I’m in Australia right now. It’s like a post-apocalyptic movie. There is smoke everywhere. “Hazardous” is as high as the Air Quality Index goes, and some days it is ten or twenty or thirty times as high as that level. Not just near the fires, but in the national capital. In New Zealand, three hours flying time away on the other side of the Tasman Sea, their cities get Australian smoke, and their high mountain glaciers are turning rust-brown from Australian ash.
The South Coast of New South Wales, packed with holiday-makers at this time of year, has been evacuated. Hours-long traffic jams on the narrow coastal highways. People desperate for food and water. No power, no fuel, no mobile coverage. Smoke in the air and bushfire warnings.
In some coastal towns, the day turned black with thick smoke over the sun, fires approached, and residents were ordered into the sea to escape the flames. Vast swathes of bushland burned, millions of animals died, houses and villages were destroyed, and the death toll is mounting up.
Today — Saturday 4 January — is predicted to be another bad day with soaring temperatures and winds encouraging wildfires. Dozens of towns are at risk, especially in the Snowy Mountains where the tangled bush of remote areas is rarely managed to remove dry fuel accumulation.
Yes, it’s a disaster, but…
I recently travelled from Melbourne up through the inland route — the quicker coastal motorway was blocked here and there by bushfires — to Brisbane for a Christmas with the relatives.
Most of the way the air was thick with smoke. The sun was a glowing ball that could be looked at directly. The landscape was grey. There was not a drop of surface water to be seen beyond the few sluggish rivers I crossed. It was a Mad Max landscape.
Australia has seen it all before. Drought, bushfires, smoke, disaster. Almost exactly seventeen years ago a bushfire roared into Canberra, the nation’s capital, and destroyed five hundred houses in an hour. The images from that event are all but identical to those we are seeing now.
Yet, the news outlets are calling it unprecedented, the climate-change evangelists are banging their drums, and the political left is in a frenzy of joyous attack against the Prime Minister, who had the temerity to take an overseas family holiday in the summer holiday season.
It is the end of the world, some people are saying.
Well, it ain’t
As noted, we’ve had bushfires before. We’ve had hotter days and longer droughts. There are more people in Australia to be affected, for sure, but while it sounds callous to say it’s business as usual, that’s what it is. We have a national council to coordinate bushfire preparations every spring, and every summer the plan works in response to fires.
The local firefighters do their thing, interstate and international teams come after a day or so to give them a break, the Defence Force provides logistics and evacuation support, and squads of soldiers are set to work where they can.
As it turns out, it’s not just the Prime Minister getting into trouble taking a holiday over the Christmas/New Year break. Every year tens of thousands head off to the beach to their holiday houses, or their caravan park, or motel, or campground. It’s peak season on the waterfront, and many families go to the same place year after year.
Well, this time, they got caught as the bushfires came sweeping down on the coast. At Mallacoota and other places there were thousands of people, residents and holidaymakers alike, forced onto the beach and sometimes into the water to escape. Houses were destroyed, roads cut, power lost and supplies depleted.
As noted above, a lot of them were evacuated. End of the holiday, and presumably a lot of money down the drain.
Why are people saying it’s a big deal, if it ain’t?
First, the news outlets love nothing more than a good disaster. People with their homes burning down before their eyes, dramatic pictures of red skies and fires leaping in the tall trees, huddled masses in evacuation centres, angry confrontations with politicians. These stories get onto the front page.
Stories of people on the next street over who escaped any trouble or injury, well, they don’t make it. Guess what? Most people didn’t lose their houses, or die, or do anything newsworthy.
So if you go by the newspapers and the news broadcasts, you’ll get the same stories of the same people over and over, and it all sounds just ghastly.
Because you don’t get the stories of those who merely had an anxious afternoon or a night at the local school hall or whatever.
Second, there are those whose function in life is to make political capital of disasters. Realistically, the Prime Minister has zero impact on bushfires. He depends on the existing agencies to plan and manage the response. He’s not to blame. We had an election last year, and one candidate won and the other didn’t. It’s just not plausible that if the other guy had won there would be any difference at all in the temperatures and the wind and the drought, and there wouldn’t be any bushfires.
Or that the unelected public servants and military officers who plan and respond to crises would have done anything differently.
But, those in politics rarely worry too much about facts and honesty. The side that lost the election gets stuck into the side that won and lays out all the blame they can, and makes as much political capital as they can.
And then there are the climate change warriors
Now, don’t get me wrong. The planet is warming, the climate is changing, and the bushfires are naturally becoming more frequent in the hotter and drier conditions, and when they happen they are worse.
