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Lessons from Australia’s Bushfires: We Need More Science, Less Rhetoric

Over the last two weeks, the Royal Australian Navy has been evacuating thousands of residents fleeing uncontrollable bushfires in the south-eastern part of my country. Amid scenes of desperate Australians being rescued from beaches, national-security writer Craig Hooper has called the operation a “mini-Dunkirk.”

At least 24 lives have been lost, and many others are missing. Hundreds of homes and businesses have been incinerated, as have more than 60,000 square kilometres of bushland. The Premier of my home state of New South Wales, the region that’s been worst affected, describes the crisis as “uncharted territory,” with some towns at risk of being completely wiped out. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who took a brief holiday at the start of the crisis, has been accused of poor leadership. And critics have taken the opportunity to demand that Australia’s climate policy be immediately overhauled to reflect this national disaster.

But what exactly is causing this year’s extreme fire season? Climate change? Arson? Drought? In fact, it’s all of the above.

In 2019, short-term weather fluctuations in the Indian Ocean—the Indian Ocean Dipole, as scientists call it—pushed moist ocean air away from Australia’s shores, causing a severe drought, and drying out the leaves, sticks and soil on the bush floor.

Rainfall Deficiencies 1 April 2018 to 31 December 2019. Source: Bureau of Meteorology, Australia. (CC BY 3.0 AU)

This has come in tandem with unusually strong and sustained winds associated with a separate phenomenon known as the Antarctic Oscillation, which have pushed fires in all directions, turning isolated local crises into regional disasters. And of course all of this comes amid a steady increase in average temperatures across Australia, a phenomenon that climate scientists have warned us about for decades. They also have correctly predicted that long-term climate-change trends will increasingly interact disastrously with short-term climate phenomena in a way that catalyses and exacerbates extreme weather events.

Time series graph of annual mean temperature anomalies in Australia from 1910-2019. Source: Bureau of Meteorology, Australia. (CC BY 3.0 AU)

Unfortunately, successive Australian governments have failed to adequately heed these warnings. A more aggressive use of controlled burns might have given firefighters a chance to control this season’s bushfires. But, as has been the case in other nations, climate policy in Australia has been mired in partisan politics, with both sides using the issue to score points instead of implementing sensible and pragmatic policies.

Conservatives in Australia, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have rejected warnings about long-term climate trends. The Greens, on the other hand, err in the other direction, inventing direct causal relationships between individual politicians and unusual weather events, implying that short-term weather trends can be manipulated by national governments. Both approaches are wrong.

As recent events show, variations in the aforementioned Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) can make Australian weather patterns inherently volatile, especially since the drying effects of a positive IOD phase often coincide with El Niño events in the Southern Pacific, which weaken (or reverse) the trade winds that bring rain to Australia from the east. (Indeed, an El Niño did arise in 2018-19, though its effects ended in late summer.) When the Black Saturday bushfires occurred in 2009, killing 173 Australians, the IOD was in a positive phase, as it is now. The same was true of the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1982, which killed 75.

Although climate change affects the entire planet, the sudden stratospheric warming taking place above Antarctica has a particularly acute effect on Australia. The phenomenon, identified and named by Melbourne Bureau of Meteorology scientist Eun-Pa Lim, has caused an astounding 40-degree spike in localised upper-atmosphere temperatures. Lim predicted that this would exacerbate the spread of hot, dry winds across eastern Australia. And she was right.

Since at least the 1990s, researchers at Australia’s preeminent science organisation, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), have warned that fire frequency would increase thanks to global warming. In 2005, a CSIRO research team published a report entitled Climate Change Impacts on Fire-Weather in South-East Australia, which concluded that “the combined frequencies of days with very high and extreme Forest Fire Danger Index ratings are likely to increase 4-25% by 2020 and 15-70% by 2050.” We can’t say we weren’t warned.

Local inaction also has contributed to this season’s catastrophe. CSIRO scientist David Packman has been warning governments for years to reduce fuel loads on the bush floor through controlled burns (also known as “prescribed burning”—or “backburning” when done on an emergency basis). Speaking to Sky News recently, Packman noted that the available fuel loads for fires now are “10 times greater” than existed before European settlement. “The concept has been [that] every fire is a bad fire,” he explained. But “in the Australian context, you need fire to keep the bush healthy and safe.” (When asked about the areas most at risk, Packman identified the north-facing slopes of the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, Victoria, site of the Black Saturday tragedy. Future fires, he predicted, could produce death tolls in four figures.)

