Requiem for 'AustraliaOnFire'
Don't Let Australia's Climate Catastrophe Drop Down the Memory Hole | ISSUE 27, jan28.2020
|Jan 28, 2020||3|
Have you forgotten about Australia yet? If you don’t live there, what has been dubbed “Australia’s costliest natural disaster” may have already dropped far down your social media timelines or been pushed down the memory hole.
So, let’s yank #AustraliaOnFire (a popular Twitter hashtag for the conflagration) back into view if it has dropped off your radar. After all, if a mega-climate catastrophe can happen there, it can surely happen here—wherever ‘here’ is for you.
These are no longer predictions, but frontline news at 11. As Karan Graham writes in Digital Journal, Australia has become “the poster child” for the climate crisis.
Climate scientist Michael E. Mann has been on sabbatical in Sydney to study linkages between climate change and extreme weather events. He wrote a speak-truth-to-Australian-power piece for the Guardian from his frontline view on the climate crisis:
… [For} Australia, dangerous climate change is already here. It’s simply a matter of how much worse we’re willing to allow it to get.
Beyond Australia, as professor Richard Betts warns, the fires may be a glimpse of a new normal for life on Earth unless we take concerted, immediate action:
“It tells us what the future world might look like. This really brings home what climate change means.”
Nearly 30 Human Deaths and Millions of Animals
Tens of thousands of koalas are among hundreds of millions of animals killed by the ongoing Australian fires. Use of the above painting by West Virginia watercolor artist Jes Reger, and other sales of the drawing, benefit animal relief efforts in the country.
Since they are still burning as I write, it’s hard to estimate the eventual cost of Australia’s 2019-20 megafires, which climate scientists say were clearly magnified by a warming climate. But direct costs will be in the billions while “the intangible costs will linger for decades if not generations.”
The megafires have so far killed nearly 30 people, including several firefighters. They’ve burned an area larger than the states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined.
Estimates suggest from a half-billion to one billion animals have died, as the New York Times attempts to nail down here. That includes 30 percent of the koala population in their main habitat. On Kangaroo Island off Australia’s southern coast, “probably more than half” of the island’s 50,000 koalas may have died.
These are apocalyptic numbers, whatever they end up being. This Australia fire season looks like something from a “Mad Max” world (whose dystopian Hollywood hellscape centered in Australia).
This BBC report is a good overview on the Australian brushfires and broader worries they may be a forecast of worse to come worldwide.
I feel it’s necessary to personalize climate change—to not let numbers numb us by their bigness. Nerilie Abram makes it personal in a Scientific American opinion piece, pointedly titled “Australia’s Angry Summer: This Is What Climate Change Looks Like.”
Abram is an investigator at the ARC Center of Excellence for Climate Extremes, who teaches at Australian National University. But it’s her own experience of a changing climate in her 42 years of life—and the hot future her kids face—that leapt out at me.
The deadliest Australian bushfires in the past 200 years took place in 1851, then 1939, then 1983, 2009, and now 2019-20, Abram writes. The years between these extreme events are shrinking rapidly:
Climate change is making Australian wildfires larger and more frequent because of its effects on dryness and fire weather. Australia’s climate has warmed by more than one degree Celsius over the past century, and this change has caused an increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves.
Then, she makes it personal:
“I am 42, and I have lived through only six years with average temperatures below the 1961–1990 climatological average,” Abram notes.
“My children have experienced none, and in all likelihood, they never will.”
Nothing To See Here
Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash
I mention the concept of ‘the memory hole’ not just as a colorful phrase. Go on Twitter and sift through comments to tweets with the hashtag #AustraliaOnFire or something similar. You’ll find a motherlode of commentators asserting that—you idiot climate alarmist hysterical people—these monster fires were most certainly caused by arson.
A memory hole is any mechanism for the deliberate alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts or other records, such as from a website or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression something never happened.
They most certainly were not, as police and media reports have consistently reported.
Yet the hashtag #ArsonEmergency began trending shortly after Jan. 1. That led Queensland University of Technology researcher Timothy Graham to see what was up. After all, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, most bushfires started by arson burn only around five hectares—a little over 12 acres—and are set by young people in disadvantaged areas.
Graham and a fellow researcher identified troll and bot social media accounts that tried to hijack the narrative to suggest the massive fires were somehow set by dozens of arsonists.
Accounts peddling #ArsonEmergency carried out activity similar to what we’ve witnessed in past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behaviour of Russian trolls during the 2016 US presidential election.
