase unemployment and therefore, yet again, increase inequality.

3: And it’s for these reasons that, whatever its ‘objective’ benefits or otherwise, a carbon tax of the amount needed is unlikely to be introduced in democracies, because, to put it bluntly, people won’t voluntarily vote for a tax increase of that size.

We’re here in one of many Catch-22s of the climate crisis: Since 1979, in the West, people have been exposed to a barrage of propaganda about how ‘tax is bad’ (especially income tax, of course but in theory all taxes). Now suddenly (and it’s noticeable that it’s mainly by the same people) we are being encouraged to do a complete volte face and suddenly we are being told that massive taxation is a good thing. Well guess what: people have gotten use to low tax regimes, and they don’t want to pay higher taxes. This seems to have been what happened in the recent Australian elections.

See here for more details: https://e360.yale.edu/features/why_we_need_a_carbon_tax_and_why_it_won_be_enough

‘Remember the hole in the ozone layer? CFCs are dying a death. Remember leaded petrol? One company in Britain is the last place on earth still selling the additives. ‘

Yes but industrialised capitalism isn’t as dependent on CFCs or leaded petrol as it is to fossil fuels. Which is shown by the fact that we have shifted from a CFC/leaded petrol world and essentially nobody has noticed.

If we were to move to a post fossil fuel world in, say, 20 years, you would absolutely notice the difference. For example, all the vast increased in travelling (especially air travel) we have seen since WW2 would essentially stop.* So it’s a completely different kind of transformation and a completely different scale of transformation.

*Yes there are non fossil fuel planes on the drawing board. The problem is that where they are…on the drawing board. The number of commercial prototypes of a passenger plane (i.e. a plane that can travel at speeds comparable to today’s planes with a large number of passengers) which does not use fossil fuels is, at the moment ‘zero’.

Now this is not an insuperable problem. Presumably at some point, such planes will be developed, brought to market, and will eventually replace our current, oil fuelled planes. The problem is that this will take about 30 or 40 years (minimum) and that’s time we don’t have.

In the short term, the ‘solution’ if you want to call is that, is simply ‘ban flying except for essential flights’ or at the very best, give every one a voucher which dictates how many air miles they can use in any given year.

This will not be popular, and is probably, in most countries, simply politically undoable at the moment.

(a similar system would be desirable for people who own petrol driven cars or motorbikes. Again, not popular).

52

Collin Street 01.16.20 at 11:11 am

that’s how collective action problems are generally managed.

Sure.

Here’s the thing: I’ve never seen a conservative act as if they believed coordination problems were real-world things in need of real-world solutions. Coordination isn’t something that you need to arrange for, because everybody [or everybody whose opinion matters, at least], just makes the right/best choice.

It’s… it’s not a mindset that allows for, you know, differences in priorities, or differences in information, or operations of random chance leading to divergent choices. People are sufficiently interchangeable that they don’t need coordination. Everyone’s the same inside, apart from divergents and perverts like that.

[Again: “conservatives act as they would act if they were affected by significant unmanaged empathy/theory-of-mind impairment” manages to consistently predict behaviour much more accurately than “conservatives are reasonable people” does.]

53

J-D 01.16.20 at 12:26 pm

Dipper

What effect do you think is likely to be produced by challenging other people to make suggestions without making any of your own, in general, or in particular in the specific way that you did it in this particular instance?

What do you think caused you to hold back your own proposal while you first challenged other people to come up with theirs?

Civil disobedience in countries leading the way in cutting emissions is at best a waste of time and at worst counter-productive as it alienates the people needed to support carbon reduction.

A carbon tax would seem to be the obvious step. And a really big carbon tax at that. Applied to products made using carbon energy as well as directly on carbon itself. Enough to generate the revenue needed to implement clean energy on a global scale.

It’s within the power of legislators to introduce a carbon tax. It’s not directly within the power of ordinary citizens, outside the legislature, to bring about legislation. I’m not sure which actions you’re referring to when you mention ‘civil disobedience’, but presumably you don’t think those actions contribute to bringing about the right kind of legislation. Is there any course of action open to ordinary citizens, outside the legislature, that would be more effective than the kind of civil disobedience you’re referring to?

54

Dipper 01.16.20 at 6:09 pm

@ not Goodenough “Surely you should be able to ask your fellows to exert some pressure – after all, Boris Johnson is relying on you all to keep him in power”. Boris Johnson has promised to be Carbon Neutral by 2050. That makes the UK possibly the leading major nation in eliminating carbon.

@ derrida derider “not selling your coal to massive new projects” well yes, but that is the sound of one hand clapping. Other suppliers are available.

@ Mister Blister “offer your carbon body for burning.” doh. This releases carbon into the atmosphere.

So, on ways of getting China and India to stop burning coal, without which the temperature will continue to increase, nothing. Zero.

Comments on this entry are closed.