But what lies beneath our inability to engage with catastrophic fire
By David Salt
The fire emergency is over; for today, anyway. The drought, however, shows no sign of breaking and it promises to be a long, hot, fiery summer. Summer hasn’t even officially started for goodness sake but everyone is scared, frustrated and not a little angry; though who should bear the brunt of this anger depends on who you ask.
We’re scared by the science, by the forecasts and our own experience of recent summers telling us that things are changing for the worse. We’re frustrated because our political leaders are wasting their energy on obfuscation and political fights rather than seeking real engagement with the issue. They fortify their walls of denial rather than build bridges of consensus on a way forward.
There’s been a lot of media commentary on the fatuous point scoring and sniping of recent weeks as our political leaders attempted to shift the focus (and blame) in the face of catastrophic fires. Lives, houses and habitat were scorched, but our leaders seemed more concerned in blaming the other side.
We’ve seen it all before and, tragically, we’ll see it all again, and possibly very soon. I don’t just mean more catastrophic fires. We’ll see the exact same arguments erupt with the next emergency, and the one following that. And, as night follows day, the war of words we’ve just seen was also completely predictable.
So, what’s the script? When the fires return and get out of our control, tearing apart life and certainty, observers will say climate change is multiplying the stress and we need to act on the fire and climate change. Then the government will say we can’t worry about climate change till the emergency is dealt with. The greens (with most scientists onside but not entering the fray) will say this is outrageous and the government will then attempt to shout down anyone trying to extend the debate beyond the immediate emergency.
At some point, as the damage from the fire is measured, some political leader (usually from the conservatives) will inevitably blame the scale of the disaster on inadequate hazard reduction burning that should have taken place before the fires took off. They’ll blame inadequate preparation (from the government authorities) as well as too much influence from green-leaning, inner-city yuppies.
Much media attention has been given to this script in recent weeks, and each of the details it contains has been raked over in some detail. Rather than repeat that analysis* I’d like to consider what lies beneath these arguments and ask whether we are doomed to simply see them repeated into the future.
Why can’t our conservative government acknowledge climate change is real, present and an existential threat? It’s a question that has bugged me for many years.
Yes, climate denial serves vested interests, fossil fuels being key. Yes, changing the status quo is always a challenge. But I’ve always felt to generate and sustain the level of comprehensive denial we’ve seen propagated in recent years that you needed an underlying idea that trumps all other considerations.
For me, that idea is that climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change, including more taxes and higher prices to pay for mitigation).
This was the theme of my first blog in Sustainability Bites (A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change) and my conviction on this point has only grown. I won’t elaborate more on this, read it yourself if you’re interested. However, I reckon the script of denialism is never going to change until we appreciate the bedrock of ideology it emanates from.
The second part of the script on hazard reduction burning relates to the belief that humans are in control, it’s our God-given right. The destruction resulting from catastrophic fires is because we simply aren’t exerting that control.
Instead, the argument goes, we’re pandering to conservationist (green) cliques, declaring too many national parks, preventing management from whipping the landscape into a more amenable (and safe) shape. Our folly, according to this set of beliefs, allows fuel levels to build and catastrophic fires are the inevitable result.
This ideology fundamentally ignores the nature of the complex adaptive systems, the social-ecological systems of which we are a part. We can control bits of these systems but we are not in control (though we would like to think that we are). No amount of hazard-reduction burning will deliver us from catastrophic fires but it’s the refrain our leaders fall back on as the ashes cool.
It’s a similar response from those wanting more dams to drought proof us. In both cases it’s a partial solution to a complex problem that is probably impossible to implement and wouldn’t fix the problem anyway. But it gives our leaders something to say, a fig leaf of intent to cover their impotence and denial.
Given their deep ideological roots, I believe it’s inevitable the fire script will simply be replayed during future fire events. But maybe the growing dissatisfaction over our leaders’ inability to respond to the context of the fires will overwhelm its denial. The levels of outrage over recent weeks I think have surprised many.
Or maybe we’ll simply endure the government’s intransigence and vote them out at the next election (noting we failed to do this last time). Unfortunately, while we wait, listening to pitiful tune the Government is playing, Rome is burning.
By the way, did you hear the latest news? The World Meteorological Organisation has just released figures on greenhouse gases in 2018 and it makes grim reading. There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gas emissions (despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change).
*Analysing the current fire emergency: If you want to see an excellent-science based discussion on the connection between climate change and catastrophic fires see Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze or Australia bushfires factcheck: are this year’s fires unprecedented?. For an equally solid analysis of the pros and cons of hazard reduction burning, see Controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire. There’s no question our Government is on the wrong side of science (and history) in their framing of the ongoing bushfire emergency.