Consumed by fire (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

(Most of this will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. But it seems simplest to crosspost the whole thing, rather than do a separate version).

It’s been hard to think straight with the fires that have burned through most of Australia for months. Brisbane was among the first places affected, with the loss of the historic Binna Burra lodge, on the edge of a rainforest, a place where no one expected a catastrophic fire. But, as it turned out, we got off easy compared to the rest of the country. Heavy rain in early December helped to put out the fires in Queensland, and we can expect the delayed arrival of the monsoon in the near future. By contrast, southern Australia normally has hot, dry summers and this has been the hottest driest year ever. The increased likelihood of catastrophic fire seasons was evident when I started work on this topic back in 2012 [1], and the risks for this year were pointed out to the government months in advance. The warnings went unheeded for two reasons.

First, the government had been re-elected partly on the basis of a promise (economically nonsensical, but politically powerful) to return the budget to surplus. Any serious action to prepare for and respond to a bushfire catastrophe would wipe that out, as indeed has almost certainly happened now.

Second, any serious assessment would have to focus on the fact that climate change is causing large-scale losses in Australia right now. The government is a combination of denialists and do-nothingists, neither of whom are willing to address the issue.

Of course, Australia is only a small part of the problem. Our government’s policies are helping to promote climate catastrophes in the US, Brazil and other places, and theirs are returning the favor. A policy shift in any one of these countries, with no change elsewhere, would make little difference to the country concerned. That’s the nature of a collective action problem. But on any ordinary understanding of justice, we are reaping what we, and the governments we’ve elected, have sown.

Over the fold, some links to pieces I’ve written on this topic.

Australia is promising $2 billion for the fires. I estimate recovery will cost $100 billion Article I wrote piece for CNN Business in the US.

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires, article for Inside Story

The opportunity cost of destruction, extract from Economics in Two Lessons

Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better, from my blog

Burning the surplus, from my blog

Mainstream media remains quiet on Scott Morrison’s untimely holiday from Independent Australia. As the worst of the disaster started to unfold, our appalling Prime Minister skived off to Hawaii for a luxury holiday, without telling anyone. Most of the media were happy to cover for him.

fn1. Instant social media reactions have their problems, but the academic alternative, endless rounds of refereeing, is far worse. I started work on this topic with a colleague Tyron Venn, in 2012, but it didn’t get past the referees until 2017, by which time the central point (the case for mandatory evacuation, rather than encouraging people to defend their homes against fire) was generally accepted. And the demand for a tight focus meant that the discussion of climate change, my original motivation for doing the project, was cut down to a single sentence. For anyone interested, here’s a link.

4 thoughts on “Consumed by fire (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. I’m very impressed with your comments, and generally agree with everything you say.

    In his recent NYT column Paul Krugman argues that the only way to break the political impasse over climate change is with something like a Green New Deal. As the Labor member for Hunter (I’ve forgotten his name) said (I’m paraphrasing): you can’t expect a coal-miner to happily give up their $100K/yr job for a $40K/yr job screwing solar panels onto roofs. (That reminds me of the famous Upton Sinclair quote: it’s amazing what a person can fail to understand when their job depends on it — again paraphrasing).

    But this is a false dichotomy: there’s actually a lot to do! We have to rebuild our communities in environmentally-sensitive, fire resilient ways. And we have to restructure our economy so we are leading toward a solution to climate change, not contributing to the problem. This will take a lot of work, so nobody should be out of a job.

    We have to change the discourse. It’s not “environment OR jobs”. It’s “environment AND jobs”!

  2. “Omnicide: Who is responsible for the gravest of all crimes?

    “This time, though, we need to go much further. We need to understand that the responsibility for omnicide is various and layered. The role that those responsible play this time is almost always less direct, but its effect no less devastating. We are unlikely to identify anyone actively scheming the death of the five-hundred million wild animals [ now a billion+?] whom we believe to have died in the first month of this summer’s Australian bushfires.

    “We can, however, identify the political representatives who refused to meet with fire chiefs who had been seeking to warn of, and act to mitigate, the impending disaster. The same political representatives who approved and continue to approve new coalmines in the face of scientific consensus on the effect that continuing to burn fossil fuels will have on climate in general, and drought and temperatures in particular. The same political representatives who approve water being diverted to support resource extraction, when living beings are dying for want of water and drying to the point of conflagration.

    “We can identify the media owners who sponsor mass denial of the scientific evidence of the effects of a fossil fuel addicted economy on the climate. The same media owners who deploy the tools of mass manipulation to stoke fear, seed confusion, breed ignorance and create and then fuel hostile divisions within communities.

    “We can identify the financial institutions …

    “And then we can identify parties closer to home. Business owners and investors whose profits depend on systems of extraction and resource exploitation. Consumers addicted to lifestyles based on resource extraction and the exploitation of the natural world. Citizens who prioritise narrow short-term interests over the sustainability of the planet. Citizens who lack the courage or fortitude to take ourselves through the social and economic transformations required to give our children and the more-than-human-world a future. Citizens who do not bother to take the time or make the effort to develop well-informed opinions, but would rather run to the comfort of the truisms of their tribe.

    “We can also identify the humans and human cultures that have told ourselves that we are superior to, and thus have the right to dominate and exploit, other animals and the natural world. That we are the ones who get to flourish, and that everything else that is here, is here for our use. That other beings are not life but resource.

    “None on this long list developed a specific intent to kill everything. But all of us have created and are creating the conditions in which omnicide is inevitable.

    “But on any ordinary understanding of justice, we are reaping what we, and the governments we’ve elected, have sown.”…

    Via 3quarksdaily

  3. Perhaps a sideways glancce and attention on Dutton. The National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework is where the xhanges need to be embedded.

    Scomo is a diistraction. The power of Dutton needs asdressing… ‘So what did Dutton and Pezzullo do in response to this very clear warning?

    “Very little is the answer according to Mark Crossweller, the senior public servant responsible for developing the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework.”

    “Disaster Risk Reduction Framework that climate change was exposing the country to natural disasters on ‘‘unimagined scales, in unprecedented combinations and in unexpected locations…As a result, the cost of disasters is increasing for all sectors of society – governments, industry, business, not-for-profits, communities and individuals’’.

  4. I found your observation about the critical role played by the (economically nonsensical) political imperative to deliver a surplus in thwarting preventative action really eye-opening. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can change the public perception of the importance of being in surplus; it seems like disavowing this myth is a critical ancillary step toward action on climate.

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