More news from the apocalypse

by John Quiggin on January 30, 2020

I’m still writing furiously (in both senses of the word) about climate change, the fire disaster in Australia and the responsibility the entire political right bears for this catastrophe, along with those of the centre and left who have shirked the struggle. Australian writer Richard Flanagan, in the New York Times, has compared our leaders to famous traitors like Benedict Arnold, Vidkun Quisling and Mir Jafar, and that’s a pretty good summary of how large numbers of Australians feel.

Over the fold, links to some of my latest commentary

An Open Letter on Australian Bushfires and Climate: Urgent Need for Deep Cuts in Carbon Emissions from 80 current and former Australian Laureate Fellows (our most prestigious research award, across natural and social sciences and humanities).

Humans are good at thinking their way out of problems – but climate change is outfoxing us (The Conversation)

Invest with the best, Inside Story (the case for divestment)

Neoliberalism is declining, but the Right wing refuses to die



Dr. Hilarius 01.30.20 at 10:35 am

Your “Right wing refuses to die” piece is dead on. The right no longer even bothers to shore up climate denialism through quacks like Willie Soon and made-to-order research. It’s full on tribalism. For them, truth is no longer in play.


john 01.30.20 at 12:46 pm

Flanagan’s fact-filled, well written piece is a must read. His novels about Australia are written with apparent love for the country; he must be heart-broken by the political betrayal.


Tim Worstall 01.30.20 at 12:53 pm

The Guardian seems to be running with – OK, at least musing over – the idea that the Oz fires are somehow related to the ending of traditional burning practices.

How true is this?


dilbert dogbert 01.30.20 at 9:38 pm

Here in fire prone California I know from personal experience state fire and park personnel are scarred shitless about controlled burns. One uncontrolled controlled burn and poof goes their pensions. The only agency’s that have some control are the insurance companies and mortgage companies.


nobody 01.30.20 at 10:28 pm

I think one of the reasons it has been impossible for humanity to take any corrective action against climate change is that a subgroup of humans have not evolved far enough, biologically, to comprehend that humanity can impact its collective living environment instead of being completely subject to it.

The response of this subgroup to any socioeconomic shock ranging from a recession to climate change is to treat the shock as an act of nature and seek to mitigate the consequnces for themselves by seizing a larger portion of the shrinking pie rather than by trying to prevent the pie from shrinking for everyone. This is the evolutionary strategy of responding to a drought by stealing food from your neighbor–a behavior that makes sense from a evolutionary biology perspective but is wholly unsuited for responding to shocks that can be fixed by collective action. In recessions, this thinking leads to GDP-shrinking austerity politics. In climate change, this thinking leads to elites constructing “climate-proof” survival estates in remote areas rather than spending resources to reduce carbon emissions.

Politically, we call this subset of humans conservatives, but what they really are is a biologically-distinct evolutionary dead-end. FMRI and other studies into the brains of conservatives show that they are neurologically distinct from the rest of humanity in that their brains respond to stimuli using the more primitive brain structures rather than the ones capable of rational thinking.

Education will never be enough to free humanity from the curse of conservatives; as a biologically distinct evolutionary throwback dominated by pre-rational neurology, they are immune to education. Regardless of how dangerous conservative politics becomes, they only way to get rid of it might be through highly aggressive, and highly unethical, mass genetic engineering.

Conservatives are pre-modern savages in modern (and often expensive) clothes who will destroy civilization because they are not able to understand it any more than a rat is able to understand that biting a live wire is dangerous.


Peter T 01.30.20 at 10:55 pm


Hazard reduction burning helps in reducing fuel load and, done properly, maintains an ecologically diverse landscape. This year’s fires have been so intense as to burn through areas where hazard reduction burning had been done. Many have been crown fires (where the tops of the trees burn so hot that a wave runs ahead, igniting more trees). This year has also seen fires go through rain-forest areas that have never burned before.

Also, a longer fire season means the window for hazard reduction burns is shorter and the risks greater. The fire chiefs are saying that, while hazard-reduction burning is useful, it’s not going to do much in the face of ever-worsening conditions.


faustusnotes 01.31.20 at 8:42 am

I read somewhere two days ago that the current fire threatening Canberra was sparked by the engine of a helicopter (?) doing a hazard reduction burn.

In any case this “greenies won’t let us do fuel reduction” thing is denialist bullshit, cooked up to distract us and keep us talking about climate change. Don’t listen to it and don’t waste your time talking about it.


Alex SL 01.31.20 at 11:16 am

and that’s a pretty good summary of how large numbers of Australians feel.