In 2002, a Parliamentary inquiry into bushfires noted substantial political resistance to fuel-reduction/controlled-burn strategies. “The fundamental issue in carrying out fuel reduction burning close to urban areas is that many of the inhabitants prefer living in green leafy bushland,” wrote Bill McCormick of the government’s Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Group. “Burning can be unpleasant, reduce amenity, kill plants and wildlife, and cause pollution so there is a build-up of political resistance to increasing the frequencies and proximity of the burns.” Another study found that the pollution caused by backburning aggravated health conditions in vulnerable people, likely causing premature deaths.

So what are Australians to do? Firstly, we need to depoliticise the issue of climate change. It should not be considered a “left-wing” issue, and the overwhelming evidence indicating the reality of anthropogenic climate change needs to be decoupled from moral arguments in favour of proposed solutions. It should be recognized that fair-minded and reasonable people can agree with the reality of climate change, while disagreeing about the best way to tackle it.

In some cases, ideological inflexibility has obstructed incremental measures that were at one point politically feasible. When a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was introduced by a majority centre-left Labor government in 2009, the plan attracted the support of Australia’s centre-right Liberal Party, then under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull. But it was the Greens who blocked the measure for not going far enough. The country has lacked a proactive policy ever since.

Today, Green MPs tweet about bushfires being directly caused by particular politicians, and fantasise about “climate trials,” at which their political opponents are tried (and presumably convicted). All this does is inflame conservatives, who feel that the climate-change issue is exaggerated and exploited for partisan reasons.

But conservatives must also wake up. It is hypocritical to complain about science denial when it comes to the reality of biological sex or gender differences while at the same time denying that the predictions made by climate scientists years ago are generally coming true. While all scientific and empirical claims should be subjected to scrutiny and doubt, it is unwise to simply dismiss entire fields of research out of hand. Trust in the scientific method should not be domain-specific.

Secondly, we need to talk about solutions to climate change that go beyond reducing consumption. Anyone who can read a graph knows that emission reductions made in rich countries are easily cancelled out by increases in emissions from developing countries.

Annual total CO2 emissions, by world region. Source: Our World in Data (CC-BY)

Unless rich countries want to start forcing poorer countries to stop improving their living standards, we’re not going to be able to deindustrialise our way out of this problem. We need to find a way to make clean energy cheap, not just make dirty energy expensive. Consider that Australia holds 33% of the world’s uranium deposits, and yet does not have a single plant generating (zero-emission) nuclear power. We also have a tremendously under-utilized capacity for hydrogen exports.

Rather than tweeting about fictional climate trials, politicians in wealthy nations such as Australia should be investing in research that will yield scalable and reliable clean-energy technologies. This can be done in a way that respects legitimate concerns about jobs in legacy energy sectors such as coal, which have provided a livelihood to generations of blue collar and middle-class workers.

The sight of huddled masses escaping the ravages of mother nature has created anxiety among victims, politicians and activists alike. And Australia’s leaders, past and present, should be held to account for the many missed opportunities they had to mitigate the damage that bushfires cause. But scapegoating these leaders for complicated climate phenomena will do nothing to stop the fires, much less cool the planet. Confronting the problem of climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time—a global Apollo Mission for the 21st Century. With visionary leadership, resource-rich nations such as Australia can help establish a path forward. Once the immediate crisis is over, we must make that happen.

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that Melbourne Bureau of Meteorology scientist Eun-Pa Lim had detected an 18C spike in localised upper-atmosphere temperatures near Antarctica. The actual figure is 40C. 


Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette. Follow her on Twitter @clairlemon.

Feature image: NOAA-NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite flew over the New South Wales fires in Australia as the new year began and found devastation from the ongoing fires. Source: NASA (CC: BY)


  1. But conservatives must also wake up. It is hypocritical to complain about science denial when it comes to the reality of biological sex or gender differences while at the same time denying that the predictions made by climate scientists years ago are generally coming true.

    You’re going to get some wailing from that.

