The Australian Bush Fires and Climate Change denial

The Australian Bush Fires and Climate Change denial January 18, 2020

I have a friend; shocking, I know. He is not a climate change denialist, but he does believe that well-meaning greenies too often lay the blame for any unseasonable weather event at the feet of Climate Change (hereafter ‘CC’), and then use it as a stick to beat any of the usual green/left targets into submission. His complaint is that CC is becoming a religion. Whilst he hasn’t used this phrase, I don’t think I’m doing him a disservice by saying that his concern is that a lot of the people on the left are guilty of deploying ‘climate change of the gaps’ arguments.

For those that don’t get the reference, there is a certain breed of religious person that will explain anything that they don’t understand by saying ‘God did it’, thus they are using God to plug gaps in their knowledge, hence ‘God of the gaps’.

What I want to do with this post is examine some of the support he’s provided for his position. He stated that the Australian fires are not the result of climate change but of resource mismanagement in the Australian bush. Here is a quote from one of his friends that he provided to me that I think adequately sums up his position:

“…the chief reason for the bush fires is poor land management – trees have been planted and allowed to grow unfettered – largely because it’s seen as the ‘environmentally correct’ thing to do; a philosophy driven, I’d guess, by well-meaning CC activists. A great example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.”

Prior to the above quote he had posted this video.

He subsequently posted a link to this article.

And then directly posted this extract from it:

The eucalyptus oil in the leaves is highly flammable. Eucalyptus oil, leaf litter and peeling bark can produce during dry, windy weather terrifying firestorm. If not managed, the bush fuel piles up to produce extremely dangerous conditions that will eventually end up in catastrophic bush fires.

Regretfully, extraordinarily little is now done to prevent bush fires in Australia. While there has been negligible precautionary burning, and reducing cleaning of public areas, citizens have also been prevented from cleaning up their own land, and the nearby reserves, by impossible rules. For example, citizens living in the bush were not authorized to clear their block of land when building their home, as it was requested to them to plant a new native tree for every tree removed on the same land, no matter how small the land was, passing through lengthy and expensive planning permit approvals are not authorized now to get rid easily of the big branches, and the bulk biomass, as city councils collect only a small green bin for leaves and small brunches twice a month, and burning of biomass is always forbidden;

In what is called native reserves or forests, nobody can remove fallen branches, cut the grass, or perform any cleaning, as that environment is “untouchable”; fuel build up along the boundary of properties is also ignored as a problem; as the preventive burning of the large areas has been dramatically reduced, the chance to have bush fires started from the surrounding and moving to inhabited areas, or vice versa, are extremely likely during the hot dry season.

The Australian bush cannot be left as-it-is without any management. If some of the biomass is not collected or burned, then the bush will burn, and climate change has nothing to do with this.

The main points, paragraph by paragraph, being:

  1. Eucalyptus oil is highly flammable so fallen branches should not be allowed to pile up.
  2. Not enough clearing of potential fuel is being done, and legislation actively discourages such actions.
  3. This legislation is especially problematic in native reserves or forests.
  4. Climate change has nothing to do with these failures.

I think the above evidence provided in support of my friend’s claim is enough to be going on with. Rather than the broader claim that CC has become like a religion I’ll be looking at the smaller claim that the skeptical and scientific view is that the current Australian bushfires are due to resource mismanagement and not CC, as outlined in those four points above.

For me, the single biggest red flag is the swapping of one essentialist claim for another. This creates a false dichotomy. My position is that CC is a larger contextual factor that exacerbates local factors (such as localized climate patterns, resource management and so on) and that whilst some people may indeed reflexively blame CC in isolation, these people are a vocal minority and no more likely to be right (or wrong) than those that claim that it is some other single thing.

So let’s look more closely at the evidence provided.

When does two equal one?

The video and the “scientific” paper linked to above were provided as two distinct pieces of supporting evidence for the overall claim that resource mismanagement is solely to blame. The problem is, they probably are not distinct pieces of evidence. First, note that the radio station that had the interview with David Packham is called 2GB. A quick check finds that the ‘2’ refers to the state of New South Wales (all NSW postcodes start with a ‘2’). GB refers to the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (who was famously burned at the stake for contradicting Catholic orthodoxy on the nature of God). Why is this relevant? Well, take a look at the chosen nom de plume of the author of the paper. This could of course just be an irrelevance, but having a radio station named after Giordano Bruno corroborate a paper written by someone under the same (assumed) name is certainly a red flag for coordinated misinformation.

