Tony Abbott and the politicization of tragedy

Tony Abbott bushfires coherent argument

While I was blogging about anti-politics, unseasonal bushfires were raging through New South Wales. This has happened as Australia’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Liberal/National Coalition prepare to scrap the meagre climate policies of the previous government. On 16 October, Greens MP Adam Bandt wrote in the Guardian:

Abbott is failing in what Ronald Reagan reportedly described as a government’s first duty: to protect its people. Global warming poses the biggest ever threat to Australians and the Australian way of life, but he is siding with the enemy. This week he has put us on the fast-track to become the first ever country to introduce a price on pollution, and then repeal it. […]

Global warming is already damaging the health and the way of life of ordinary Australians and unless we act those threats will become catastrophic. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) predicts that under extreme climate change, the kind of bushfires we saw in Victoria on Black Saturday may happen on average once every two years (and we shouldn’t forget that more people died from the summer’s heatwave than the fires themselves). I drove past world-renowned wineries in southwest WA a few weeks ago, where the Climate Commission says climate change is drying the region, threatening WA’s agriculture and biodiversity. The Climate Commission also warns of impacts on our fish stocks as the ocean absorbs CO2 and acidifies. […]

Donning a volunteer firefighter uniform for the media is a con if you’re also helping start fires that put people’s lives in danger.

If our prime minister truly wants to protect the Australian people, he must help fend off dangerous global warming, the country’s biggest ever threat.

(As a side note, being only one person Abbott can make little difference to a state-wide emergency, so by his own logic doesn’t that make his participation in the fire-fighting irrational?)

The next day, Bandt repeated his message on Twitter and on ABC TV, and was joined by Greens leader Christine Milne. The right-wing media hit back with editorials and opinion pieces denouncing Bandt’s comments as “insensitive.” What could be a more sensitive response to a tragedy than seeking to prevent such tragedies from recurring with increasing frequency and severity?

Environment Minister Greg Hunt accused the Greens of “politicizing” the fires – but tragedies have causes, and some of those causes can be addressed through political means. Commenting on the political causes and implications of a tragedy is not “politicizing”, because the causes and implications are already political.

And then a cacophony of voices began to chime in on Bandt’s side. First climate activist groups and individuals on Twitter; then scientists; firefighters; several political commentators; Labor backbenchers; letters to the editor; cartoonists; The Age; and Al Gore. Lenore Taylor wrote that extreme weather is “the elephant in the room” and “policymakers can no longer credibly look away”, while 7:30 interviewed several scientists confirming “the link between global warming and fires is established and demands action”. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres stated the fires show we are “already paying the price of carbon” and “just introductions to the doom and gloom that we could be facing”. Even the Liberals’ NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell admitted: “clearly, I think that’s the science”.

Abbott maintained silence on the issue for a week, until he was eventually asked to comment by denialist radio host Neil Mitchell. Abbott dismissed Figueres as “talking through her hat”, saying “these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they’re just a function of life in Australia”. Then Hunt told the BBC:

I looked up what Wikipedia said just to see what the rest of the world thought. It opened up with the fact that, ‘bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year due to Australia’s mostly hot, dry, climate’.

Greg Hunt, master of the bleeding obvious!

When asked about Abbott’s alleged 2009 remark that climate change science is “absolute crap”, Hunt became defensive, berating the interviewer for “swear[ing] on international radio”. Hunt went on to say:

I think we’ve all got to be very careful, in talking with the senior people at the Bureau of Meteorology, for example, they always emphasise, never trying to link any particular event to climate change.

Again, Hunt is stating the obvious in an attempt to obfuscate a more important point. It’s true we can’t say whether global warming caused a single fire, just as we can’t say tobacco smoking caused a single case of lung cancer, but in both cases we know it dramatically worsens the odds. There is an established causal link between global warming and increases in many types of extreme weather events, including bushfires.

It’s not rocket science. Global warming means more extreme heat. The increase of energy in the climate system also causes the water cycle to intensify: more water evaporating from the ground; more water being held in the air; more water falling as rain. The combination of hotter temperatures and drier soils leads to more frequent and worse bushfires. The link between climate change and bushfires has been known for 25 years and acknowledged by former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, the Environment Department website, and the very Wikipedia page which Hunt quoted.

The controversy has sparked a spate of vandalism on Hunt’s Wikipedia page. His name is apparently “Gwegowy Andrew c’Hunt” and his nickname “Wiki Greg”. “He’s a clown.” “He was also caused by global warming, long before European settlement.” “He was raised as a eucalyptus tree and was briefly emperor of Pluto during his teens.” He “attended the Syndey School for Disenfranchised Girls” and has “a Master of Arts in Interpretative Dance”. “Hunt is married and has a daughter and a son but chooses to live at home with his mother” and “His mother tells him how proud she is each morning after she buttons up his cardigan and hands him his lunchbox as she sends him off to work.” “He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise.” Whoops, he “has proven to be awesome at his job”. “He was quoted as saying he uses Wikipedia for important policy research.” “He is known to reference Wikipedia in interview the BBC whilst coming off as a bit of a dick.And:

Hunt was appointed Environment Minister under Prime Minister Tony Abbott despite not having any interest or knowledge about the environmental challenges that Australia faces. He is, however, an avid user of Wikipedia and has taken to conducting all of his research for his ministerial role on this site. If undergraduates of university do this, they receive failing grades for work which is based on the “facts” garnered from this site, all of which are completely trustworthy and can not be changed by anyone but those who are experts in the subject matter involved.


