The ash falls on the just and unjust alike

Looking at our elected leaders, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we, as Australians, deserve the cataclysms that have been visited upon us in the last few months. And reading the international press coverage of the disaster, this is a theme that constantly recurs.

Yet its less than a year since 49 per cent of us voted for a policy program far better than that of the government that scraped in or the shell-shocked opposition that proposes to wait until 2022 before doing anything.

If it hadn’t been for any of half a dozen largely random factors (Shorten’s personal unpopularity, Clive Palmer’s advertising blitz, Labor’s clunky “big end of town”rhetoric and so on, we might have had the opposite result just as the polls predicted

Of course, a Shorten government wouldn’t have been able to prevent the bushfires, or even mitigate their severity in any way. We would have been a bit better prepared, since Labor promised to spend more on firefighting capacity, but changes in emissions policy would not even have taken effect. And of course, this is a global problem: efforts we make will mostly reduce the damage in other countries and vice versa.

Still, with a tiny but of luck, we would have had a government committed to doing our share as part of a global effort to reduce the risk of future disasters. That might at least have garnered some useful international sympathy, rather than the “serves you right” subtext of so much coverage.

The ash falls on the just and unjust alike. We must struggle to save what we can of the biosphere we have collectively done so much to destroy. And we must accept that sometimes luck won’t go our way.

42 thoughts on “The ash falls on the just and unjust alike

  1. I’m not sure if ‘shirker’ is a particularly Aussie expression, but it seems to me this is our international reputation at the moment. One could say we are not “having a go to get a go”.

  2. From the point of view of a small country, like Australia, the costs of introducing policies to significantly reduce emissions (which are borne by the residents) arguably outweigh the benefits (which are dispersed more widely). From the point of view of the planet as a whole (again, arguably) the benefits may outweigh the costs. Somewhere in the middle are the large economies such as China, India, the USA, and the EU, where there is at least a realistic hope that the benefits outweigh the costs. Given that we don’t have any international authority capable of enforcing policies, leadership on the issue must come from the governments of these large countries. That does seem to be the only way forward, given the economic incentives.

  3. I couldn’t call Shorten’s unpopularity and the ALP platform random factors.

    Maybe the true ‘butterfly’s wings’ moment was when Scotty just beat Dutton.

  4. Ian

    There are no ‘benefits’ to climate change. There are only costs – large ones and catastrophic ones. Our choice is between bearing large costs in the hope of avoiding catastrophic costs or bearing catastrophic costs.

  5. The argument put forward by Ian King suggests that we fashion our energy policies to suit those of foreign nations. I think that this is a good step and we should encourage all foreign nations to do likewise.

  6. In my opinion the argument provided by Ian KIng may be valid with certain assumptions. The decision making process described in terms of the neoclassical theory might be defined as the maximisation of the integral of discounted utility function of a nation. If the sensitivity of that goal function to gains due to burning and exporting coal during the initial period is higher than the sensitivity to global losses caused by burning and exporting coal by that nation, it makes sense to continue the current policy or even increase the extraction of coal. This may be the case even if for the whole global economy marginal losses clearly outweigh marginal gains.

    I reject this model and I am not going to waste my time formalising it but I would not be surprised if it exists in the minds of many decision makers. Mathematical models of “the tragedy of the commons” are available.

    Denying the logic presented above is precisely one of the reasons why we have to deal with Scotty from Marketing. I am unconvinced that the election of so many right-wing anti-environment governments is a result of largely random factors. It is a systemic problem.

    We need to demolish not deny the logic presented above. The easiest way is to throw away the concept of marginal utility but unfortunately too many people have been conditioned to think in these terms.

    However, who said that what matters to me and my family is the maximisation of the utility function of Australia as a whole? I am a retarded libertarian from the previous blog and I am maximising my own utility function. The sick logic of “the tragedy of the commons” only applies if we lump together all the social groups, including the 1% and the miners. Looking at the social distribution of disposable income, the contribution of the coal industry and the sensitivity of the utility function defined above to coal extraction, it is obvious that for certain and quite large social groups, probably for the majority of population, any kilogram of coal excavated in Australia significantly lowers the utility function.

    We should therefore stop allowing to be brainwashed by the rhetoric of the “nation building”. I have zero common interests with Gina, Rupert and Clive. They may be citizens of the same country but I am not building the same “nation” they are, with a little help from Adani and the Chinese. There is a zero-sum game here (or worse – a negative-sum game).

