Chris Kenny – 25th January 2020
It has been an unsettling summer of smoke haze and dust storms, firestorms and tragic deaths, uncommon valour and desperate evacuations, hot winds and thunderstorms, dashed hopes and rescued koalas, rounded off with hailstone maelstroms, tantalising teases of an end to drought and brutal reminders the fire season has a long way yet to run. No wonder we look for answers, and no wonder the climate evangelists take the chance to offer a simple explanation.
Many have faced a once-in-a-generation crisis – a firestorm they might not, with any luck, see again – but the truth is this is the way of every bad weather event and fire season. And we’ve had plenty of them.
The torment of bushfire is not easily avoided in dry summer bushland and describing that threat is even more elusive. We smell the menace in the dry northerly winds, the hint of eucalypt, dust and devil. For all their preparation and experience, farmers, families and communities live on the edge in such conditions, dreading the scent of smoke that signals justified terror.
Much is yet to be said about this season of deadly bushfires but one factor not yet recognised – a contributor to national and global reactions and amplifier of the associated climate change debate – is simply the new visibility of the scourge. Mobile video and communications technology have given us a better insight than ever, a ringside seat to the firestorms and ember sprays that do the most damage and take the most lives.
Save for those poor souls who die or firefighters who narrowly escape, few people get to see the heart of a firestorm. Television crews and photographers seldom get in the path of such fire activity and helicopters can’t get near it, so in the wake of earlier disasters we are left with images of destruction, along with relatively moderate bushfire fronts. We have had vivid descriptions of the crowning fire surges and ferocious roar of flames, but even after the Black Saturday tragedy that took 173 lives in 24 hours in Victoria 11 years ago, we saw little footage of the worst of the blazes.
This summer we have seen so much more; the prevalence of phone cameras and social media has provided vision of farmers sheltering from an onslaught of embers, firefighters driving through firefronts, and locals and tourists huddled on beaches. We have seen the terror and helplessness imposed by bushfire, rather than just its lifeless aftermath.
We are seeing more of the disasters from the inside. This is all to the good because property owners, motorists, planners and politicians need to have some sense of what they are up against in the worst fire conditions; it is pointless knowing you can defend your property from flames creeping across the scrub on a still day. You need to withstand a firestorm sweeping in on the hottest and windiest day like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Apart from this heightened awareness – this enlightened alarmism – the crucial ingredient in public responses this season has been climate change activism. People have promoted misinformation to push a policy barrow.
Use of the word unprecedented has been instrumental; by politicians, activists and journalists. It has been deployed since November last year in an attempt to invoke climate change as the root cause of the fire disasters.
This has been contrived and dishonest. As usual, the deception is based on a germ of truth. Back in early November NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons cited 17 fires burning at emergency alert level on one day and said that was “without precedent” and that the state was in “uncharted territory”. No one would dispute his call about an unprecedented number of dangerous fires in one state at one time: “We’ve simply never had this number of fires burn in NSW at the same time.”
But seemingly since that moment, the term unprecedented has been applied to almost every aspect of the fire season across the entire nation. In all likelihood there will be a range of other firsts – the worst fire danger conditions recorded in the Sydney basin and the worst fire damage in a range of locations – but overall it is difficult to make the case that this fire season has been unprecedented for the nation.
It has been shocking, tragic and devastating – and it is not over. But the terrible truth is that we have seen such trauma again and again, from Black Saturday in 2009 to Ash Wednesday in 1983, from Black Tuesday in 1967 to Black Friday in 1939, and further back to Black Thursday in 1851. Millions of hectares burned, thousands of properties destroyed, dozens of lives lost.
We have had disasters where more properties have been lost, more area has burned and six times as many people have been killed. We have been told the fires started earlier than ever but spring and early summer is the usual fire season in northern NSW and Queensland, and, for example, we know there were widespread fires in southeast Queensland in the winter of 1946. Claims by climate scientist Joelle Gergis that rainforests in Lamington National Park were burning for the first time were disproved by reports from the spring of 1951 about fire taking out “2000 acres of thick rainforest country” in the park.