When is a scientific publication not a scientific publication?

The article posted to support the video is on the impressive-sounding Principia Scientific International website. This “journal” uses a method of peer review called ‘PROM’ (Peer-Review in Open Media) that is one step removed from a social media comments thread, as can be seen in their description of the system, here. It is clearly open to abuse, not least because the ultimate arbiters of what counts as “good science” is the PSI editorial team, not independent scientists with the relevant credentials. This might explain why the title of the paper includes the thoroughly unscientific (but very Breitbart) phrase “the insane true cause…

This “journal” also scores a supreme own goal. They refer to the process as peer review and make it sound all very egalitarian by opening it up to the public – more or less – but in doing so they change the very meaning of the word peer. If the general public reviews papers, the author is admitting that their peers are members of the general public not members of the relevant science community. To reference any paper published by this journal, then, is the very definition of an appeal to authority.

Note that, contrary to what a lot of climate deniers believe, referencing an actual authority – or several – is not an appeal to authority; referencing a self-proclaimed authority, or someone who is an authority, but in a different area to the topic of discussion, is an appeal to authority.

What is also interesting (to me, at least) is that there is a feud going on between IPS and the climate change skeptic website, Watts Up With That (WUWT), as can be seen here:

As readers may know, Dr. Roy Spencer and I have had a long running disagreement with the group known as “Principia Scientific International” aka the Sky Dragon Slayers after the title of their book. While I think these people mean well, they tend to ignore real world measurements in favor of self-deduced science. They claim on their web page that “the Greenhouse gas effect is bogus” and thus ignore many measurements of IR absorptivity in the atmosphere which show that it is indeed a real effect. Rational climate skeptics acknowledge that the greenhouse effect exists and functions in Earth’s atmosphere, but that an accelerated greenhouse effect due to increased CO2 emissions doesn’t rise to the level of alarm being portrayed. Yes, there’s an effect, but as recent climate sensitivity studies show, it isn’t as problematic as it is made out to be.

All of this is sufficient cause to ignore the contents of PSI as a whole and this article in particular, but let’s give it the (very large) benefit of the doubt.

On a side note, WUWT uses the term “well meaning” to dismiss PSI. My friend (and his friend, whom I quoted earlier) has used this exact phrase to dismiss the greenies and lefties (also dismissive phrases) and their “meddling” in political decision-making (which we’ll get to). PSI, a self-styled online scientific journal, is having a spat with a blog run by a former meteorologist. This is not the behaviour of a reputable scientific journal (and, for the record, a meteorologist is not necessarily a climate scientist).

As this all started with a link to a video, I suppose it’s a propos that WUWT also have an ongoing spat with my preferred source of Climate Change-related videos, YouTuber (former geologist and BBC science presenter) PotHoler54. To be clear, I am not suggesting that a geologist is any more of a climate scientist than a meteorologist, however, part of what geologists do is to analyse such things as weathering, sedimentation and other impacts of historical climate. PotHoler54 consistently does what I’m trying to do here, unpick the tangled web of blog posts and opinions pieces (and, lets be frank, pseudoscience).

Some good (and relevant) examples of what PotHoler does are here:
Have 400 papers just DEBUNKED global warming?
Top 10 climate change myths

We have reasonable cause to believe that PSI is a bad source and that the radio interview is simply a restatement of the same “self-deduced science”. But it would be fallacious (poisoning the well) to dismiss the claims simply on that basis. It is, however, a very good reason to be dubious. That having been said, David Packham does have published papers under his name, and on this topic, see for example, Climate Change and Biomass Burning, so let’s address the specifics of the above claim (not those in the paper I just linked).

Packham on ‘Greenies’ and Policy

David Packham is retired now (since at least 2009) and there does seem to be more than an element of bitterness (or exasperation) to his claims that the current fires are “only” due to resource mismanagement and that this mismanagement is due to greenies. He is quoted in a paper analyzing media narratives regarding bushfires, here:

David Packham, a former supervising meteorologist for fire weather nationwide at the Bureau of Meteorology, accused environmentalists of behaving like “eco-terrorists waging a jihad” against prescribed burning.

