At the start of every disaster movie, there’s a scientist being ignored.
This time around though, there are no actors. This isn’t a Hollywood set. The photo above is from the 4th January 2020, of a serviceman from the Australian Defence Force searching the ground from an army helicopter en route to the small country town of Omeo to evacuate local civilian residents during Operation Bushfire Assist. It’s the biggest military operation in Australia since World War Two and there’s still no end in sight. Over 3,000 defence force reservists are currently in the field, two naval ships are waiting off the coast, and additional helicopters have been flown out from Singapore to help.
On the day this article is being published, more than 5% of Victoria, the state I live in, has burned, and temperatures of more than 40°C are forecast, with winds of 90km/h driving a monstrous line of fire back to the alpine towns of Bright and Harrietville. 27 people are already dead. More than 100,000 km² of Australia has burned since October last year. That’s roughly equivalent to one fifth of the area of all of the United States’ national parks, or two Switzerlands. Over a billion animals are gone. Read that figure again, and try to get your head around it, the sheer magnitude of the loss and suffering. A cone of heat encases a whole continent; cities are shrouded in apocalypse orange, and a veil of smoke will soon circle the globe.
This is climate changed.
It didn’t have to be like this.
I didn’t want to start the year on this note. My original plan was to write a retrospective on an incredible decade of progress for vaccines. That article’s going to have to wait though, because right now the country I live in is on fire. The difference between intelligent optimism and blind optimism is that the former requires us to bear witness to both the good and the bad, and to do something about it. There are details on where to donate at the end of this post.
First though, I hope you’ll excuse me if I take the gloves off for a bit. I’ve got some things to say about the people in charge.
International news coverage of these fires has pointed out that the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has a poor record on climate change. What those articles don’t mention though (and this is something you’ll only know if you’ve lived through the last decade of climate politics in this country) is just how long and sustained that record is. Morrison and his gang of pusillanimous, trouser-thrusting yes men have used climate change as the ultimate political weapon, a tool to divide and conquer.
As he wormtongues his way from photo-op to photo-op, tie loosened, legs spread wide, pointing purposefully at military maps, he says it’s been “very disappointing” to see the conflation of the bushfires and climate policy in the public debate. “We don’t want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia,” he told a Sydney radio station just a few hours ago. “Australia is responsible for just 1.3% of global emissions. We are doing our bit on climate change and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.” Amazingly, Morrison has stumbled over the truth here, but has hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing happened.
Australia is not doing its bit. While domestic emissions are in line with those figures, exports are another matter. This country is the world’s biggest net fossil fuel exporter after Russia and Saudi Arabia, vying with Indonesia as the largest supplier of coal and with Qatar as the largest shipper of liquefied natural gas. Australia’s 1.2 billion metric tons of annual emissions from coal and gas exports are almost three times greater than the total discharged at home, and more than the domestic emissions of any nation except for China, the United States, India, Russia and Japan.
Morrison is happy to furrow his brow and talk about military hardware and funding for recovery efforts and then post social media advertisements about it. There have been no social media advertisements about the trip he was planning to take to Japan and India this month to promote Australian coal — it accounts for half of all Australia’s exports to Japan, and three-quarters of the total to India. Bad optics though, for #Scottyfrommarketing to be seen selling his beloved black rocks while the country burns, so naturally those trips have been cancelled. And before the partisans start crowing, don’t forget that while the fires were exploding in mid-December, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Anthony Albanese, went on a tour of coal mining communities expressing his unequivocal support for coal exports.
Factor in those exports, and a country with 0.3% of the world’s population is responsible for something like 5% of its carbon emissions. This is unconscionable. Even worse, Australia is now actively siding with other big, fossil fuel-dependent nations to scupper global climate negotiations. The country was banned by the UN Secretary General from speaking in December at the climate talks in Madrid, but that didn’t stop the energy minister, Angus Taylor, from using an accounting loophole to claim Australia was meeting its targets. At the end of the meeting, delegates singled out Australia as one of the parties actively blocking progress toward settling the rules of the Paris Agreement.
The pithy slogans and bookkeeping tricks of these craven merchants of doubt are actively making the climate crisis worse. Not only are they stalling corrective action in their own country, they are validating the inclination of other countries with higher emissions to hunt for workarounds too. If planet earth is a lifeboat spinning through the dark gravity well of an indifferent universe (and it is), then Australia is the liver-spotted cadaver sitting in the stern, punching holes in the floorboards while insisting the youngsters are overreacting to the water lapping around their feet.