    Secondly, we need to talk about solutions to climate change that go beyond reducing consumption.

    This is true. But reducing consumption is the base, and we have not tried that. Lefties banging on about plastic straws and plastic bags and then zipping off to southeast Asia on planes is not helping matters. It’s like a slave-owner saying, “Yeah, but I don’t call anyone “nigger.”” It’s not the main issue.

    Other solutions are necessary, but will take decades for full effect. Whereas most of us can reduce consumption a bit today, and a lot given a few years.

  2. Great article. Hopefully these fires serve as a wakeup call that irresponsible forest management policy is deadly. At the very least, government needs to stop fining landowners $10 000s for clearing bush on their own properties as a firestop. To truly be safe, controlled burns designed to minimize risk must be aggressively undertaken. Environmental regulations protecting national parks and the like are well-intentioned but foolish.

    Australia has massive mineral resources but 80% of it is underexplored, and last year the Australian Research Council did not approve funding for a single Centre of Excellence in geology. We are ignoring a huge potential resource base for powering the future, while entertaining fantasies that minimizing the < 1% emissions Australia is responsible for will make the slightest difference to the climate.

    Since climate alarmists insist the “science is settled,” how about we divert funding from the climate scientists who must have nothing left to do but twiddle their thumbs, and direct it to the scientists who need it to find the resources we need to begin to address the problem. (Post-doc please.)

  3. Well no surprises, I’m 100% in agreement with Claire, people need to accept the science, which is solid, but we also need to recognize that Australia has always had and will always have bushfires (unless it dries out to the point that nothing ever grows). My suggestion is to build houses and other infrastructure that can resist being engulfed in such fires (at any one location the fire usually passes fairy quickly) just as people build homes and infrastructure in other countries that are resistant to earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes.

  4. The thing that I never see mentioned in these discussions is that, regardless of how good our climate models are, they cannot prove anything.

    We do not have a control, meaning that there is no basis for saying that any given observation is different from the normal, uninfluenced, case. We cannot run a proper experiment to determine what proportion of climate change is anthropogenic, because we do not have a parallel Earth, in which we do not exist, in which to observe climate change sans anthropos.

    So in that sense, the science is not ‘settled’ in the way that, say, the science of combustion is, where we can set up one case with oxygen, and one without, to observe the effect of oxygen on combustion.

  5. I’m not quite sure who you mean by “we” and “most of us” in this context.

    If you mean middle class, college-educated white people in the West, then I think there has been quite a long campaign of voluntary reduction of consumption already.

    In terms of involuntary reduction of consumption, then I think we can look to countries like Cuba and Venezuela for guidance, but just try to get the majority of middle class college-educated white people in the West to go along with that.

    If you mean everybody in the world when you say “we” and “most of us”, then involuntary reduction of consumption is going to be impossible, politically and ethically. People who do not self-identify as white middle class want the same amount of consumption - equity - as white middle class people in the West, and if white middle class people are not willing to live at a third-world level of material consumption, how can we get everyone else to agree to voluntarily stay in their places?

    Really, no matter how narrowly or broadly you define “we” and “most of us”, I don’t see reduction of consumption - voluntary or involuntary - to be achievable on a scale sufficient to moderate climate change absent global economic catastrophe. I don’t think any sane person would want to see that.

  6. My friend, I believe in anthropogenic climate change. I just dont believe in misrepresenting interpretations as facts.

  7. Good luck finding reasonable people who are willing to risk their reputations and perhaps even their safety by getting themselves involved in a political issue that’s under the control of social justice cultists. I think anybody who didn’t know a few years ago how that story usually ends has figured it out by now. Even if you do manage to herd reasonable people into the same room with those foaming at the mouth nutters, they are just going to hide in the back and not say anything. Really don’t see any need to discuss what anyone besides the cultists think, actually. Remember the little berzerker girl who was the world’s most influential person last year? I actually feel sorry for any reasonable person who wades into that.

  8. As @Kiwidave points out it is suspicious that temperature graphs only go back to 1910 when older records exist. The use of “maximum temperature” seems to be the result of the data available at:

    Which will give you maximum and minimum daily temperature, but not average. I can only conclude that graphs claiming an average temperature are using an average of the maximum and minimum available at the website above, even though that could be misleading.