Define “large numbers”. I do not really see any change in voting intentions, or a move away from people driving petrol-guzzling, over-size cars to work every day, etc. Any government that enacted the transformations that would have been required in the 1980s if we had wanted to have a chance would see themselves reduced to 6% of the vote come the next election, because that is about how many of us are willing to accept what it takes. We have yet to even begin reversing the growth of our carbon output year-on-year, much less reducing that output by any relevant amount. So I am even more pessimistic than your Conversation piece is at the end.

The only thought that makes it a bit more bearable is that the Paleocene was apparently 10 degrees warmer than the present, and that worked too. Admittedly warming to such a degree would lead to a complete collapse of technological civilisation and human population levels in a self-reinforcing downward spiral of failed states, warlordism, pandemics, famine, and looting, but give it ten million years and biodiversity will have recovered.


Cian 01.31.20 at 4:23 pm

nobody: Conservatives are pre-modern savages in modern (and often expensive) clothes who will destroy civilization because they are not able to understand it any more than a rat is able to understand that biting a live wire is dangerous.

Dude you give me way too much credit. Conservatives are simply people who don’t want to give up their privileges. Those privileges can be economic, patriarchal, racial or even just the right to be a complete dick to other people (anti-PC politics is simply defending the right to be rude to your ‘social inferiors’).

And honestly – almost all humans are incapable of understanding modern civilization. It’s not as if liberals are covering themselves in glory on the climate change front. Better than Conservatives is a bit like being better than Hitler. Probably not the comparison you want to use.


OmegaCentauri 01.31.20 at 5:02 pm

I can recall the 2001 Cerro Grande fire that took out several hundred homes in Los Alamos New Mexico. They tried a prescribed burn the preceeding fall, but such burns have to be preplanned with expensive containment resources available, so they went ahead under unfavorable weather (too humid) and it was a dud. The agency and its managers were severely reprimanded for wasting controlled burn funds. Then the following spring when the time slot for the next try came up, and the conditions were the exact opposite unprecedentedly severe fire weather, and the went ahead anyway. The federal government ended up being liable for over a billion dollars liability for the resulting damages. Controlled burns are not easy or cheap to pull off, and they sometimes go catastrophically wrong.


Jason Weidner 01.31.20 at 10:58 pm

Alex Steffen argues pretty convincingly that the fossil fuel industry and its political allies have adopted a strategy of “predatory delay,” whereby they no longer feel the need to dispute the basic science of climate change or even the notion that we need to do something; all they have to do is delay any action that would cut into their profits. They know that their business model has an expiration date; they just seek to put off that date for as long as possible, no matter what the consequences are for the planet and us.
Steffen: “‘Predatory delay’ is the deliberate slowing of change to prolong a profitable but unsustainable status quo whose costs will be paid by others.”


Dr. Hilarius 02.01.20 at 12:08 am

Related to controlled burns is the idea of “thinning” forests to reduce fire load. It’s a reasonable idea in theory but as practiced is often counterproductive.

I own forest land in a rural/remote area with a long history of logging, mostly clear cutting. Every thinning operation I’ve observed consists of the largest, most fire-resistant trees being cut with stands of of skinny trees of little economic value (but which readily burn) being left behind. When environmentalists protest these cuts they are then accused of being ignorant and indifferent to fire danger.


Moz in Oz 02.01.20 at 2:50 am

Tim@3 above: it’s kind of true, in the sense that traditional burning kept most of the fertile parts of the continent lightly wooded and thus less likely to support big bushfires for absolutely ages. But the context has changed – things are much hotter and dryer now, and the relationship between people and land has changed dramatically. Traditional links between land and people were not “ownership and exclusive possession of one by the other”, they are better viewed as responsibilities and custodianship. More like how The Queen of Australia owns Buckingham Palace than how Boris owns his trousers.

Part of the context is that the far right have been trying to use “aborigines know how to burn stuff” as a stick to beat the greenies with, it’s an extension of the “greenies stopped preventive burning” narrative. But as we saw with the Uluru Statement, just wait five minutes and the far right will swing back to hating them and blaming them for not being rich white men like all sensible choose to be (it’s about that rational).


Hidari 02.01.20 at 10:12 am

@9 ‘. It’s not as if liberals are covering themselves in glory on the climate change front’

Yes. I mean, let’s look at the gigantic difference between ‘now’ and ‘then’, between the 2020s, when conservatives are in power and absolutely nothing is being done about the climate crisis except to make it worse, and the 1990s, when the liberals were in power, and, er, nothing got done about the climate crisis except to make it worse.