“We’ve always accepted the science” Morrison says, as he stands in front of the wreckage of yet another burned out home. But the science has been saying for decades that this day would come. In 2007, the world’s top climate scientists were convened to write a report for the UN’s IPCC. “An increase in fire danger in Australia is likely to be associated with a reduced interval between fires, increased fire intensity, a decrease in fire extinguishments and faster fire spread (…) in south-east Australia, the frequency of very high and extreme fire danger days is likely to rise 4–25% by 2020.” In 2009, Australia’s scientific research institute, the CSIRO, predicted that a business as usual approach to global warming would see “catastrophic fire events happen in parts of regional Victoria every 5–7 years by 2020.”
The scientists in other words, have been frantically shouting from the rooftops for years, pleading to be understood, but their warnings have been mangled by the culture war. Instead of preparing for the Pyrocene, the Liberal Party has spent the last decade perfecting the art of turning climate change into a wedge issue. Imagine doing that with a global disease epidemic, or a natural disaster like a tsunami? This is a party that won an election just a few months ago in part by telling people to calm down about climate change, because they had it under control. Now that they’ve been punched in the face by physics, instead of leading by example, they insist everyone should keep calm and carry on. In typical chameleon-speak, they offer their thoughts and prayers, saying now is not the time for recriminations, spinning, deflecting, throwing dead cats on the table, ‘setting the tone.’
If they’d accepted the science, they would have spent the last ten years doing everything possible to wean the country, and its overseas customers, off coal. Of course, nobody expected it to happen overnight. Instead of languishing at the bottom of the tables for climate change action though, Australia could have taken advantage of the global shift towards a low carbon economy, and spent the last decade leading from the front. Pioneering new forms of clean energy generation, backed by unstinting funding and support from the government. Investments into the next economy, an industrial strategy centred around sectors of the future, electric vehicles, storage technologies, additive manufacturing, agtech, low carbon manufacturing. Trialling social and training programs for a just transition, to provide safety nets for the 50,000 people currently employed by coal mining.
Morrison, this shiver in search of a spine, says he accepts the science, but we cannot take him at his word. As a 16 year old schoolgirl said to the world’s assembled leaders not so long ago, to say you’ve seen the science and still did nothing is unfathomable.
For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency, but no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act then you would be evil and that I refuse to believe.
Australia’s leaders are not evil. But they are profoundly immoral. They are believers in what Atlantic journalist Robinson Meyer calls “carbonism.” Think of the carbon in carbonism as akin to the race in racism. It implies a founding myth, a powerful worldview, a theory of value, and a prophecy. At its heart is a simple idea, “the belief that fossil fuels have inherent virtue, that carbon pollution imposes no hard limit on human flourishing, that through the exclusive magic of fossil fuels, society can effortlessly solve any problem.”
Carbonism is easy to ridicule if you’re a scientist, but that’s because it has nothing to do with science. It’s a cultural idea that surrounds us, just as sexism and racism have done in the past (and continue to do so today). To some degree, our political culture is still carbonist; unlike culture though, the carbon dioxide spewing into the sky right now is real. It will outlive our grandchildren. It will exist, as a physical fact, trapping heat and distorting landscapes, for centuries to come. The moral implications of that are damning— which is why the carbonists in charge are unwilling to change, because to do so would be to admit that they have been wrong all along.
Their latest tactic is to insist that Australia has always been a hot and dry country, and there’s nothing unusual to see here. In their wake, the slithy toves of television and talk radio provide cover, pointing fingers at inner city greenies, evil arsonists, exploding horse manure and hazard burns. These are lies. Only about 1% of the land burnt in New South Wales this bushfire season can be officially attributed to arson, and it is even less in Victoria. If you repeat a lie often enough though, it sticks— and Rupert Murdoch owns 58% of the media in Australia. His corpse will be well on its way to decomposing by the time the coral reefs are gone though. These people have no skin in the game. They bluster, deflect and insult “the weather girl” but the problem is that Mother Nature doesn’t care about their mewling deceit, their imagined bogeymen. All she feels are the CO2 levels going up.
Global heating has arrived. Australia’s six hottest days on record were all in December 2019. The average maximum temperature across the continent was above 40°C (104°F) on 11 days last month, smashing the previous annual record of seven, set in 2018. According to the country’s Bureau of Meteorology, the annual mean temperature in 2019 was 1.52°C above average. Most of the country is in severe drought. Average rainfall across the country last month was also the lowest on record. Across the year it was 277.6 millimetres, 40% below average, and 11% lower than the previous record, set in 1902. The country’s food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, has had three of its driest winters on record; rainfall has averaged 887 millimetres over the 34 months to the end of October. This has never happened in the instrumental record: there’s never been more than two failed winters in a row.
