The modern face of false balance in a burning land

Smoke was the first sensation I felt when I landed in Australia, on the night of January 14th 1994. The plane door opened and I got a blast of heat and ash in my face. It was an immediate signal that my new home was fundamentally different to my old home (London). We kept our bags packed for weeks after we’d moved into our house in Sydney’s northern suburbs, in case we had to leave suddenly. We got nervous calls from relatives who’d seen that Australia was on fire, and reassured them. ‘Nah, it’s like 20 kilometres away. We’re good’.

The ’94 bushfires were unusual because they entered a major city, destroying homes near the suburb we’d moved to. The night I arrived, I fell asleep smelling smoke, and the first sunset I watched, the next day, was blood red, as the tail end of the crisis drew to a close.

A fire rages at Forest Way, Mona Vale Road during the 1994 Sydney fires.
Forest way and Mona Vale Rd, in Northern Sydney during the 1994 bushfires

Bushfires often felt close, despite the fact we were living sheltered lives in a clustered suburb. During the 2001 ‘Black Christmas’ fires in Lane Cove, my dad and I walked down the street to record video of the Elvis helicopter dropping its thick proboscis into a lake and lumbering away with a bellyful of water to drop onto the nearby inferno.

Greg Mullins was closely involved in the 1994 bushfires. He is the former chief of Fire and Rescue NSW and a member of the Climate Council. He knows bushfire in a way most of us never will, and he is sounding a warning about how the phenomenon is changing in Australia.

Greg Mullins rescues a resident and her dog from her home in Lindfield, during the 1994 bushfires in Sydney Source – The New Daily (Andrew Jacob)

“The most fire-prone parts of the planet are burning more and more. Here in California, 18,000 homes last year, 9,000 the year before. Previously 3,000 was the biggest they’d think of. They’re just shaking their heads saying, ‘What the hell is round the corner?” – Greg Mullins

Mullin’s comments above were published only two days prior to the commencement of a severe bushfire crisis in Australia this year, which saw record quantities of land burnt abnormally early in bushfire season (more in about a week than the entire 93/94 season), alongside a record number of simultaneous individual fires. Bushfire doesn’t look like what it used to look like.

Summer’s arrival used to signal social media posts of people chilling on beaches. Pictures of their cool drinks and heavily filtered shots of a wide, impossibly blue sky dominated Instagram. Today, all I see on social media are photographs of brown skylines or Blade-Runner-red rural towns blanketed in ash. Disaster isn’t isolated. In some way, it’s everywhere.

 

There are videos of badly injured koalas, fire fronts that burn like a portal to hell, and satellite mock-ups that show particulates floating throughout the planet, sourced solely from the east coast infernos. Australia’s summer is shifting from delight to disquiet, and we know the reason.

People did this

Though bushfires are often lit by arsonists, the convergence of a set of particular conditions mean these fires go from isolated threats to massive, fast-moving fronts of destruction. These conditions, like dry loads of organic matter, high temperatures, wind and no rain, are coalescing more frequently, due to the human injection of fossil fuels into the atmosphere of Earth:

fires2

fires1
The Bureau of Meterology’s 2018 ‘State of the Climate’ report outlines the increasing bushfire risk, due to climate change. ‘Forest Fire Danger Index’ means what you think it means.
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#CopernicusAtmosphere Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) #opendata, updated to 12 Nov, continues to show unprecedented intensity of #NSWfires compared to previous 16 years” – Mark Parrington, Senior Scientist at ECMWF on Twitter

Bushfires are happening more frequently, and more intensely. Fossil fuels released by our species into the atmosphere have resulted in the trapping of heat. The flow-on consequence of this is an increase in the frequency with which the stage is set for infernos that kill creatures and destroy things.

The people responsible for this problem are split into discrete packets of humans called ‘countries’. Each country has its own quantity of greenhouse gases that it releases into the atmosphere, along with its own quantity of fossil fuels it extracts from the ground and sells to other countries.

Each of them must act in unison to reduce emissions if the consequences, like Australia’s bushfire crisis, are to be quelled. It’s feasible, too. Here’s a nice illustration of what can be done:

ieaa.jpg
Source – IEA World Energy Outlook, November 2019

A large mix of very rapid changes need to occur to make that curve bend downwards at the angle it needs to. The justification for rapid action is solid. To crudely illustrate roughly where the bulk of the climate science community lies on the spectrum of whether climate change is real, and how quickly emissions need to be reduced to avoid worsening planetary impacts:

2019-11-17 fLAT1.jpg
This is not based on empirical data

Australia contributes a fair chunk to sustaining our species’ reliance on the substance that is worsening bushfires. It is about 1% (ish) of global emissions if you look at what’s burned within the borders of the country. But a new UN report just released shows Australia is a major global supplier of fossil fuels. With its tiny population, it sits among gargantuan nations as a key player in profiting from the sale of a harmful product:Aus_emissh.jpg

The UNEP modelling illustrates that humanity must stop pulling fossil fuels from the planet’s crust, quickly, if the world is to be kept at 2, or 1.5, degrees of warming, but that going by current plans and projections, it’s forecast to fail:

Australia, as a subset of the humans on the planet, is predicted to play a major role in this failure. A range of government subsidies, planning exceptions and a broad government effort to block action and crack down on climate protest mean Australia’s exports are forecast to rise. “Proposed large coal mines and ports, if completed, would represent one of the world’s largest fossil fuel expansions”, says one of the contributors:

Whole lot of stuff here that makes bushfires significantly worse, hey
Australia is going to play a major role in badly screwing up the thing that keeps humanity going

Australia is facing future in which its already-outsized contribution to climate change expands even further. Those advocating for this future are happy to do so while the country is choking and spluttering on the smoke from climate-intensified fires

This trajectory could feasibly be un-fucked. A few days back, the International Energy Agency’s ‘World Energy Outlook’ report declared, unequivocally, that “over 70% of global energy investments will be government-driven and as such the message is clear – the world’s energy destiny lies with decisions and policies made by governments”.

The problem is clear: our species is collectively causing a change that is turning Australia’s bright, welcoming warm summers into a hazy inferno. The resolution is clear too – every single country has the opportunity to reduce its own contribution to the problem to zero and to influence others to do the same.

Australia is already responsible for a disproportionately large chunk of domestic emissions. Its export of a harmful product are world-leading. It likes to sabotage global climate treaties. Far right media supplies content to climate denial networks around the world. Classic climate denial is dead, but inaction continues and nothing is set to change despite the raw intensity of climate impacts getting pretty damn real. There is a reason for that, too.

The new coalface of denial

The political response to Australia’s bushfire crisis has been predictable, with remarks falling neatly along the fault lines of climate politics:

  • Greens MP Adam Bandt said “The PM does not have the climate emergency under control. Unless we lead a global effort to quit coal & cut pollution, more lives will be lost”
  • Greens Senator Jordan Steele said “You, funded by your corporate backers, interested only in your continued political survival, have played a role in driving our country to the edge of an ecological abyss from which we may never recover. You are no better than a bunch of arsonists—borderline arsonists—and you should be ashamed”
  • Nationals leader and Deputy PM Michael McCormack said “They [bushfire victims] don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time” and “We’ve had fires in Australia since time began”
  • Ex-deputy PM and former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said “There are a range of things that affect the climate and on a global scale, you should be part of it, and acknowledge it would have an effect and I acknowledge that there are other issues as well. There’s just the the oscillation of the seasons. There’s a change in the magnetic field of the sun”
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “To suggest, with just 1.3 per cent of global emissions, that Australia doing something differently, more or less, would have changed the fire outcome this season; I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all. The suggestion in any way, shape or form, that … the individual actions of Australia are impacting directly on specific fire events, whether it is here or anywhere else in the world; that doesn’t bear up to credible scientific evidence either.”

The responses from several prominent Australian journalists were telling, too, in how they mirror the political arguments:

  • ABC journalist Leigh Sales said “The extremes at both end of the climate wars over-egg their cases and show why this issue is so vexed in Australia”
  • Sydney Morning Herald Chief Political Correspondent David Crowe said “Using the fires to call for an end to coal mining is as cynical as any of the politics from the major parties. And anyone who accepts the science on climate change should also accept the science that says shutting down the Australian coal industry on its own would make no substantial change to future bushfire risk”
  • The Australian’s Peter Van Onselen wrote that “Even if you accept the science is real and the effects are profound, it’s a leap to then believe we can stop it”

There is some instinct to settle in the centre between the extreme left and the extreme right, which, due to the way acceptance of science has played out, still lands far away from the bulk of what science says about the rate of change needed to avoid the worst impacts, and how individual nations ought to act so that our species mitigates impacts:

2019-11-17 clim3.png

The line of argument  – that there is hard science supporting the argument that each small contributor to climate change ought to do nothing – has a classic denier pedigree. In June this year, right-wing Sky News Australia hosts Alan Jones and Peta Credlin staged a demonstration using a bowl of rice, simultaneously botching the math but also creating the saddest two minutes of television content produced in decades:

News Corp columnist and long-term ultra-denier Andrew Bolt has run the same line for more than a decade now too, banging his fist on the table and demanding to know exactly how many degrees the world will be cooled through each individual solar panel, wind turbine or country-level climate policy. It is a compelling argument, hence its prominence both in the fever swamps of denialism and the centrist pleas of journalists and politicians.