    The mental trick performed by the COAL-ition was to persuade the majority (51%) of the voters that they all had vested interests in preserving the status quo – for example because their investment portfolios held by super funds included shares from the coal industry. We need to demonstrate that this is a myth. But we can’t do it on the basis of class struggle or hippy-green thinking from the 1960s. (“it is good for the community and Mother Earth”) This line of thinking has been and will be rejected. Why can’t we get rid of another type of collectivism, the “nationalist” one?

    The argument which would probably stick to the target group of undecided voters is about individual interests. Is digging up more coal in Australia in your PERSONAL interest and in the interest of your children, taking into account the environmental disaster unfolding around? How much do YOU benefit from having this industry and not having the renewable energy industry over the next 10 years or so?

    It is precisely the reversal of the argument used by the COAL-ition that Bill Shorten was about to help himself with my personal wealth by removing negative gearing, franking tax loophole and imposing higher taxes. Yet the oligarchy behind the COAL-ition is free to poison my own private air I am breathing with smoke and dust. This is what the 51% have voted for.

  7. “If it hadn’t been for any of half a dozen largely random factors”

    Species go extinct from fewer random factors. I’m thinking of, for example, Neanderthals on the Iberian peninsular and random genetic drift. Nature bats last, it’s never a counter factual.

  8. I see ads on TV now where people are being exhorted to indulge in catastrophe tourism. That term is not used but that is essentially what it is. People are being encouraged to visit recently bush-fire ravaged areas to see say a burnt field with a surviving green vineyard beside it. That’s one visual example from the ad. A local vintner is talking and encouraging the tourists to come.

    This is bizarre. We have burnt too many fossil fuels. Now, we are being encouraged to burn more to visit torched and ravaged areas to “help the local economy”. Consumption activities like tourism are not only no help, they are a negative drag and complete waste of resources compared to the activities we should be undertaking to mitigate and ameliorate climate change effects.

    Our entire political economy is profoundly maladapated to deal with this crisis. GDP as a measure is totally faulty as J.Q. has pointed out in a previous post. It does not count asset loss and certainly does not count habitat loss. The subsidized skew of activities to further unwise over-consumption (tourism rather than bush-fire resistant reconstruction for example) will see us squander many of our remaining resources in making the climate problem worse, not mitigating or ameliorating it.

  9. “global climate change is now detected instantaneously”.

    Deniers Denied. AGW fingerprint found.

    “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 now 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 Smorko 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 – coughing up for such a study. He would not only be naked, he would be see though.

    If the above study or similar becomes law, politicians ala mirrison, abbott & kelly will be consigned to the dustbin if history.

  10. Ian King, The opt-out “Prisoner’s Dilemma” approach to climate policy (the costs to us exceed the benefits to us alone, so do nothing) is popular among right-wing commentators and economists but is ethically bad. At least it would be bad ethics to Kant and others. Kant would argue that if the ethically ideal solution that we would prefer would be for all countries to mitigate their emissions then the Categorical Imperative is for us to mitigate our emissions irrespective of whether other countries do so. It seems to me Kant offers a better way of thinking about Prisoner Dilemma issues than does modern economics.

  11. I sense a change in tone in the OP, compared to others on the same topic, from anger to sorrow.

    “It seems to me Kant offers a better way of thinking about Prisoner Dilemma issues than does modern economics.”

    Better in the sense of more ethical. But it doesn’t offer a solution to the problem if other countries aren’t Kantians.

  12. Smith9 said; “Better in the sense of more ethical. But it doesn’t offer a solution to the problem if other countries aren’t Kantians.”

    “Smith9 had the field all to himself. He could get all the accolades. But. Is he waiting at the starting line?! Yes. He is waiting for 200+ of countries competitors to arrive. No one will win.”

    That is the way your para sounds to me Smith9.

  13. Climate change has challenged the notion that national sovereignty is absolute and that it is the function of the nation state to protect that sovereignty.

    Climate change does not discriminate (ash falls on the just and unjust alike).

    There is already agreement between most nations to act as one however there are those that wish to break this agreement.

  14. As a small nation, if we want our voice to be heard then we must show that we’re really serious, which will be measured on the degree of sacrifice we’re prepared to accept. Only extreme over-signalling – something on the order of Peter Dutton committing hara-kiri, or the Greens actually being considered as a party of government – will have any chance of any impact.
    And as Australians aren’t actually prepared to sacrifice anything significant we will have no impact, except as a bad example.

  15. Harry Clarke and Ian King. If Kant can’t, maybe the repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma can. Global players are noticing our repeated bludging and may bludgeon us to accept the emerging norms.

  16. Smith9, It is more ethical and, to Kant, it should guide our actions regardless of the ethical beliefs of others. We should act ethically even if the rest are greedy and selfish.