“The green movement is directly responsible for the severity of these fires through their opposition to prescribed burning,” Mr Packham said. (The Australian, 12 February 2009)

Here’s the paragraph that precedes the above quote from that paper:

Environmentalists were a second principal target for blame [after the government]. Often in concert, nearly a third of the 230 instances targeted environmentalists for allegedly opposing prescribed burning. More than half of these were news stories; almost 1 in 10 voiced blame for environmentalists alone. The Murdoch owned newspapers targeted “greenies” the most (9 of 37 Australian stories and 4 of 14 Herald Sun stories). The blame was categorical.

The Greens have been the targets of related misinformation attacks, here:

A purported screenshot from the website of the Australian Greens party has been shared hundreds of times in multiple posts on Facebook and Twitter alongside a claim that it shows the party altered its policy to support backburning in November 2019, just as deadly bushfires intensified in Australia. The claim is misleading; digital archives show the Greens have maintained supportive policy positions on hazard reduction burns and backburning on their website since at least March 2019, months before the bushfires began in September 2019.

 

Australian MP Barnaby Joyce says “greens policy” gets in the way “of many of the practicalities of fighting a fire and managing it.” Joyce is an MP for the National Party of Australia (roughly equivalent to one nation Tories). As is so often the case, when a nominally centre right politician is deflecting blame onto Greens or other more left-leaning politicians, it is to distract from the current reality. Australia is the world’s largest exporters of coal, and they have the fourth highest per capita carbon footprint in the world (see image below, from here). Between 2005 and 2030 the Australian percentage of the world’s CO2-e output is projected to go from 1.5% to 1.3% – that is for a country that makes up 0.3% of the world’s population. So Greg Mullins, former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, is clearly correct when he says, “Blaming ‘greenies’ for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim”.

Debunking this blame-framing is, again, trivially easy. The Greens have never been in power in Australia and they are not one of the major parties, as such their influence is minimal. Unless the claim is that they wield significant influence behind the scenes that is far out of step with the size of the party. Such a claim is not credible, and haring off down that rabbit hole quickly leads to absurdity that should be an embarrassment to those making the claims.

In addition, the policies that block property owners from carrying out fire reduction measures don’t exist, in fact, quite the opposite. Professor Ross Bradstock, the director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, says property holders are largely free to carry out fuel removal activities themselves without needing to seek permits.

The Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy supports this – here is a smattering of the fuel clearing and fire prevention activities that landowners can undertake without a permit:

  • continued lawful land uses that were occurring before July 2000. This includes activities that have continued in the same location without enlargement, expansion or intensification, including activities done cyclically over long periods of time such as works to reduce the fire risk. The types of activities that might fall within this category include:
    • maintaining access tracks and fire breaks
    • maintaining existing fire infrastructure, services and utilities
    • doing routine controlled burns of the type that have occurred in the past
  • forestry operations done in accordance with a Regional Forest Agreement (as defined in the Regional Forest Agreement Act 2002)
  • activities done in accordance with an endorsed strategic assessment policy, plan or program under national environment law

Fire prevention activities that are unlikely to require approval by the federal government may include:

  • routine fuel reduction burns, including roadside burns, done in accordance with state or territory law requirements
  • routine maintenance of existing fire breaks, fire infrastructure, services and utilities
  • clearing of a defendable space around a home or rural asset in accordance with state/territory and local government requirements.

The full list of inclusions, exclusions, and the application process for those actions that aren’t allowed is viewable here.

So Packham is wrong about both the green influence on fire reduction legislation and what that legislation actually is.

Over and above this legislation, the Australian governments (both central and state) have been actively encouraging the clearing of large areas of bush and forest, at the rate of 395,000 hectares a year (in Queensland).

According to Bill McCormick, in an Analysis for Parliament of Australia, Queensland and New South Wales implemented more stringent vegetation management controls in 2006, resulting in decreased deforesting. From 1991 to 2014, the effective greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation dropped from 98 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2-e in 1991 to 34 Mt CO2-e in 2014. However, a change in state governments (in 2012 and 2011, respectively) resulted in a loosening of the restrictions on land clearing in both states. In Queensland clearing (by area) tripled. This of course means that there are fewer trees to burn, which will be an important point later.