Australia is not dry. It’s dessicated, a tinder box that’s been waiting to ignite. More than three-quarters of the continent experienced the worst fire weather conditions on record in December 2019. “You’ve got six inches of dry gum leaves underfoot, they’ve all dropped in the last two months. It’s so dry the eucalypts are falling over.” In April 2019, former fire chiefs tried to warn Morrison that this summer could see catastrophic fires on an unprecedented scale. He refused to see them. In November 2019 (and after years of previous warnings), Indigenous leaders called on the Government to reconsider land management practices. They were all ignored.
Instead, Morrison and his glistening, red-faced acolytes continue to insist that Australia has always had drought, and that it’s always had bushfires. In December, the acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, assured the nation that “we’ve had these smoke hazes before. We’ve had bushfires before.” But these fires are not normal. They are bigger, more catastrophic and tearing through landscapes that have never burned. At least some leaders recognise that. Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters yesterday, “We’ve never had a fire ground or a fire edge as big as this,” adding that fires blackened 1.2 million hectares across the state in the first week of January. “This is unprecedented.”
He’s right. In 2009, after the Black Saturday fires, a standardised Fire Danger Rating was adopted by all Australian states. This included a whole new level — catastrophic fire danger —for when the index reaches 100. Over the past two weeks, that index has reached 200 in some parts of East Gippsland. These fires are quite literally off the charts. On the 30th December 2019, 28 year old Samuel McPaul, a volunteer firefighter, was killed while battling the Green Valley Fire, east of Albury. The blaze was so large it generated its own weather system, an 8km high pyrocumulonimbus cloud that collapsed and created a fire tornado, lifting the back of the 10 tonne truck he was in and landing it on its roof. The firefighters who were there said they’d never seen anything like it.
Further north, flames have torn through banana plantations, which should be filled with lush, green plants resistant to fire. Damage to the Gondwana rainforests in 40 reserves between Brisbane and Newcastle has prompted Unesco’s World Heritage Centre to ask the Australian government whether it is affecting their world heritage values. The reserves include the largest areas of subtropical rainforest on the planet, and nearly all the world’s Antarctic beech cool temperate rainforest. They are considered a living link to the vegetation that covered the southern supercontinent Gondwana before it broke up about 180m years ago. These places are not supposed to burn.
The fires aren’t just hotter — they’re bigger. The 444,000 ha Gospers Mountain Fire for example, which started in a lightning strike north-west of Sydney in late October 2019, was the biggest forest fire to have started from a single ignition point in Australian history. To those that lived in its shadow for weeks, it was known as “the monster:” twice the size of the worst fire from Black Saturday in 2009, and significantly larger than California’s 2018 Woolsey fire that burnt 39,000 ha or the 2013 Rim Fire that burnt 104,000 ha. Only the boreal forest fires that break out in Alaska, Siberia and Canada, which can expand to millions of hectares, have been larger.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
We know what’s coming. Climate change is not a natural disaster, a calamity that strikes unexpectedly from the blue. It’s a disease, like diabetes. Every single change we make as a global society improves the outcome, no matter how late in the game. The scientists have been warning this day would come, and sure enough, bang on schedule, here we go. They’re still warning us. We are very close to the point at which 1.5°C of global heating is going to be out of reach. The difference between 1.5°C and 2.0°C is not linear. At 2.0°C, Australia’s grain belts will be tipped closer to desert, we will lose all of the world’s coral reefs, and fires in towns like those seen these past few months will become routine.
It doesn’t have to be this way, because science also tells us we have all the tools at our disposal to avoid what’s coming. We know the pathways to zero carbon now, we have the technologies to get most of the way there, and we know where the gaps are. But until we get rid of the carbonists in charge, people like Scott Morrison and his caliginous lickspittles, we will not be able to make those changes. Remember, these people have no skin in the game. They will be long dead by the time the rest of us are dealing with the consequences of their greed. They should not have a voice at the table. Their carbonism belongs on the same dung heap of history as racism, sexism and slavery.
Stop listening to them. Start listening to the people who’ve been right all along.
Don’t ignore the scientists any more.
What can you do about it?
The donations have been pouring in from around the world — at last count it’s something like $150 million. However, they’re not being distributed evenly, and right now the sector that’s getting the least attention is wildlife recovery.
The number of injured or distressed animals from these fires is mind boggling. Wildlife Victoria is doing yeoman’s work. It’s all volunteer run, so your money isn’t going to any salaries. They’re distributing donations to wildlife shelters and carers to help rebuild enclosures and equipment they lost in the fires so that they can continue their lifesaving work, and support those that are struggling to cope with the enormous number of animals that will need care in the coming weeks and months.
If you’re feeling the call to help, this will go a long way.