    Marginal Notes, Repeated PD’s do not inevitably imply cooperative outcomes. Cheats may prosper. Kant’s argument works without repetition.

  17. I think we are finding (once again) that cooperative and ethical societies work better than selfish societies and they care for the environment better too. Caring for the environment is not an optional extra. It is essential for human and civilizational survival.

  18. Harry, Kant says we should act ethically because it’s the right thing to do. That’s all well and good, but in the meantime there is a big collective action to be solved and Kant doesn’t help us solve it.

  19. I suspect the main problem in the modern Western mind is more fundamental than ethics. The main problem is the general and unquestioning acceptance of Cartesian Dualism. Dualist metaphysics, a dualist ontology (dividing the world or cosmos into matter and mind, material and immaterial) is at the root of our inability to understand the world, ourselves and our society. I will expand some time.

  20. It is a lie that the energy transition is an exoensive altruistic sacrifice for a country of any size pursuing it. See for instance Andrew Blakers’ scenarios for a 100% renewable electricity supply in the NEM region. This works out cheaper even before accounting for health GDP costs. The denialists should not get away with this pernicious and dishonest framing.

    The one area where a genuine tragedy of the commons still exists for Australia is coal exports. But not much: the prospects for their continuation are dim anyway.

    Australian international climate policy has not consisted of sitting on the sidelines doing nothing, as the handwringing scenario would suggest, but active sabotage. See COP 25 and the carbon trading fiddle.

  21. Smith Kant doesn’t help us solve it.

    My understanding is that Kant was pretty big on the idea of persuading people than Kant’s ideas are good ones. Perhaps one approach would be to first do that, on the basis that once people accept those ideas they will see the need to avoid creating a climate catastrophe. You just have to hope he doesn’t end up in the same ugly spot as other philosophers… where their popularity is exactly determined by how far their ideas can be perverted into support for the selfish status quo.

  22. I don’t think the Australian population cares too much about ethics at least in terms of their voting behaviour. As Neville Wran said they are greedy bastards.

  23. Take “but we’ve always had droughts and floods” and add 3 to 5 degrees to temperatures. I think that prospect is properly terrifying. I think that is the take home message I got out of the bushfire emergency.

    That anyone could seriously think Australia’s pre-existing high propensity for extreme fires means there is nothing to be anxious about from climate change baffles me. Yet our current national government appears to be run by such people, with the wide support of a host of powerful and influential people who really should know better.

  24. The bushfires have generated 2/3 of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. I assume such fires act to increase climate sensitivity as a positive feedback. Warming creates fires which increase CO2 which increase warming. The spate of recent fires in Europe, the US and Australia might suggest this feedback effect is a significant determinant of global warming.

  25. There are a lot of reinforcing feed-backs happening now re climate change. Everything flammable is burning more and better from the Australian bush to tropical forest to boreal forest. Marshes and permafrost are giving up much more methane, especially as very old permafrost melts more or less permanently. The seabed floor begins giving up more and more methane clathrates. We have started a runaway process. The earth will probably heat by up to 11 degrees C. That will be the next geological era. All ice caps will melt. Sea levels will rise by 70 meters. Not in our lifetimes of course but it will happen. There will be another “great dying”.

    Homo sapiens will be lucky not to be extinct by 2100. If homo sapiens survive, an ice-free, snow-free Antarctic (reduced in area by sea level rise) will be the last refuge of humans and many other species. Eventually, the earth could cool again. So there could be another flowering of life after this era. Hard to predict though.

  26. @Historyintime

    Wran didn’t say they were greedy bustards. He said they were greedy c***s. He also said if they wanted f**ing spiritualism they’d join the f***ing Hare Krishnas.

    This was 40 years ago. Nothing has changed, except you don’t hear much about the Hare Krishnas any more.

  27. My understanding is that Kant was pretty big on the idea of persuading people than Kant’s ideas are good ones. Perhaps one approach would be to first do that, on the basis that once people accept those ideas they will see the need to avoid creating a climate catastrophe.

    If our future depends on producing widespread understanding of Kant then we’re in very big trouble indeed, although admittedly not quite as deep in trouble as we would be if our future depended on producing widespread understanding of Hegel.

  28. Yeah, I was more thinking of someone who refuses to take any action, if they’re willing to teach Kant that’s better than nothing. Some of the online places I go are full of active nihilists “there’s a problem. There’s nothing we can do. I will criticise anyone who tries to do anything”… for them, even switching to pushing Hegel might be better.

  29. Our future depends on accepting science and using it ethically and humanely. It also depends on rejecting religion, including the religion of free markets and capitalism.