Conditions at times have been catastrophic, to be sure, but they have been before, and we’ve had hotter fire days, previous long droughts and higher wind speeds.
Bjorn Lomborg, of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, has undercut the broader “unprecedented” claims, too.
He has shown that annual areas burned by bushfire across our continent are on a clear downward trend; and this year’s total, so far, is well below average. Lomborg notes the 1.2 million hectares burned in Victoria is a record over recent decades but is “vastly smaller” than 1851 when a quarter of the state, or five million hectares, were blackened. He concedes the area burned in NSW, at five million hectares, might be a record for that state but this compares to four million hectares in 1951-52 and 4.5 million in 1974-75
This is crucial perspective and context. On a national scale or in most states, so far, this is a long way from our worst fire season, even though it is very likely to be the worst for NSW.
None of this diminishes the horror, it just places the disaster within the realms of what we have experienced before. This is our environment; the impact of fire has so shaped our ecology that much of our vegetation relies on fire for rejuvenation.
None of this means that, in accordance with the predictions of climate scientists, we won’t face these conditions even more often than we have in the past. The point is that this is not a new threat descending upon us, brought about by having a modern, energy-based economy. Nor is it a threat that can ever be neutered by climate policy – at a pinch, with the best international will and action in the world, the climate science suggests the right policy prescriptions might prevent our dangerous fire conditions becoming even more common in the future.
A confluence of crucial fire factors has fanned the blazes – bushland dried more than usual by severe drought (not directly linked to climate change), high temperatures, strong winds, natural and human-induced ignition, and heavy fuel loads because of insufficient hazard reduction – and our complacent placement of housing in bushland and poor preparation by homeowners has added to our vulnerability. Complacency usually sets in when the rains come.
The most striking difference between this fire season and similar traumatic episodes in the past is the fractured public debate. Usually the all-too-familiar smell of bushfire smoke brings this country together; those days are gone.
Climate activism and social media have changed community responses, but other factors are at play, too: political media jaundiced to the green-left and hellbent on revenge against Scott Morrison for humiliating them; a Labor Party without a climate policy and struggling to find its purpose or establish its leadership post-election; a Liberal Party split between climate activist moderates eager to win media approval and hard-headed conservatives validated by the “climate election” win; state governments and fire authorities keen to point the finger at climate lest anyone examine or blame their lack of preparedness or fuel reduction indolence; and a holiday season media where brave reporters covered the tragedies but experienced voices were on leave so that jejune social media memes influenced mainstream coverage even more than usual.
From as early as November the “love media”, dominated by the public broadcasters, Nine Entertainment newspapers and the online Twitter feeders such as Guardian Australia, talked up the green-left agenda of climate change-induced, unprecedented fire behaviour. Displaying the corporate and professional memories of goldfish, they gave us a sickeningly revisionist perspective – people who lost their lives, had them changed forever or risked them helping others in previous calamities were rendered somehow irrelevant as the new global-warming beast set upon us.
It has been almost impossible for politicians, especially the Prime Minister, to push back against this narrative for fear of appearing to downplay the disaster and people’s suffering or take their eyes off the main challenge. This only underlines the obligation and need for media to be factual.
We have ended up with the ridiculous situation where Morrison has been pressured into accepting an additional new role as bushfire protector-in-chief, overseeing emergency responses and even hazard-reduction programs. What a sad indictment on our state governments, which always seem to have their hands out for more money but seem incapable of taking responsibility for anything. (I’m old enough to remember when the states ran and funded schools on their own, hospitals, disability services, emergency services and energy supplies.)
Media analysis conducted for Sky News by Meltwater Media Monitoring tested the prevalence of key words and phrases used across mainstream and social media in bushfire coverage from November through to the middle of this month. Staggeringly, the phrase climate change was used more often even than disaster or devastation.
