Slow Burn

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Inside Story, with the summary

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires

At the time of writing, at least fourteen people have been killed by this season’s bushfires. And with most of January and all of February still to come, the number is sure to rise. But these dramatic deaths are far outweighed by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths that will ultimately result from the toxic smoke blanketing Australian cities.

The most dangerous component of bushfire smoke are tiny particulates, no more than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5. Over the past twenty years, studies have shown that high levels of PM2.5 have contributed to millions of premature deaths in highly polluted cities like Beijing and Delhi. Sydney, Canberra and other Australian cities have recently joined this list. In 2016 alone, exposure to PM2.5 contributed to an estimated 4.1 million deaths worldwide from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease and respiratory infections.

Even before the current cataclysm, air pollution was a major health hazard. While Sydney’s prevailing average of 6 micrograms per cubic metre (6 μg/m3) is within international health standards, it is above the levels observed in most European and American cities. A study led by the Sydney Public Health Observatory’s Richard Broome estimated that particulates and associated forms of pollution already account for between 310 and 540 premature deaths annually.

As far as can be determined, the mortality and health risks of PM2.5 are a linear function of the level of exposure. Being exposed to 6 μg/m3 every day for a year, for example, amounts to 2190 “microgram days.” Broome and his colleagues’ work implies that each microgram day is associated with between 0.14 and 0.25 premature deaths. This figure is consistent with a range of international studies they cite.

The overall mortality effects are also a linear function of the number of people exposed. That’s why a city like Delhi, with thirty million people and an average PM2.5 of 150 μg/m3, suffers tens of thousands of premature deaths every year.

Since the start of the bushfire emergency, particulate levels have been far above the historical average, reaching an extreme of 250 μg/m3 in Oakdale, ninety kilometres from central Sydney, on 10 December. According to recording stations in Sydney, the average for November and December was 27 μg/m3, more than four times the usual level. That implies somewhere between 160 and 300 additional premature deaths.

But the fires began earlier than November, and Sydney is not the only city they have affected. Many millions of Australians have experienced the impact of the fires, and there is no reason to expect the emergency to end any time soon. It’s quite likely that the total number of premature deaths will be more than a thousand, and possibly more than the 1300 deaths expected on our roads (some of these, tragically, caused by the fires).

Climatic oscillations such as the Indian Ocean Dipole, which have contributed to the severity of the current disaster, are expected to abate over time, so it’s probable that we won’t see a similar disaster next year, and perhaps for a few years to come. But the underlying trend of global heating that made this season so catastrophic isn’t going away. Next time the oscillations are unfavourable, further heating will make things even worse.

Our current approach to dealing with climatic disasters, developed during the twentieth century, doesn’t deal adequately with steadily deteriorating climatic conditions. At a minimum, we need a standing national body, with substantial resources, ready to respond to such disasters as they occur. This would almost certainly wipe out the Morrison government’s treasured surplus, which is why the resistance to any kind of action has been so vigorous.

Even worse than budget fetishism has been the cultural commitment of the government to climate denialism and do-nothingism. The right’s commentariat peddles anti-science nonsense on a par with anti-vaxxerism and flat-earth cosmology, eagerly lapped up by the mostly elderly readership of the conservative press. The government can’t endorse this nonsense officially, so it takes refuge in the idea that Australia accounts for only a small proportion of total emissions (on their dubious accounting, 1 per cent).

But even 1 per cent of the current catastrophe is still a disaster. And just as emissions in other countries contribute to disasters here, our 1 per cent plays its part in fires, floods and other climate-related disasters around the world. No matter how you do your accounting, Australian climate denialism is already costing hundreds of lives, with much worse to come.

We might hope that the scenes we have witnessed would shock our political class out of its torpor. So far, there is little sign of that happening. •

18 thoughts on “Slow Burn

  1. Yes ‘Do Nothingism’ demonstrated by Morrison’s: “We will not panic or over-react as our political opponents always do”, e.g. with environmental, economic (no fiscal stimulus), and governance (no bank enquiry) issues.

  2. I fear your “extreme” value above is missing a zero, and should say 2500µg/m³. That’s roughly the highest I’ve seen from DPIE (it may be where their sensors saturate, my laser ones saturate about 1000µg/m³ but the gravimetric ones go higher)

    I am assured by the scientists behind this website that their numbers are in µg/m³ albeit with a rolling 24 hour average to remove the huge spikes we see on a frequent basis. At time of writing the Southern Tablelands have averaged 1328µg/m³ over the last 24 hours. Earlier today the whole Sydney basin was over 200.