Dumping the facts of a climate catastrophe down a memory hole is the goal of such campaigns, which are targeted at not just those easily misled. As Kate Starbird writes in a “Nature” article, if we’re not clued in to the cleverness and aim of these efforts, they can leave even astute social media users vulnerable to manipulation:
Perhaps the most dangerous misconception is that disinformation targets only the unsavvy or uneducated, that it works only on ‘others’. Disinformation often specifically uses the rhetoric and techniques of critical thinking to foster nihilistic scepticism. My student Ahmer Arif has compared it to listening to static through headphones. It is designed to overwhelm our capacity to make sense of information, to push us into thinking that the healthiest response is to disengage.
‘An Absence of Values or Beliefs’
‘AustraliaOnFire’ is no hyperbole, as seen in this Google Map from government fire agencies, published Jan. 6 by NPR. Melbourne residents—more than 100 miles from the nearest fires—saw their city blanketed in smoke, which also clouded New Zealand, more than 2,500 miles away.
‘Nihilistic skepticism’ may sound appealing when confronted with the heavy lifting needed to address a global climate crisis.
Yet consider the pure nihilism of Rupert Murdoch and the many-headed Hydra of his global media misinformation News Corp. (whose FOX News-wing Murdoch has handed off to his apparently equally avaricious son, Lachlan).
n. Relentless negativity or cynicism suggesting an absence of values or beliefs.
~ from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language
It’s hard to overestimate the amount of damage one family has done to the health and well-being of political and social life in the Western world. Or how the Murdochs’ heedless pursuit of profit and their media leviathan has knee-capped global action on the climate. (Michael E. Mann puts it colorfully: “the Rupert Murdoch school of the Dark Arts.”)
As reported Jan. 10 by NPR, at least one News Corp employee in Australia had enough. She accused newspapers such as The Australian and the Herald Sun of an irresponsible "misinformation campaign."
"I find it unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies," Emily Townsend, a commercial finance manager at News Corp, wrote in an all-staff email. She added that the newspapers' angles of coverage were "not only irresponsible, but dangerous and damaging to our communities and beautiful planet."
Then, Murdoch’s other son, James, and his activist wife, Kathryn, slammed News Corp and the Murdoch-owned Fox News over the climate denialism promoted broadly in an Australian media landscape dominated by 140-Murdoch owned news outlets
“They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary,” a spokesperson for the couple told The Daily Beast
That’s a start.
Then there’s this—a one-click stop for canceling a Murdoch newspaper subscription. The service is being offered by The Chaser, which describes itself as “a satirical media which rivals Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in all fields except power, influence, popularity and profitability.”
Meanwhile, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is fighting a rear-guard action to defend his Coalition government from being pilloried worldwide and his “nothing-to-see-here” denial of any linkage to climate change.
A recent Guardian story sums up the views of the guy driving an entire continent toward a cliff, if not down a memory hole. Says Morrison:
“The suggestion that there’s any one emissions reduction policy or climate policy that has contributed directly to any of these fire events is just ridiculous and the conflation of those two things, I think, has been very disappointing.”
It remains for Australian voters burned out, smoked out and chased out from homes to decide whose stance is “just ridiculous.” NASA now reports smoke from the brushfires will circle the planet and return back to the nation from which it came.
Or as Mann writes in his Guardian piece, offering Australian voters—and by extension, voters around the world—some key electoral advice:
Australians must vote out fossil-fuelled politicians who have chosen to be part of the problem and vote in climate champions who are willing to solve it.
A Final Video—And Final Word
The last word goes to the Sydney Morning Herald and its article “What is 'real' action on climate change?” After considering a carbon tax (ruled out by Morrison); and Australia’s dickering with its carbon reduction pledges under the Paris Agreement (some have called it straight-up “sabotage”); and a deep dive into the “cap and trade” approach to CO2 reduction, the article concludes that the Morrison government is incapable of meaningfully addressing climate change:
Australia currently has no mechanism for controlling its greenhouse gas emissions and may not meet its Paris commitments.
Yet doing nothing is what got Australia into the shape it’s in now.
Emma Herd, of the Investor Group on Climate Change, which represents investors with over $2 trillion in funds, says doing nothing will not yield nothing. It will result in more catastrophes across Australia and to a planet currently wreathed in smoke from the continent’s megafires:
"The bushfires have shown that doing nothing is itself a choice," says Herd, "with radical implications as Australia is highly vulnerable to the frontline effects of climate change. As such, we are choosing to lock-in climate change and the damage it will bring rather than reduce the emission intensity of our economy. And the extent of this damage will worsen the longer we choose not to act and the more temperatures increase."
PS | You Promised Cartoons.
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