One factor nobody thought about is that if bushfire seasons in Northern and Southern hemispheres get longer, then they will overlap. We depend on large firefighting aircraft to carry a heavy load — literally — in putting out fires, but although they are highly capable, they are not magic and cannot be in two places at the same time.
But, even if we acknowledge the very real effect that climate change has, there are those who want swift and immediate action. It is their religious fervour to get emissions down, and they do not care if they spread fear and panic to bend others to their will.
You’ll see these people on television saying that the sky is falling, it’s the end of the world, the politicians are evil, and so on and so forth.
The bigger the natural disaster the better for these people. They get their kicks by whipping up a storm of outrage. Guess what? They aren’t interested in tales of people who escaped the fires with nothing more than a ruined holiday. Nope. They are even worse than the media. They go beyond the facts, and they feel justified in doing so because their mission is to save the planet.
For these folk, the end justifies the means, and for them, social media is the perfect outlet for their fearmongering. Nobody is checking the facts, and a meme or a falsehood goes viral and spreads like — ahem — wildfire.
We’ll all be ruined!
These guys get their moments of fame by spreading doom. It presses their buttons, and for sure it’s a grand Australian tradition.
But I do wish that they would tone their predictions down to what is reasonable. The worst-case scenarios they predict don’t come every time.
And when something extra bad happens, as it does on a regular basis, is it really their justification, or is it just to the people with a climate change hammer, everything looks like a climate change nail?
There are limits as to how much we can change without even more dire results. Sure, it would be lovely if we weren’t mining coal or using petroleum. But most of the world depends on coal or gas-fired power stations, and if we lost electrical power our economies would suffer the consequences. A world without computers or lights or electronic communications.
No elevators, no traffic lights, no card transactions.
Our cities wouldn’t function.
And we can’t stop using petroleum. Our ships, our freight trains, our trucks, our buses, and cars, and aeroplanes, all rely on petrol of one sort or another.
No transport, no food distribution. People would starve in huge numbers. People couldn’t get to work, or travel, or ship trade goods overseas.
Our world just isn’t set up to run on electric vehicles. It will eventually, but not now.
Even if the people gulped and said we’ll do it tough and ride bikes, their governments would never agree.
Consider. Apart from a few nuclear ships, every warship, every warplane, every tank runs on petroleum products. If the supplies dried up, the national defence forces would stop functioning. Now, maybe the terrorists and rogue states wouldn’t take advantage, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
No government is going to agree to anything that leaves their nation defenceless.
We’re on it
80% of people agree that the world is getting warmer. Maybe Canadians and Norwegians think this is a good thing, I don’t know, but my guess is that few see it in a positive light and most accept that we will have to make adjustments.
And we are. Electric supplies are being increasingly sourced from renewable means such as solar and wind farms. Electric vehicles are becoming commonplace. Efficiency and conservation are important. Climate change credentials are promoted at elections.
In Australia, the steady increase of coal mining has halted, and coal exports are falling. Yes, there’s a long way to go, but the journey has begun. Even where national governments don’t believe in climate change — I’m looking at you, Don Trump — their citizens aren't quite so foolish.
My guess is that things are going to get worse before they get better, but get better they will.
This afternoon I heard the Australian Prime Minister outline a raft of new measures to address the bushfire threat. He’s taken enough lumps on this topic, whether earned or not, that he’s undoubtedly going to be more proactive on bushfires than anybody else up until the next election. He’s not stupid.
And if he is and does nothing about it, then he deserves to be kicked out.
But it will be the voters who do the kicking, and the voters need good information to make their decision every three years, and if they are running on bad information and malicious scare-mongering, then they will make the wrong decision and we’ll all be worse off.
I don’t think we can really afford, in this climate crisis, to make bad decisions. I think Don Trump was a bad decision, and America is currently treading water or sinking as regards carbon emissions. We as a species can’t afford inaction or sabotage. We’ll all pay the price for foolishness.
I’ve said it before, but it is super important that we don’t use social media to spread bad information. If someone is making authoritative pronouncements, ask them what informs their thinking. If they cannot say, or it’s some extremist website or anonymous meme, show them the door.
On that note, here’s what informs my thinking:
The Ultimate Anti-Trump Textbook
Factfulness by Hans Rosling; this book made me see the world in a startling new way.
Why we Shouldn’t be Afraid of Climate Change
If someone is fearmongering about global warming, they are dead wrong.
Check them out, check the sources I’ve used, let me know if I’ve gotten anything wrong.