He is notorious for using Wikipedia to conduct research on environmental issues on Wikipedia despite having access to a vast bureaucracy staffed by some of the finest and most dedicated minds in the nation, like some total turd. Critics concede that his 1990 Honours thesis on the necessity of a carbon tax was probably more academically rigorous than the manner in which he comports himself as one of the most powerful people in the country, but others defend their characterisation of the Environment Minister as an utter weiner.

It must be accurate – it comes from Wikipedia!

Hunt gave the game away later that day by saying the Government had taken “science off the table” and was “not debating it”. As Lenore Taylor wrote in the Guardian:

There is a very good reason the Coalition wants to stamp out any link in the popular debate between climate change and an increased prevalence of bushfire weather.

They remember all too well the way concerns about weather events in 2006 and 2007 forced the then Howard government to take action on climate change that it otherwise probably would not have.

As Howard wrote in his autobiography Lazarus Rising, “in the space of several weeks, commencing in October 2006, four separate events came together to push the climate change concerns of the Australian community to higher levels than ever before. In Victoria the bushfire season started early; the drought affecting large areas of eastern Australia lingered on … from outside Australia came the contributions of Al Gore … and Sir Nicholas Stern.

“These four events coincided and dramatically increased the focus on global warming in Australia … I concluded that the government would need to shift its position on climate change.”

This was apparently primarily a political consideration, since Howard says later in his book that he is “an agnostic rather than a sceptic on climate change, instinctively I doubt many of the more alarming predictions”.

For a brief period in 2006-2007, the climate movement had the Australian government on the run. Howard’s 2006 move was toward what I have described as Phase 2 of the greenwash program: an emissions trading scheme with international offsets, which could do more to prevent than drive decarbonisation in Australia. Although Howard quickly met his downfall, Labor Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard forged ahead with Phase 2 (with slight improvements made through the Greens’ negotiation with Gillard). In future, we should not settle for greenwash from either of the major parties. It’s telling that Labor leader Bill Shorten has been absent from the present bushfire debate: the reality is Labor are not so different to the Liberals.

The mental contortions of Abbott, Hunt, and Howard illustrate a common tactic of denialists of many different types. A denialist may rhetorically acknowledge the existence of the thing they deny, but obfuscate by casting excessive doubt where it is unwarranted, painting grey areas where there are none, attempting to discredit the most convincing lines of evidence or argument, and downplaying any aspect with political implications. It’s a little-known fact, for example, that Holocaust deniers don’t deny the Holocaust happened; they merely claim its scale has been exaggerated. This is why we must talk about precisely the things the Government doesn’t want us to talk about, and we must debunk all the stages of climate change denial.

There are a number of climate-related issues of which the major political parties attempt to smack down any mention. As well as the connection between climate change and present impacts such as increasing extreme weather, examples include the need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground, and any criticism of coal exports, Australia’s largest contribution to climate change. The Liberals do not want to talk about climate science at all, and lash out at any accusation of “denialism”. It’s understandable when climate activists are intimidated into shutting up and focusing on topics which the political establishment doesn’t mind discussing. But the Government’s bluster may be a hint they realize their position is weaker than they let on. Certainly, it makes no logical sense.

In calling out the Government, Bandt has succeeded in doing something not even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could manage: putting climate change back in the headlines. Blogger David Spratt argues this is instructive:

The debate which has erupted over extreme climate events has important lessons for all those urging more, not less, action on climate change. The story should be about people in Australia and not distant places, about now and not just the distant future, about connecting the dots between extreme events and global warming. It is a story about record heat and bush fires, about how family and friends will live in a hotter and more extreme world, about how a retreating coastline will affect where we live and work, a story about health and well-being, about increasing food and water insecurity, and the more difficult life that children and grandchildren will face. This makes climate action a values issue, the choice between increasing climate harm and climate safety.

Abbott’s position is a non-policy. Instead of addressing the human cause of increasingly extreme weather, he intends to sit back and wait for disasters to happen, then pontificate that it is just something that happens, it has no political implications, and all that can be done is to fight the symptoms. His policy on fires is “We didn’t start the fire”. His policy on droughts is “I wish it would rain”. And his policy on floods is “Don’t go out in the pouring rain”. The only thing he will do to address the actual causes of global warming is to replant the trees that have just burned down.

Prevention is better than cure. Surely when an activity is known to be creating tragic consequences, leaders have a responsibility to both acknowledge the link and do something about it. But Abbott and Hunt don’t want to do that, because it would mean standing up to the powerful fossil fuel lobby, who have denied the facts and sabotaged action for 25 years and privately laugh about it.

On the other hand, maybe that’s an insensitive thing to say.

2 pings

  1. […] on decisions made in this decade. At less than 1°C of global warming, we’re already experiencing impacts costing human lives, including worsening heatwaves, floods, droughts, and bushfires. Under current […]

  2. […] (and see the comment at Precarious Climate). […]

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