    I am not familiar with Heller but you’ve given us no reason to dismiss what he’s said. If you average the results from the stations listed, do you get a different result than he’s presenting? If not, do you have an explanation for why a straight average is inappropriate? If anything, stations are going to be biased towards more moderate temperatures because coastal areas will be more represented.

    What I find interesting about this conversation is that we must consider sampling bias. Is the last 100 years of data sufficient to capture a meaningful trend, or could we just be looking at static? Looking at the temperature estimates since the last glacial maximum (you linked to earlier), some proxies produced temperatures similar to today’s global average. Where were those readings acquired, and how? Is it possible that the conditions represented by those readings might be underestimated? Given how spotty the record is when we must rely on proxies, is it possible that the averages we get from those proxies are too smooth, that there is significant temporal heterogeneity not captured by the proxies or by our analytical methods? I think that’s very likely.

    Like in @RayAndrews’ example, just as it should be obvious that inhaling hot particulate matter into your lungs is bad for you (don’t blame the company if you couldn’t figure that one out yourself), it seems obvious that emitting more CO2 than the planet does by a large measure should have some effect on climate. However, we should also be aware that the window for which we have reliable average global temperatures is extremely small on the scale of climate, and there are numerous issues at play when dealing with proxy data. Humility and skepticism are required.

  9. As a Canadian I always see strong parallels with Australia. We share customs, culture, political systems and so on. similarly we are both essentially resource dependent countries who were born of resource extraction which can and will continue to be a significant part of our futures. Likewise we both sit closer to the poles than many Western countries and as such are “taking the heat” for it from a climatic perspective. We are also both blessed with raging wildfires.

    To me it seems suicidal economically speaking to forego resource development out of principal. Rather we could practice good policy and do the best global resource extraction possible, meaning minimize externalized costs when doing it.

    It also seems to be that due to our parliamentary systems and the distribution of votes between City dwellers who really don’t seem to understand the rural economies they rely upon, and rural voters that we’d be best off focusing scarce resources on the development of resiliency for our societies rather than “fighting climate change”. If China, India and the US decide to not do too much on climate change, for their unique reasons, it’s simply going to happen and there’s nothing we in the commonwealth can do about it. Literally if we re-wilded both Australia and Canada it would barely budge the needle on global warming, so we may as well move directly to planning for a world of change that protects our citizens. Anticipate and plan for change, anticipate and plan for adverse conditions and get good at dealing with it so we don’t look like a deer in the headlights the next time some catastrophe happens to us.

    Personally I view items like renewables not as agents of saving us from AGW but rather simply tools to help reduce pollution. I believe that tackling “pollution” is far easier in democracies than “saving the world”. If 50% of the world doesn’t want to get on board with saving it, then forget them, there’s no way we’re going to convince our own population to give up 80% of their way of life to save someone on the other side of the world who is not even trying to “do better”. Reducing pollution has immediate benefit in one’s back yard and combined with focusing on resilience will deliver better quality of life in the long run to citizens of advanced democracies too small to do things on a global scale.

    For the record I think Claire as usual is right on the money with her observations and comments.

    Nuclear for the win, responsible resource development, resilience for long term prosperity and health, leave your extremism at the door please.

  10. Scepticism is the essence of science. The duty of a scientist is to take their theory (their baby) and try and disprove it - to try and kill it, to take the bay analogy further. If they don’t succeed it is passed on to the broader scientific community to try and kill.
    It’s a travesty of science to see the level of group think, collusion and goal seeking being carried out under the AGW banner, to see genuine questioners being dismissed as heretics and funding being funneled to institutions committed to the orthodoxy of climate change.
    If you’re not sceptical you’re not a scientist.

  11. Honest debate on this is indeed long overdue but I’m doubtful that it’s going to happen anytime soon.
    The Alarmists are to far entrenched to even consider it and will automatically label anybody who doesn’t wholly fall into lockstep with their ideological orthodoxy as a ‘’ Science Denier ‘’.
    That label alone is telling enough, as it essentially equates those who don’t agree with them to Holocaust Deniers.