Land cover change in Queensland 2012–13 and 2013–14
Statewide Landcover and Trees Study
(note: HVR stands for high value regrowth vegetation)

Packham on Climate Change, Science and Fires

Packham ridicules fire chiefs and scientists for suggesting that climate change is in anyway causal to the current fires. Yet, in his own interview (at around the 8 minute mark), he makes reference to the necessary (but sufficient only in combination) aspects of the phenomenon of bushfires:

  1. Hot, dry, windy weather
  2. Fuel
  3. An ignition source

Science it may be, rocket science it is not. In his rush to blame, in isolation, the mismanagement of fuel, now well and truly debunked, Packham ignores the unholy trinity of hot, dry and windy weather and whether or not that is to do with climate change.

Hot?

Australia, for the first time ever, has experienced a number of days where the top temperature, in all seven states simultaneously, was over 40 degrees Celsius. It definitely is hot. Even if you disagree with the degree to which carbon leads to warming (and Packham seems to), you cannot plausibly deny that it does (as noted by WUWT), because that would be to ignore physics. The fact that carbon is in the atmosphere at 50% greater rates than it was in pre-industrial times means that carbon is, to some degree, causal in these high temperatures.

Dry?

Australia has been in drought since January of 2017. In December of 2019 Australia continued to have a number of areas noted as having had the least rainfall since records began (see image below). If we’re denying physics (as noted above) we can claim that this is not due to temperature, otherwise that interpretation is not available to us.

Rainfall deficiencies continue with Australia’s driest December on record

 

Windy?

Simply put: yes.

Other Climate effects

There are, as with any complex system, other causal factors that create these hot, dry and windy conditions. In Australia’s case there are the opposing El Niño and La Niña effects in the Pacific and other current-derived effects in the Southern Ocean (the Southern Annular Mode) and Indian Ocean (Indian Ocean Dipole). These, however, are still within the context of Climate Change more generally, and are impacted by air temperature, the dissolving of carbon into the ocean and the exchange of heat and carbon between the oceans and the atmosphere. These are facts that only rabid denialism can ignore, primarily by, you guessed it, denying physics.

Fuel

It is clear that fuel and the management thereof is key to the Australian situation, as noted above. However, to claim that – somehow – fuel is not also affected by just how hot, dry and windy it is again ignores physics. Furthermore, given that this current fire season started two months early, there hasn’t been the necessary window in which to do the necessary burning. Bill McCormick notes in his paper ‘Is Fuel Reduction Burning the Answer?’

While fuel reduction burning is the principal means to reduce the risks of bushfire, under extreme conditions bushfires can burn across land with very low fuel loads, which would have been halted under milder conditions.

In addition, and in Greg Mullins words, “…the windows for standard hazard reduction measures during winter months [are] becoming increasingly sparse.” That said, one paper suggests that,

…prescribed burning can theoretically mitigate wildfire, but that an unrealistically large area would need to be treated to affect fire behaviour across [Tasmania].

Clearly, the island of Tasmania is much more contained than the continent of Australia, but this illustrates the point that different approaches may be necessary for locations that are otherwise quite close to each other, seemingly similar and with the same central government.

Packham on emergency leaders

Finally, I want to discredit Packham’s claims about the failure of the fire chiefs. The best way to do this is to point to an actual request by Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) – a collection of fire chiefs and other emergency leaders (past and present) – to government. These are the headlines from that list of 20:

  1. The Federal Government to take immediate measures to aid current firefighting and community protection efforts by the States and Territories.
  2. Longer term, the Federal Government can make effective strategic interventions to increase community resilience and support fire and emergency services to cope with a more dangerous environment.
  3. Risks and strategic fuel management requirements. A suitable reporting and auditing framework should be integral to this work.
  4. Government action on climate change, the key driver of worsening fire and extreme weather risks.

This list seems to me to be the right things and, crucially, in the right order (i.e. Climate Change last). Points two and three are in agreement with Packham’s general thesis, so he should be supporting these calls, not muddying the waters on talk radio.