  30. This discussion has been very interesting. However, we all know how it ends.

    There will be a lot of bellowing about meeting our emission target, in a canter or not. There will be a lot of bellowing about “greens”, national parks and prescribed burning. There will be more fires followed by more shows of faux empathy and bellowing. And then, come the 2022 election, there will be the standard offer of tax cuts and the Morrison/Dutton government will be re-elected; with an increased majority.

    This is the way of the “Lucky Country”; in the true Donald Horne sense.

  31. @Smith9

    Thanks, just as Harry Truman didn’t say:

    ‘If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen’


    ‘If you can’t stand the smell get out of the shithouse’

  32. However, we all know how it ends.

    … come the 2022 election, there will be the standard offer of tax cuts and the Morrison/Dutton government will be re-elected; with an increased majority.
    This is the way of the “Lucky Country”; in the true Donald Horne sense.

    Yes, that’s what invariably happens in Australian elections: a Coalition government is re-elected with an increased majority. They never lose an election, or even a seat. Thanks for reminding us of the historical record, Stuart.

    The first Australian election I have personal memory of was the 1972 election, and I also remember that my father thought Labor would win but my mother found it hard to believe because ‘Labor never wins’. Which of them do you think was correct?

  33. Ian King – “From the point of view of a small country, like Australia, the costs of introducing policies to significantly reduce emissions (which are borne by the residents) arguably outweigh the benefits (which are dispersed more widely)”

    Is this a case of institutionalised cheating on emissions accountability giving “benefits” through making money from the activities that make the longer harms – which Australia is especially vulnerable to – worse, and perhaps not considering the avoidance of those climate harms as a benefit?

    The arguments around why it is better to NOT act decisively and early are generally quite poor when examined closely – about equivalent in logic and reason (and ethics) to the argument I highlighted above (because we get droughts and fires means they are normal and we don’t have to worry about them).

    The “just 1.3% of emissions” (for 0.3% of population) thing looks like a cheaters way to argue cheating on our emissions is okay. Those using that argument would not, for example, argue that individual voters should not bother voting for the LNP because their voting contribution would be less than 1.3%. Other (higher population, higher emissions) nations having high and rising emissions ought to be cause for Australia to be alarmed and critical, calling them out and demanding better.

    Is there really any doubt that the Morrison LNP are (but only in private) pleased when India and China and others are seen to be committing to using more coal and gas?

    Instead of being deeply alarmed I think they are (quietly) pleased. Not just pleased but multiply pleased – for the broad affirmation of fossil fuel use as normal and legitimate, for the perception of weakness and pointlessness of international agreements, for the continuing growth of use of Australian coal and gas and for providing the appearance of justifications for reducing emissions ambitions.

    As far as there as sides in this, the Morrison government is on the wrong one, one that supports the activities and industries that make the climate problem worse – and in that respect they are getting Australia to punch above it’s weight.

  34. This article is food for thought as we move into scomo’s “adapt and mitigate” world, “especially in high-profile scholarly work”.

    James Wimberley 9:17 pm
    “See COP 25 and the carbon trading fiddle.”

    Ikonoclast says 9:20 am
    “There are a lot of reinforcing feed-backs happening now re climate change. ”

    mrkenfabian  9:13 am 
    “…and perhaps not considering the avoidance of those climate harms as a benefit?”

    “… This could lead to defeatism, because the problem is perceived as being out of control and unsolvable. Pressingly, it might result in poor planning, whereas a more realistic range of baseline scenarios will strengthen the assessment of climate risk.”…

    Yet “… This will require years of work. Meanwhile, three steps should be taken over the next year in the lead-up to AR6, to set the climate community on the right road. The latest generation of climate models has just come out, and many researchers are now selecting which future emissions scenarios to use in studies.”…

    “More than a decade ago, climate scientists and energy modellers made a choice about how to describe the effects of emissions on Earth’s future climate. That choice has had unintended consequences which today are hotly debated. With the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) moving into its final stages in 2020, there is now a rare opportunity to reboot.

    “RCP8.5 was intended to explore an unlikely high-risk future2. But it has been widely used by some experts, policymakers and the media as something else entirely: as a likely ‘business as usual’ outcome. A sizeable portion of the literature on climate impacts refers to RCP8.5 as business as usual, implying that it is probable in the absence of stringent climate mitigation. The media then often amplifies this message, sometimes without communicating the nuances. This results in further confusion regarding probable emissions outcomes, because many climate researchers are not familiar with the details of these scenarios in the energy-modelling literature.

    “This is particularly problematic when the worst-case scenario is contrasted with the most optimistic one, especially in high-profile scholarly work.”…

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