    Although I understand what you are saying there, I don’t see it as being that simple when one side of the debate has created a partican meaning of the word “science” in order to shut down any debate.
    When a conservative presents properly researched scientific points that counter what is known to be ‘‘settled science’’, it is automatically declared de facto non science by the climate activist Left.
    Not only is this tactic juvenile and short sighted, it set an incredibly dangerous precident for such an important issue.

  12. That would certainly be necessary to getting a handle on just how robust current findings are. What I’ve read of peer-reviewed climate change literature is bafflingly bad: unsupported assumptions, bold interpretations, little consideration of uncertainties. I’d very much like to evaluate the paleoclimate data myself. I likely will in the coming years.

    Doubt mongering is an interesting slur. The entire scientific endeavor revolves around doubting what experts found before. That being skeptical is considered an insult in the climate community is indicative of how far we’ve gone from a healthy and productive scientific pursuit.

    In science, understanding the limits of your knowledge is imperative. The limits on temporal resolution, uncertainties in temperature proxy measurements, and honesty about the assumptions inherent in combining these proxy data into a global average are necessary considerations when expressing the level of confidence in a particular finding. From what I’ve seen, activists not only don’t see the need for this, but express hostility when the standards of scientific investigation are applied. This removes climate change from the realm of science and places it in the realm of religion.

  13. What a surprise, a call to revolution, destroy the existing order and have a new order run by enlightened persons such as yourself no doubt. That has been tried before with what should now be recognised as predictable results.

  14. My house burned down in the Tubbs Fire in 2017 in California.
    Around 5000 homes burned in that fire, most of them in one night. And it largely happened in one night, with no warning. Similar events have been happening in California in recent years. It is the worst i have seen in 50 years in our state. You can skip to my last paragraph to find the answers to why we have had the recent fire events.

    The event was not a wild fire, it was a firestorm. Temperatures reached over 2400f degrees due to the hot wind, dry vegetative matter, and un natural fuel loads. Hones burned from the inside out, when giant clouds of glowing plasma blew near them-radiant heat. Those temps are hotter than a crematorium. The very seeds in the soil burned, and in places nothing was able to germinate. Dozens burned to death, some were asleep and had the oxygen burned out of the air. Others crawled to their garage or incinerated in their cars trying to escape. The very infrastructure of the region was destroyed in the process. Hot gases entered into underground pipes, melting them. Water lines many feet underground ended up contaminated with swirling toxic gases. Bridges, cell phone towers, utilities, wells and more burned. Retaining walls of concrete burned. The asphalt streets melted. People died on my street. I had no warning, there were no sirens or first responders or anyone. The government was nowhere to be found. Our event was akin to a small nuke going off. I know what the apocalypse looks like. I was in it.

    What sparked the fire? Probably faulty electrical transmission systems (keeping them on during a wind event, not trimming trees along wires, etc)

    Why was it not a major wild fire, like in Australia, but rather a catastrophic firestorm? The combination of dry and windy conditions, ( might be caused by climate change, might not), and certainly very poor forest ecology management for decades (no fire breaks, no prescribed burns, no required fuel load reductions by plowing or grazing or timber harvesting, etc)

    California is run by urban people. Folks who think deer are cute and all trees are wonderful and ‘nature’ is something that happens when humans do nothing.

    I am a rural person. I know why California is now burning so badly year after year.

    I know why Australia is burning so bad right now. The same reasons California has been burning.

    And i know urban people, media, politicians, residents, students et al are not listening to us rural folk.

    Ask any native person in California and they will tell you ‘the forest is dirty’. Forest Ecology is a well know discipline. As a UC Davis trained graduate student of ecology and a graduate of the Sonoma Fire Academy, i have had plenty of exposure to the discipline.

    Climate change might be causing higher temps, and drier vegetation, and wind, aka ‘fire weater’. But that is not why we have these destructive fire events. Poor management of electrical grids certainly is the cause that is sparking fires in California (read about SDGandE and their cutting edge electrical transmission systems thru fire prone regions of San Diego), but lightning or accidental fire or indigenous fire ecology or arson has always caused fires. Yet the fires are worse now than in generations before. What gives? What is the variable? Is it the catch all the urban left loves to nod to, ‘climate change’? No. In the end it is the horrible practices of wild land management that urban people want (no timber harvest, no grazing, no fire breaks, no presribed burns, etc) that is leading to increased fuel loads and so much more destructive fires. Simple as that.

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