Why you shouldn’t link a bushfire to Global Warming


As the bushfires rage on in the heart of New South Wales, a sideshow is taking place as major politicians squabble over whether or not the fires were caused by climate change. Well, no actually, certain politicians who know what they are talking about – such as the UN’s head climate change envoy Christiana Figueres – have said that, in general terms, there was a clear link between climate change and bushfires such as those raging in New South Wales. Other particular politicians (such as this one and this one) have disagreed with Ms Figueres, saying that the current bushfires were not caused by global warming, but were part of the normal “Australian experience”. The “squabble” has been manufactured by the media who by and large have no idea what both parties are arguing.

In essence, Ms Figueres was arguing that bushfires would become more common and more devastating if world leaders like Tony Abbott continued to do little to combat climate change. She even denied there was yet to be a direct link between the bushfire in NSW and climate change (see video below). She also argued that the Abbott government would pay a “very high financial price” for stepping away from a price on carbon. In other words, the price we are paying to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions today will pale in comparison to the costs of combating the consequences of climate change in the future, which include battling more natural disasters such as bushfires. This is a commonly accepted argument amongst the scientific community.

Conversely, what Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt were trying to argue is that this current bushfire has nothing to do with global warming, and was only part of the “Australian experience”. They have completely mischaracterised the argument made by Figueres by changing it from “climate change is causing more devastating bushfires across the world like the one happening now in NSW” to “the bushfire happening now in NSW is directly caused by climate change”. Yet no one seems to have pointed this out.

The difference may seem negligible, but it really isn’t. It is, by all accounts, factually correct to state that bushfires like this one are becoming the norm in Australia due to climate change. The logic in this is pretty straightforward: the hotter it gets, the greater bushfire risk there is. It is logically erroneous to suggest that this particular bushfire has its roots in global warming. That’s because the only causal linkage you can make between climate change and the weather is a statistical one – there is a statistically proven linkage between warmer temperatures across the world, caused by increasing CO2 emissions, and a higher frequency of natural disasters. Unfortunately, this is where communication of the problem breaks down.

Once you start to link climate change with individual weather events, your credibility goes down. But Ms Figueres would have been perfectly aware of this, being a seasoned climate change envoy – so much so that she made sure to point out that there wasn’t yet any evidence to suggest the NSW bushfire was caused by global warming. It is politically easy and beneficial to slightly change the emphasis of an argument to suit your needs. This is exactly what Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt have done. And I can assure you, it was perfectly contrived; this is a rhetorical game, not a scientific one.

For people in denial of climate change, it is an easy card to play to suggest that someone warning about the imminent threat of climate change is being unrealistically “alarmist” – an argument that seems to hold sway in people who don’t accept the reality of global warming. And in times of great suffering caused by a natural disaster, it is advantageous for a politician to criticise someone else for trying to link that suffering to climate change, an already politically sensitive topic. This is ironic because the suffering may have been caused by a natural disaster made more probable by the existence of climate change.

Greg Hunt used Wikipedia to reject claims climate change leads to more bushfires in Australia, even though it clearly states it does (see here)

The usage of the term “Australian experience” is clearly a rhetorical ploy as well. It’s as if Tony Abbott were saying, “who is this woman, sitting in an office in a tall UN building overseas, to tell us about what happens in our own country?” To all the conservatives and rural battlers who have been dealing with drought and heat all the time, the occurrence of this current bushfire would have fit perfectly normally within their worldview and causal beliefs. Their experience and observations would make more sense to them than the opinion of a UN politician would; their subjective experiences would not translate to any semblance of truth when compared against the statistics, however (all you have to do to find out about this is visit Wikipedia, Greg Hunt). It is a cunning, yet very old political strategy to make a distinction between “us” (Australians) and “them” (UN figures) and to demonise the ideology of the other group, which is in this case the belief in global warming.

It’s the oldest trick in the book, to be honest. But the media have lapped it up. And this isn’t even the Murdoch press – this is Fairfax, who are supposed to be the left-wing, pinko commies from the other side of the block. They think they’re doing the public a service by showing Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt to be anti-environment and anti-climate change. Instead, by failing to point out that both men are trying to divert the public conversation to an argument that is more favourable to them, Fairfax is essentially allowing them a free pass to do this.

And this reflects one of the inherent difficulties in communicating climate change to the masses. It is too much of a complex issue to be reduced down to simple journo-speak. It is not enough to report on the “he-said, she-said” type of stories that make other political conversations so enthralling. Tony Abbott is not an authority on whether bushfires are becoming more frequent because of global warming. So why bring him into the public spotlight at all?

The only person who could authoritatively tell you about the link between global warming and bushfires is a climate scientist. Not a politician. But if you continue to run stories about a non-expert’s opinion on how individual weather events aren’t caused by global warming – when technically the claim cannot be proved wrong – people are going to listen to them.

In the meantime, for all those suffering from the bushfires, take care and good luck…

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