You can even trace it back to Rupert Murdoch, the ancient king of News Corp, who said in 2009 “I don’t believe that Australia being first in the world on [climate policy] is going to have any influence on the rest of the world. We don’t matter that much. Let’s be honest with ourselves”.

False balance was big problem in climate reporting in Australia for many years. You can find traces on Twitter, such as a ten-year-old debate on the ABC’s Lateline between a climate change denier (still published in The Australian) and a climate writer George Monbiot, or Sales’ pride in her audience not being able to detect whether she thinks climate change is a “problem”:

Today, most journalists are happy to publicly declare that they accept climate science, and that it is a problem that ought to be solved. But these old struggles with false balance haven’t gone away. They’ve simply shifted away from the science about the genesis of the problem and towards the science describing the resolution of the problem.

Let’s be civility-destroyingly clear about the science here. A small contribution to a problem is not the same as no contribution to a problem. That is putting aside the fact that Australia’s contribution is pretty damn big (“we pack a hell of a punch on the global emissions budget. We’re a little kid showing up to a knife fight carrying a bazooka and a track record of using it”, says the Climate Council’s Tim Baxter).

In fact, small contributors to climate change are, collectively, the biggest contributor to climate change. The argument being boosted by Australia’s journalists and commentators, so readily adopted by politicians, leads to the undeniable logical destination that no action must be taken anywhere, because each small player would, alone, have no impact.

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Source – CSIRO, CICERO 

It is a morally repulsive line of logic. To accept this plea is to argue against most decarbonisation. It is to argue that Australia must be locked into ever-worsening summers, more throats choked by air pollution and more lives and homes lost to blazes. But the ‘small-countries-shouldn’t-act’ argument isn’t treated as pseudoscientific, illogical or obscene. It is praised as the height of civility, rationality and scientific enlightenment.

A particularly bad piece in response to the fires, written by ex-ALP member and lobbyist for fossil fuel extraction companies Craig Emerson pleaded that it’s “time to rise up and support the enlightenment” (just after claiming that denying fossil fuel exports to India is ‘white supremacy’). “This piece in the Fin today by [Dr Craig Emerson] is so good that I’m unilaterally releasing it from the paywall. There must be a better way”, said one of the ABC’s top journalists and stars, Annabel Crabb.

That article, and the supportive reaction to it, were a neat illustration of how pleas for civil, rational discourse are regularly paired with a seething hostility to critical engagement or scientific evidence. Here, ‘rational’ is anything packed with enough keywords (like ‘enlightenment’, ‘tribal’, ‘partisan’ and ‘civility’) to trigger a self-sustaining round of back-slapping. These efforts come with an in-built self defence mechanism: anybody issuing evidence-based critique is classified as another tribal, shouty social-media-filter-bubble partisan.

The media-enabled spread of anti-action memes like ‘small contributors shouldn’t act’ helps create a filtered, protected information environment in which politicians, corporate executives and media commentators can each soothe their rising anxiety about the very, very significant and sudden increases in public demands for emissions reductions, which have followed large-scale public protests and disruptive actions by protest groups.

This is the coalface of modern denial. A catastrophic failure to critically engage with these claims, and instead treat them as rational, evidence-based justifications for inaction cause as much damage as the ABC’s televised denier debates did in 2009.

 


 

I watched Australia’s bushfire crisis unfold while the first snow of winter fell in my new home in Oslo, Norway. The city was coated in a pristine, silent white fluff.

This time, we were the ones frantically contacting our friends and family in Australia, as we watched footage of streets only hundreds of metres from theirs doused in bright-pink fire retardant dropped from the belly of a huge plane. They gave us the same response we gave our relatives when we first arrived in Australia. ‘It’s all good. It’s just down the road. Our bags are packed but we’re fine’. If this problem gets worse, ‘fine’ won’t be a reliable response.

The atmosphere doesn’t give the slightest fuck about which country sent a greenhouse gas molecule into the atmosphere. The laws of physics aren’t concerned with country borders.

No single cluster of humans will resolve this problem, but each cluster must act with as much speed, confidence and engineering and policy skill as possible. Australia already contributes disproportionately, and it has the opportunity to push that contribution to zero, and inspire other countries to do the same. The awful instinct to boost the immoral arguments of climate inactivists in the interests of presenting ‘both sides’ is a roadblock that a burning country could do without.

 

Header image – NSW Rural Fire Service, Black Christmas Fires, 2001

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