    Thursday 9 January 2020 12 – 1 pm (AEST)

  3. Normally I’d cry foul on a repost after a few days. but these are not normal times, and I’m on record as recommending JQ to say something even if not original.

    Linking the fires to air pollution as well as climate change is a good move. There are a handful of air pollution denialists like Milloy, but basically the position is ridiculous. Of course breathing soot and fumes is bad for you; expose lab rats to them and they get sick; you can cut up their lungs and show the damage under a microscope; several ingredients of smoke are carcinogenic to cultured human cells; the superstrong statistical links to human ill-health are bomb-proof confirmation of the hypothesis. It is therefore definitely worth a shot to try to create doubt in the minds of climate denialist sheep, who have not been exposed to climate-change levels of propaganda on air pollution.

    The Conservative British government took drastic action on coal fires after the great London smog of 1952. Morrison will be forced to take action on bushfires, if he survives.

  4. It wasn’t actually a repost. I somehow put it up as a “page”, which didn’t allow discussion, so I redid it as a post.

    The air pollution point is gradually getting some attention/

  5. @James Wimberley

    Conservative politicians in the 50s is a lot different to conservative politicians these days.

  6. “The air pollution point is gradually getting some attention”
    I’m not doubting you, but where? I’ve not seen any mention, which I find shocking.

  7. Let’s call a spade a spade. Deaths.

    Like the R word, death is the topic we do not discuss – easily.

    The D word and the 1,000 tonne rule.

    chrishod says: “The link between particulate pollution and death (and illness, and other economic harm) is not just unreported, it is actively denied.” 

    Moz in Oz says: “direct road deaths count, pollution estimates are rarely mentioned and (almost) never taken seriously.” 

    Chris Borthwick says: “One interesting thing is that the likely deaths from pollution go almost entirely unmentioned in the media.”

    Deaths don’t show up in GDP …””statistical value of life” for all age groups, and therefore are not so directly linked to the national economy” yet “one death per 1,000 tonnes of co2″… “When that [Australian] coal is burned, 3 × 105 future deaths are caused every year.” (Anyone know 13deg c is optimal productivity?)

    I do not think in 100-200 yr timeframes. Nor that my actions now may contribute to future deaths. These long term analysis of deaths over time are beyond most imaginations and hard to grasp. Nor am I sure I would write such a paragraph:- 
    …”in round figures, 109 rich people are in the process of prematurely ending the lives of 109 future poor people. . ..“the methodologies of these studies are imperfect … clearly there is need for critique and further refinement of such estimates” (p. 353).”.  

    I am keen to hear how others respond to a billion deaths over 100 – 200 yrs. Real. BS. In the paddock (ballpark)?

    “The Human Cost of Anthropogenic Global Warming: Semi-Quantitative Prediction and the 1,000-Tonne Rule

    …”It implies that one future premature death is caused every time roughly 1,000 (300–3,000) tonnes of carbon are burned. ”

    As a clear political message, the “1,000-tonne rule” can be used to defend human rights, especially in developing countries, and to clarify that climate change is primarily a human rights issue.”

    … “an approximate top-down estimate is presented for the relationship between carbon burned now and deaths caused in the future. Ethical and political implications are addressed.”

    “Death rates will be highest in developing countries or among people living in poverty, so studies with that focus are more relevant.”

    “There is a similar tendency to underestimate risks based on description by comparison to those based on visceral experience (Weber, 2006). …”Unprecedented events are an example, and given that AGW will last for centuries, historical examples are relevant. In 1912, the Titanic provided 20 lifeboats for 1,178 people. In 1914, the Great Powers estimated that a modern war would be over in a few weeks. In 1939, following further improvements in military technology, the Nazis planned to win a two-front war. In 2003, Bush and Blair predicted their high-tech Iraq invasion would be fast and efficient with few casualties. Most economists failed to predict the 2008 financial crisis.”