Climate change was mentioned almost 900,000 times, more than double the next most common term, disaster. Tellingly, the weighting for climate change came completely from social media, showing how the heavy green-left campaigning and fact-free activism of Twitter can drive mainstream coverage.
With precious little research, historical context or fact-checking, the narrative about these fires being unprecedented took off and was amplified. The word was used in the media almost 200,000 times across two months.
You could see the factual weakness of this eagerness in one sentence from Luisa Rubbo reporting for the ABC from dramatic fire scenes in Port Macquarie. “Yes,” she said, “it’s been unprecedented, the conditions we’ve seen here on the mid-north coast today, the worst in at least 20 years.” Perhaps that is the accepted memory span in modern media.
The US ABC network news crossed to Australia under a banner “Wildfire Apocalypse” and its meteorologist proclaimed: “Tonight, no end in sight to the unprecedented wildfires consuming Australia.” A fearsome version of hell on earth confronted people on numerous occasions as fires tore through parts of NSW, Victoria and South Australia – so it is almost impossible to exaggerate how terrible the fires were – but the perception of a country consumed by unprecedented fires even saw the US State Department warn tourists away from our nation.
The damage is ongoing when it comes to tourism. But when the hysteria settles, the summer ends and calm assessments are made, it may be the climate activists, media organisations and political players who feel some of the blowback. Mainstream voters will have marked down Morrison for holidaying overseas but may view the attacks on him over fire management as misdirected and over the top, and they will see through the political overreach on climate change because they know the terror of our summers and the history of our bushfires.
The view from any one location or any firestorm is likely to be the worst of a generation – that is the nature of fuel loads and fire patterns – but the overall picture is not unique. When I confronted NSW Greens politician David Shoebridge on television with Lomborg’s graph of bushfire area trends he told me the graph didn’t matter.
But facts do matter, and so does language. Whatever climate policies are adopted in Australia, they cannot change our climate because global emissions are still rising sharply. And if the world could miraculously return to a pre-industrial climate, we would still face the threat of these fire conditions in our summers.
To that end, the climate debate is almost redundant compared with the practical discussions about fuel loads and preparedness. If climate factors are accelerating our bushfire threat, precisely the same remediation measures will be needed.
This week Greta Thunberg was in Davos invoking our bushfires as more evidence of a climate emergency. So, too, was Al Gore, who compared the climate challenge to great military battles of the past. Even Prince Charles turned up to trumpet (rather bravely) revolutionary climate measures. It is clear we are entering another phase of intensified global-warming activism where any claim will do, and alarmism is the order of the day.
The lack of consistency and rationality have been exposed by none other than former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. When he was in office, less than two years ago, Turnbull reacted strongly and rationally to claims from the Greens that disastrous fires on the NSW south coast were climate-fuelled. He said he was “disappointed that the Greens would try to politicise an event like this” and went on to explain why it was not on. “You can’t attribute any particular event, whether it’s a flood or fire or a drought – or a storm – to climate change. We are the land of droughts and flooding rains, we’re the land of bushfires. Nature hurls her worst at Australians and has – for always, and always will, and always has – often unpredictably.”
Who could argue with those facts and that logic? Well, it seems, Turnbull can. This month he asserted the opposite view in an article for Time magazine: “Australia’s fires this summer – unprecedented in the scale of their destruction – are the ferocious but inevitable reality of global warming.” By any assessment of the scale of the fires, he is wrong, and on his own assessment of our patterns and how climate and weather extremes play out, he is wrong.
So if we want to do a checklist of what is unprecedented about this fire season we might need to consider it is the worst on record for NSW, it is the first bushfire disaster of the social media age, and it is the first where global-warming politics have worked to undercut the unity that usually characterises our response to disasters.
These have been our first fully politicised bushfires, which adds another ugly layer to a loathsome annual threat. It won’t help us fight them.