The thing that unites liberals and conservatives, of course, is the belief that ‘market forces’ render the issue of climate change moot (conservatives) or that ‘market forces’ will actually help solve the problem of climate change.

Y’know, climate change. The problem that was caused by ‘market forces’.

The best one can say about this idea is that it’s a bold and original hypothesis. Perhaps one day there will be some evidence to support it.


nastywoman 02.01.20 at 10:35 pm

– and it’s still NOT about the fact that liberals – actually have been covering themselves in MUCH MUCH MORE glory on the climate change front –
than any ”conservatives” or ”right-wingers” –
It’s about these Australians -(or ALL of these Americans) – who think – that because they are ”conservative” – they have to see the fight against climate change – JUST as some kind of a ”liberal thing” -(or ”liberal policies”) –
AND because such ”conservatives” might NOT be very bright?! –
they might think:

”Okay – because ”fighting the Climate Crisis” is this ”liberal thing” –
WE ”conservatives” can’t join in.

Like if they are invited to a party of (young – or even older) Friday for Future Kids –
they (firstly) feel completely ”out of sorts” – and only if the Kids make them truly believe – that their fight really, REALLY has absolutely nothing to do with any of these ”liberal things” – some of these -(perhaps not very bright?) ”conservatives” – start to understand that ”they” have to join the fight too…


Omega Centauri 02.01.20 at 11:16 pm

Dr H at 12.
The problem with “thinning”, is that is has to be done for fire management, not for profit. In order to get conservative support, profit for corporate lumber interests has to be at the forefront. Then the big trees are taken for profit -minus the branches and limbs which are left on the ground. So while the total amount of above ground fuel has been reduced, the amount of fuel available for a fire has actually gone up. If it was done purely for management purposes, it would concentrate on the small stuff close to the ground, but it would be a net consumer of public funding.


Dr. Hilarius 02.02.20 at 12:53 am

Omega Centauri @ 16: Exactly. That has been my personal observation. (For the sake of clarity, my property and my observations are in Washington State not Australia.)


johne 02.02.20 at 2:56 am

At least in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, whether the logging is done for thinning or clear-cutting, the “slash” (branches and limbs) is removed by burning after the seasonal rains start.


faustusnotes 02.02.20 at 8:44 am

Hidari, in the 1990s the Australian Liberal party was taken over by an actual liberal, and went to the 1993 election with a climate change policy – the only conservative party in the English speaking world to have anything resembling such a policy, then or since – but was beaten by the left and the leader replaced with a staunchly conservative denialist.

In the 1990s the supposedly “liberal” governments signed the framework convention (1990) and the Kyoto protocol (1997), which committed all signatories to reduce their emissions, and included a climate justice component to ensure that all developing nations did not have to contribute so that they would have space to continue to develop (this was pushed by China I think, from memory). Meanwhile the left wing Australian labor government was pursuing a “no regrets” policy to try not to make any commitments that would affect our fossil fuel industry (though pushing much less than their denialist successors would). Even the arch “liberal” Clinton wanted to sign it, but because the year before the Senate had passed some stupid law he couldn’t.

It’s also worth noting that under “liberal” governments – primarily pushed by Europe – the Paris agreement was produced in 2015. Even president drone strike signed it! But of course under the conservatives Canada withdrew from the Kyoto protocol and the US from the Paris accord.

It really would be good if you at least tried to be honest about who did what. None of it may be good enough, but if there had been more “liberals” active in the 1990s, and if “liberals” had retained power of the Senate in the US during this time and “liberals” had retained power in other governments in the late 1990s, the Kyoto protocol would have been even more effective and implemented more widely, and we would have a little more time to act now.

To be clear, I think the “liberal” response to climate change is not sufficient, as I have said repeatedly on here, but at least I don’t tell outright lies about who did what and what was achieved in the first decade when sustained political action was contemplated. Your political “theory” of how centrists have betrayed everyone would be way more effective if you actually matched it to reality.


nastywoman 02.02.20 at 9:44 am

and about@9
”Better than Conservatives is a bit like being better than Hitler”.