    “According to the availability heuristic (Tversky and Kahneman, 1973), people are more likely to judge an event as likely or frequent if instances are easy to imagine or recall. This gives people first-hand experiences of the event’s consequences (Spence et al., 2011. In the case of AGW, no such instances are available, because the situation is unprecedented and hindsight is not possible. ”

    “2. Every year, Australia exports 4 × 108 tonnes of coal. If that coal is 80% carbon, the country is exporting about 3 × 108 tonnes of carbon per year. When that coal is burned, 3 × 105 future deaths are caused every year. Clearly, this and comparable industries must be rapidly wound down to protect the rights of future generations. Employees can be retrained for the growing sustainable energy industry (Louie and Pearce, 2016).”
    Front. Psychol., 16 October 2019 |

    Above has an ethical and human rights tinge, based solidly in contemporary agw social science literature.

    Pedantry of above only that the current bushfires fortunately / unfortunately provide “In the case of AGW, no such instances [of first hand experiences] are available, because the situation is unprecedented and hindsight is not possible.”.  

    We have a precedent now.
    2019-2020 fires.

    The author has an unusual pedigree to be writing above:
    Honours (Master’s) degree in Physics, University of New England (UNE), Australia (1982)Interdisciplinary PhD in psychology, music and physics (UNE) with supervisors Catherine Ellis (music), Neville Fletcher (physics), William G. Noble (psychology) (1987)

    If the 1,000 tonne rule is within bounds, then this Australia Institute model meeds updating. But remember, if you are dead you don’t count anymore.

    “The Australia Institute’s modelling shows that a levy of $1 per tonne of embodied emissions from all coal, oil and gas mined in Australia would raise approximately $1.5bn per year.”

    Fossil fuel subsidies are dwarfed by health cost
    …” The G20 agreed in 2009 to phase out the subsidies, but HEAL says that on average, in countries belonging to the bloc, the health costs associated with fossil fuels are far greater than the subsidies: US$2,758bn [^$hc] against $444bn.

    “HEAL cites a 2015 report by the UK-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which finds that “G20 country governments’ support to fossil fuel production marries bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for climate change.”

    Economists correct me please. Cheap to fix per person?

    4.7bn humans in G20. $63T. $2.758bn is 0.0043859649% of G20 turnover. 

    $ 2.758bn health cost ÷ 4.7bn people = $0.58c each. For life or qaly’s?

    I’d be interested in reactions to the 1,000 tonne rule both scientifically and as a human rights frame.

  8. We will, in decades to come, have results as to effect of bushfire smoke. As a natural experiment and control group, bushfire smoke and smokers and [ unsure of control? ], the data will be invaluable.  This study would never get past an ethics committee, we have the science and now will get the data necessary for definitive answers. And recompense via courts.

    Read this first as background. Unless you have a medical degree.

    “The role of airway macrophages in apoptotic cell clearance following acute and chronic lung inflammation

    “Acute and chronic inflammatory responses in the lung are associated with the accumulation of large quantities of immune and structural cells undergoing apoptosis, which need to be engulfed by phagocytes in a process called ‘efferocytosis’. Apoptotic cell recognition and removal from the lung is mediated predominantly by airway macrophages, … Efficient clearance of apoptotic cells from the airways is essential for successful resolution of inflammation and the return to lung homeostasis. Disruption of this process leads to secondary necrosis of accumulating apoptotic cells, release of necrotic cell debris and subsequent uncontrolled inflammatory activation of the innate immune system by the released ‘damage associated molecular patterns’ (DAMPS). …, the contribution of defective efferocytosis to chronic inflammatory lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and cystic fibrosis, and implications of the signals triggered by apoptotic cells in the susceptibility to pulmonary microbial infections.”

    Then scare yourself with inhibition of macrophages and immune system wierdness. More people with ciggarette smoke effects. Sorry kids.

    “Bushfire smoke is pro-inflammatory and suppresses macrophage phagocytic function

    “Bushfire smoke contains organic/inorganic compounds including aldehydes and acrolein. We described suppressive effects of tobacco smoke on the phagocytic capacity of airway macrophages, linked to secondary necrosis of uncleared apoptotic epithelial cells, persistence of non-typeable H. influenzae (NTHi), and inflammation. We hypothesised that bushfire smoke extract (BFSE) would similarly impair macrophage function. THP-1 or monocyte-derived macrophages (MDM) were exposed to 1–10% BFSE prepared from foliage of 5 common Australian native plants (genus Acacia or Eucalyptus), or 10% cigarette smoke extract (CSE). 

