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.

Economic estimates don't account for tragic bushfire toll

That;s the headline for my latest piece for Independent Australia Obviously, costs like ecosystem destruction and the deaths of millions of native animals can’t easily be put into the framework of the National Accounts. But, even if we stick to the National Accounts, Gross Domestic Product is a terrible measure of economic welfare. As I always say, there are three reasons for that; it’s Gross, it’s Domestic and it’s a Product.

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.

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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.

Slow burn

That’s the headline for my latest article in Inside Story. Summary graf

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.

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Burning the surplus

Scott Morrison’s total paralysis in the face of the bushfire emergency gave rise to the most convincing excuse for his recent disappearance – he wasn’t doing anything anyway, so why shouldn’t he go?

Part of his problem is that any serious discussion of the problem involves climate change, and even one pull on that thread would risk unravelling the shroud of deception he and the rest of the right are sheltering beneath.

But surely Scotty from Marketing could come up with a campaign that appeared to take action on the bushfires themselves without doing anything about the underlying cause. There’s another factor that hasn’t been mentioned, as far as I can see.

What credibility the government has is tied to its claim that this is the year we will return to surplus for good. The mid-year outlook makes this pretty shaky, projecting a $5 billion surplus this year and $6 billion next year.

The economic impact of the fires is going to be at least as big as that, and the cost of a comprehensive program to respond to them even more. Property damage must be well into the billions (for comparison, the 2011 floods in Queensland were estimated to cost $10 billion), and the loss of business, particularly in tourism, much more than that.

Think of what would be needed for a basic program responding to the new normal (that is, normal, until things get even worse in the future). That includes payment of volunteer firefighters, massive new purchases of firefighting equipment, reequipping the defence forces to make them more useful in emergencies like this, and replacing damaged public infrastructure. It’s obvious that $5 billion a year would be little more than a down payment.

Until this particular element of reality penetrates Scott and Josh’s bubble, nothing serious will be done.