Other bushfire seasons

Finally, and to move away from Packham, many climate change denialists seek to attack the Climate Change narrative by pointing to prior fire seasons and how they have been more severe (though the definition of “severe” changes as needed). The key season being mentioned is the 1974-1975 season. In this case “severe” means ‘amount of land area burned’. The comparative severity of that season is trivially dismissed by the fact that the current season still has at least two – and as much as four – months to run (see image and caption below). In addition, the mid-70s are still during a time when carbon was much higher than in pre-industrial times, so the comparison actually doesn’t help their case.

Satellite image of heat spots in Northern Territory in May of 2019.

The fire that these denialists are referencing did indeed take out a larger area of land (based on the area burned to date), however, critically, the bulk of that area was grass- and scrubland. Whilst the 50-70,000 fires that occur per bush fire season are not exclusively limited to such “bush” that is where the majority of fires take place; no surprise, given that grass and scrub are quicker to dry. This current season is unusual because it is taking out sizeable areas of established forest and woodlands. Of course, as noted previously, sizeable chunks of such woodland that might otherwise have burned have been felled so, as a percentage of available land area, the current fires have many thousands of hectares less area that can burn. If the ’74-’75 fires are to be compared to the current fires maybe it should be on the basis of a percentage of land that could be burned… and at the actual end of the season, once all of the fires are out.

Summary

To revisit and rebut the points in the “Giordano Bruno” article (which is more or less a restatement of Packham’s position):

  1. Eucalyptus oil is highly flammable so fallen branches should not be allowed to pile up.

They aren’t. Or at least there is no legal impediment to clearing them.

  1. Not enough clearing of potential fuel is being done, and legislation actively discourages such actions.

The issues here are resources (time and people), which is mostly an issue of policy (and nothing to do with “Greenies”), and the length of the season available to do this via burning is as short as three months (as in the Northern Territory), and certainly shorter than it was when Packham was actively working in the field (at least 10 years ago).

  1. This legislation is especially problematic in native reserves or forests.

In reality, Australia’s east coast is a world hotspot for clear felling, thanks to Government rather than Green policy. Protection laws have in fact been loosened, but it’s not just the fuel that’s being cleared.

  1. Climate change has nothing to do with these failures.

The fact and impact of fuel and its flammability are affected by how hot and dry the bush is. Fuel clearance programs that require burn-off require large windows of appropriate conditions to carry out; these have been reduced by a hotter, drier climate. Forest clearing, simultaneously removes areas of fuel but also reduces the carbon-sink land area of Australia, and it is continuing apace.

The four main points made by ECLA address all of the issues noted by Packham and then some:

  1. take immediate measures to aid current firefighting and community protection efforts.
  2. make effective strategic interventions to increase community resilience and support fire and emergency services
  3. a suitable auditing framework for strategic fuel management requirements.
  4. action on climate change

Packham is not wrong about fuel clearing, he’s just wrong in how he goes about promulgating his views about it. He is attacking the very group of people that would be most likely to enact the measures he believes are necessary (and more besides) and in doing so is adding fuel to the fire of denialism. In Australia, such denialism is in bed with clear felling for agriculture and the exporting of coal. 

Conclusion

In the maelstrom of misinformation that is the public square, it is incredibly easy to be seduced by reasonable-sounding bad actors, and even just people with good ideas who are using deceptive means to get their ideas accepted. What is clear is that Climate Change is a large contextual factor for the Australian bushfires with implications and ramifications for how fuel and other resources should be (and can be) managed.

The unpopular take home is that Australia, in the medium term, needs volunteer bush fuel clearers. This is more thankless and less “romantic” than being a volunteer bush fire fighter, but prevention is clearly better than cure. This, ironically, makes the management of fuel loads in the Australian bush an excellent metaphor for Climate Change more generally.

 

Further reading:

Debunked Australian Bushfire Conspiracy Theories Were Pushed by Alex Jones, Murdoch Media

Media reaction: Australia’s bushfires and climate change

Factcheck: Is there really a green conspiracy to stop bushfire hazard reduction?

It’s Clear Who’s to Blame for Australia’s Fires, and It’s Not Arsonists

 


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