I really didn’t like that –
as my beloved (Californian) Grandfather was a ‘conservative’ – (and golfing buddy of Reagan) – but as a Surfer and member of the Sierra Club – a ‘environmentalist’ who essentially had – concerning ‘climate change’ – an comparable attitude as Greta -(but a lot more than Arnie) –
and that’s ”the thing” –
even if there are not that many of them – there are a lot of (Californian?) conservatives who – concerning ”climate change” – are a LOT better than Hitler.
-(and wasn’t Hitler a ”Vegetarian” anywhoo and thusly one of these stereotypical ”treehuggers”?)


faustusnotes 02.02.20 at 1:20 pm

And I’ll add, Hidari, that back in the 1990s the far left didn’t care at all about climate change, and saw it as a silly distraction that only liberals were interested in. Nor did you care about it in 2016 when the choice was between a liberal who would do something about America’s emissions or a conservative who would make them worse. Back in the 1990s the far left dismissed gay rights, environmentalism and any concerns about climate change as a liberal distraction. The far left’s view of all forms of environmental issue was that after the revolution technology would just make it all go away. Better to heighten the contradictions and focus on issues relevant to the industrial working class.

And now 20 years later you want to pretend that “liberals” did nothing?


Hidari 02.02.20 at 6:37 pm


It’s a shame that objective physics, supported by objective quantitative data, doesn’t agree with you doesn’t it? The only two numbers that matter are CO2 in the atmosphere and global mean temperatures. They have not altered their global relentless global trend upwards for 120 years.

Here is a graph of US CO2 emissions.

Can you see the sudden dramatic dip under the Clinton or Obama administrations?
Me neither.

The idea that the radical left didn’t care about climate change in the 1990s is objectively bollocks incidentally but irrelevant because, with the exception of Cuba (whose environmental policy is irreproachable) there were no radical left governments in the 1990s.

Incidentally you continually seem to think that I am an American citizen who voted in the 2016 Presidential election. I’m not and I didn’t.


Anarcissie 02.03.20 at 5:08 am

‘… back in the 1990s the far left didn’t care at all about climate change….’

The far Left I hung around with believed that capitalism and its concomitants, war and imperialism and surveillance and so on, would preclude anyone doing anything substantial about climate change, or any other significant environmental issue, and a lot of other problems as well. But, this Left being in the USA, it was so minuscule and powerless that it didn’t matter what it believed.


Cian O'Connor 02.03.20 at 1:20 pm

Why are we talking about the far left? Are we pretending that dead ender Trotskyists and Sparts in the 90s were of any political significance? On the left, at least in the UK, gay rights and environmental issues were taken very seriously, as they were in the 80s. Far more seriously than they were by liberals. So much so that a standard stereotype of the left during that time was that they were obsessed with ‘wimmin’, ‘gays’ and ‘dolphins’.

In the 90s liberals talked a lot, and pushed market solutions. Which failed. In 2008 a liberal president was elected who talked a lot about environmental issues, while actually doing very little. Hillary Clinton was a candidate who’s record on the environment was actually very poor (very friendly to oil companies, for example). Yes Trump is worse – but it’s a matter of degree. Liberals currently do not have a serious solution for climate change. Just as they don’t have a solution for anything because they are intellectually bankrupt.

The only serious Democratic candidate at the moment who’s pushing a serious environmental agenda is Bernie Sanders.


John Quiggin 02.03.20 at 11:07 pm

I’ve deleted quite a few denialist/lukewarmist/donothingist comments. Please, save your clever arguments for your appearance at The Hague.


reason 02.04.20 at 9:04 am

Cian @24
Yes, but some do show up here.
But I shove them in the same drawer as “Austrian” economics true believers, always right by definition and not open to persuasion and indifferent to evidence. Ignore.


Collin Street 02.04.20 at 12:48 pm

It is difficult to justify using our limited carbon budget on sending climate deniers to fair trials in the hague.


faustusnotes 02.04.20 at 1:08 pm

Wow! Look how quickly, after I point out that the hard left in the west didn’t care about environmental issues, everyone who hates idpol suddenly starts declaring that their ideological bedfellows in the 80s were super serious about gay rights and “wimmin” and environmental issues. Suddenly we are all Greenham Common women!

Yes Hidari, US emissions didn’t go down because the agreements the arch-“liberal” Clinton wanted to sign the country up to were vetoed by the conservative senate. Isn’t it amazing how democracy works! But of course, your story – the story you have stuck to since 2015 – is that everything is “liberals” fault, and conservatives never are responsible for anything. Keep heightenin’ those contradictions, eh? While the planet burns. And don’t forget how you sneered at those of us who warned about this in 2015. As John says, you can save your self-serving excuses for the Hague.


Hidari 02.05.20 at 7:10 am


You’re confusing me with someone else, or else you are mad, or both.

In any case I won’t be responding to any more of your posts.

Comments on this entry are closed.