    BFSE [Bushfire Smoke Extract] impairs macrophage function to a similar extent as CSE [ Cigarette Smoke Equivalent], highlighting the need for further research, especially in patients with pre-existing lung disease.”

    Lots of phlegm in the future.

  9. I want to be polite, but really? Is our prime minister really suggesting that, somehow, \href{}{we didn’t figure out that anthropogenic global warming might have an impact} upon ordinary Australians? Exactly what is he suggesting? As far as I can tell, it is all about not being the one who has to shoulder the responsibility of our defiance of those who called climate change for what it is. Come on, man, accept the evidence and then do something concrete about it. Why would a bunch of scientists, all around the world, lie about it? It doesn’t make a lick of sense. (And yet, it does.)

  10. Oh, and Smoco MIA Morrison believes—despite the scientific evidence—that ascribing a particular event (that spanned several months) to climate change is fanciful.

    Thank you, Smoco, for being so damn knowledgeable, that you could dismiss the evidence of climate scientists. Still, at least the big Kahuna in the Sky will be happy with Smoco’s performance.

  11. Don – fixed now… “that ascribing a particular event (that spanned several months) to climate change is fanciful.”

    It is now fingerprint-ful. “global climate change is now detected instantaneously”.

    This imo is THE BEST study re climate change “”exposure””.

    Deniers Denied! 

    “The fingerprint of climate change is detected from any single day in the observed global record since early 2012”.

    “Climate change now detectable from any single day of weather at global scale

    “Here we show that on the basis of a single day of globally observed temperature and moisture, we detect the fingerprint of externally driven climate change, and conclude that Earth as a whole is warming. Our detection approach invokes statistical learning and climate model simulations to encapsulate the relationship between spatial patterns of daily temperature and humidity, and key climate change metrics such as annual global mean temperature or Earth’s energy imbalance. Observations are projected onto this relationship to detect climate change. The fingerprint of climate change is detected from any single day in the observed global record since early 2012, and since 1999 on the basis of a year of data. Detection is robust even when ignoring the long-term global warming trend. This complements traditional climate change detection, but also opens broader perspectives for the communication of regional weather events, modifying the climate change narrative: while changes in weather locally are emerging over decades, global climate change is now detected instantaneously.”

    I niw expect this scenario…
    – your ( regions/ farm/ business’/ event/ extinction rate/ disaster) weather today (mth, yr) has been exacerbated by climate change by n.nn% and therefore (not) the Smirko Govt will recompense x policy by $y to compensate.”. Woo. Hoo!

    Who in Australia – Jotzo – Steffan – is going to publish Australia weather vs climate change from 2012 on…

    I would toss in a dollar or three as a crowd fund. I cannot see Smirko Smoko – coff coff – coughung up for such a study. He would not only be naked, he would be see though.

  12. The day will come soon when climate change deniers are tarred and feathered or the modern equivalent thereof.

  13. One thing that struck me in the OECD work I looked at on the economic cost of air pollution was that the methodology for the cost of premature death is pretty solid (like it or not), but they were winging it on morbidity, probably with large underestimates. We aren’t talking traffic accidents here, where you are healthy one minute and dead the next. Air pollution first makes you sick, in and out of work and hospital for long periods, before maybe killing you. Some need lengthy personal care, which is expensive. I would urge JQ to dig into this. Silicosis in miners may provide a model, as the numbers are solid.

  14. In Sydney we get spikes of particulates that are not correlated across the city. I’ve got access to three sensors in different places and they are not well correlated – we see similar spikes but at different times. I’m guessing waves of dirty air wash across the city rather than a general miasma.

    By the time I notice that it’s bad the level is typically about 200-250µg/m³ which is well into the hazardous zone. I’ve taken to leaving the air filter on, and forcing it to faster fan speeds when I notice the smell.

    Smoggie in Newtown, Sydney:

  15. Moz – you too? A relative and myself have both noticed we do not register smoke around 250+. Even morning with limited visibility, my olfactory – I assume – is no longer bothering with the signal. Same with vision. If a apike yes.

    “Olfactory fatigue is an example of neural adaptation or sensory adaptation. The body becomes desensitized to stimuli to prevent the overloading of the nervous system, thus allowing it to respond to new stimuli that are ‘out of the ordinary’. ”

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