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.

Australia is promising $2 billion for the fires. I estimate recovery will cost $100 billion

That’s the self-explanatory headline for a piece I wrote for CNN Business in the US. Major contributors to this number, beyond the direct loss of property include

  • damage to the tourist industry (I estimate up to $20 billion)
  • health effects, including 1000 or more premature deaths from smoke (up to $10 billion)
  • need for massive expenditure to deal with future disasters
  • ecosystem destruction and wildlife deaths (impossible to value, but catastrophic)

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.

Read More »

Old men behaving badly (3rd repost)

I first posted this in 2011, reposted it in 2014 and again in 2019. Sadly, nothing changes, except that the old men keep getting stupider and behaving worse.

John Howard’s endorsement of Ian Plimer’s children’s version of his absurd anti-science tract Heaven and Earth has at least one good feature. I can now cut the number of prominent Australian conservatives for whom I have any intellectual respect down from two to one.[1] Howard’s acceptance of anti-science nonsense shows that, for all his ability as a politician, he is, in the end, just another tribalist incapable of thinking for himself. [2]

Although not all the tribal leaders are old men, an old, high-status man like Howard is certainly emblematic of Australian delusionism . Like a lot of old, high status men, he stopped thinking decades ago, but is even more confident of being right now than when he had to confront his prejudices with reality from time time. Like other delusionists, Howard has no scientific training, shows no sign of understanding statistics and almost certainly hasn’t read any real scientific literature, but nonetheless believes he can rank clowns like Plimer and Monckton ahead of the real scientists.

The situation in the US is similar but even more grimly amusing, with the sole truthteller in the entire Republican party, Jon Huntsman, recently reduced to waffling (in both US and UK/Oz senses of this term) because he briefly looked like having a chance to be the next non-Romney. This tribal mindlessness is reflected in the inability of the Republican Party, at a time when they ought to be unbackable favorites in 2012, to come up with a candidate who can convince the base s/he is one of them, but who doesn’t rapidly reveal themselves as a fool, a knave or both.

And, as evidence of the utter intellectual shamelessness of delusionism, you can’t beat the campaign against wind power, driven by the kinds of absurd claims of risk that would be mocked, mercilessly and deservedly, if they came from the mainstream environmental movement.

The global left is in pretty bad shape in lots of ways. Still, I would really hate to be a conservative right now.

fn1. Now (2014) down to zero. Turnbull has proved he lacks any real substance.

fn2. I’m not saying that all Australian conservatives are mindless tribalists. There’s a large group, epitomized by Greg Hunt and now Malcolm Turnbull, who understand the issues quite well, but are unwilling to speak up. Then there is a group of postmodern conservatives of whom Andrew Bolt is probably the best example, who have passed the point where concepts of truth or falsehood have any meaning – truth is whatever suits the cause on any given day.

The opportunity cost of destruction

With much of Australia suffering catastrophic fires and the beginning of a new war with Iran, lots of people are thinking about the idea that such disasters are good for the economy, because of the work generated in rebuilding homes, producing war materials and so on.  In my book Economics in Two Lessons, I explain why this is wrong (this is one point where I agree with Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. Here’s a link to  Chapter 6: The opportunity cost of destruction

US President Eisenhower got it right when he said

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

And the same is true for the destruction visited on us by Morrison, Trump, Murdoch and the rest of the global denial industry. The workers who will be needed to rebuild homes, farms and infrastructure could instead be employed producing useful new things. Those forgone alternatives are the opportunity cost of destruction

Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better

One point that’s come up in discussion of the fire cataclysm is the fact that anti-vaxers are viewed with contempt, and subject to sanctions like “no jab, no play”, while climate deniers are still given respectful treatment, media platforms and so on. The explanation is simple enough: climate deniers are rich, powerful and numerous, including most of the rightwing commentariat and much of the government.

Although both groups are wrong, and present a huge danger to the community, it’s important to observe that most anti-vaxers (the exceptions are charlatans like Andrew Wakefield) are honestly concerned about the health of their children, and have simply latched on to misguided information. By contrast, as I said in this 2013 piece,

The difficulty is that the proportion of tobacco and climate “sceptics” who are honestly seeking the truth is far smaller, while the proportion of paid hacks and culture warriors is far higher. Members of the latter group will seize on any concession made to encourage genuine understanding, and will use it as evidence of weakness in the scientific position.

I’d update now to say that, almost without exception, climate deniers are paid hacks, culture warriors or both.