Living in Canberra, which lost 500 homes to bushfires in 2003, it has been a pretty sobering experience to watch the catastrophic fires in our southeastern corner. It’s a beautiful place where many Canberrans spend their holidays at this time of the year. I have old work colleagues who live near Cobargo, a town all but destroyed by the fires.
During this national tragedy I have had a profound sense of de javu as I have watched the way people have responded to the crisis. Having just experienced our hottest and driest year on record, and the most horrific bushfires in our history, Australians are now waking up to the fact that catastrophic climate change has arrived and we have caused it. The worn out expression “the climates always changed and always will” now has a very hollow ring. It’s a lie anyway. The earth has never been this hot in the last 20,000 years and that’s twice as long as the entire history of civilisation.
In spite of the magnitude of the fires and the compelling climate science, there remains a core of people, the loudest being politicians addicted to coal lobby money, who will not budge. Rather than face facts, they have blamed the fires on arsonists and greenies and even scientists for exaggerating and twisting the science. I am also keenly aware that some people reading this post may still find it hard to accept the science of climate change. I can understand that, because I’ve been there too. Even as a scientist I have gone through phases of scepticism and agnosticism before finally reaching acceptance.
Watching the responses to the fires has reminded me of the way the LDS Church, in particular its apologists, responded to Thomas Murphy, Brent Metcalfe and myself when we drew attention to the enormously threatening DNA evidence. Mormon scholars responded with ridicule and attacked our motives, intelligence and scientific credibility. They obscured the issue by misrepresenting the science, made false claims of positive DNA evidence and twisted the Book of Mormon narrative to accommodate the science. I believe most of these people are basically good. But their fear of the terrifying conclusions the science clearly pointed to, motivated them to take extreme measures to soothe the cognitive dissonance it created.
I wanted to share some of my reflections during the bushfires. I have observed disturbing similarities between LDS apologetics and what I call climate change apologetics.
I recently shared this image from my mobile phone on my Facebook page. This isn’t normal rain, it’s bushfires. It’s smoke plumes from bushfires, and the rain they create, detected by radar across southeastern Australia. It’s the first time I have noticed this on our weather radars since I became addicted to watching our Book of Mormon (Bureau of Meteorology) radar about 15 years ago. It was alarming to see these plumes appear as the fires progressed on one of the worst days.
Thirteen years ago Australian scientists predicted (Garnaut Climate Change Review) that by 2020 we would start to see the effects of climate change on the length of the fire season and the intensity of bushfires. At the beginning of our fire season our state fire chiefs requested a meeting with the Prime Minister. They had seen the science-based predictions that this year would be a catastrophic fire season. Our Prime Minister didn’t think it was important enough to meet with them. He was probably planning his Hawaiian holiday and his (very well kept secret) trip to New York to attend the opening of a new Hillsong megachurch.
And it came to pass that the scientific prophecies were fulfilled with shocking accuracy during our Prime Minister’s Hawaiian holiday. He returned home in disgrace. I can’t repeat the words hurled at him as he toured the firefighter recovery centres in Cobargo and elsewhere. Australians can be colorfully blunt, but he got nothing more than he deserved. Our Prime Minister leads a party filled with people who deny the climate science his government pays for. A couple of years ago our climate denying Prime Minister mocked the opposition by waving a lump of coal at them in Parliament.
As we have coughed our way through the bushfire catastrophe, I have been peppered with questions from US exmormon friends, desperate to know if what they are hearing in the US media is true. Sadly, a former Australian, Rupert Murdoch, who is now an American citizen (our gain, your loss), has been responsible for spreading misinformation and lies about what is going on in Australia. The Murdoch press (Fox news etc.) immediately blamed the fires on arsonists and greenies, in a pathetic attempt to weaken the case for climate change. This has been deeply offensive to many Australians already feeling distressed by the carnage inflicted by the largest and most ferocious bushfires we have ever witnessed. And we still have two months of bushfire season to go.
Australian scientists and the Rural Fire Service (RFS) have looked at the evidence and it’s clear over 95% of the fires were started by dry lightning in remote regions of national parks that are locked up during fire season. Any local can see this in my phone’s radar image. Scientists simply line up the lightning strikes with the origin of each fire. Murdoch outlets have also blamed the greenies for preventing back burning. This is another lie that climate deniers drag out after every bushfire. Greenies are very aware of the value of hazard reduction burning and are frequently involved in carrying them out! The RFS has clearly articulated the real problem. As our fire season gets longer, the window of opportunity for back burning gets shorter. You can’t burn cold, damp forests. Even if you could you can’t burn them every year because you would destroy the forest.
After posting my radar image I was immediately sent links to YouTube conspiracy theory clips. In the brief segments I could stomach watching, they were claiming greenies were flying planes and dropping incendiaries to start the fires in order to scare people into believing climate change is real. Utter filth and lies. They had even created childishly ignorant maps showing the flight paths of planes flying up and down fires zones in a regular pattern. My radar image clearly shows this is absolutely false. The largely American (sorry it’s true) sewer of poisonous conspiracy lies has reached our shores, and it makes me and my friends feel physically ill. I now know how the parents of Sandy Hook and the residents of New York felt when the heartless conspiracy theories reared their ugly heads. The biggest problem with the bushfire conspiracy theories is that they make mainstream media reports about arsonists and greenies look fair and balanced. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To cap off the week I received a phone call from a TBM sibling who is clearly feeling distress due to the fires. They were not interested in an adult conversation about the root cause of the driest and hottest year on record in Australia. They were tired of the arguments about climate change, after all, contention is of the devil! Instead, I was treated to a lecture on why scientists needed to get off their butts and quickly invent solutions (as if research isn’t being done) to rapidly capture the CO2. They are obviously feeling pain and fear, but rather than honestly facing those fears, my sibling preferred to pile even more blame on the scientists for not working on a real solution. They then went on to slam our two national broadcasters that have told the truth on climate change for the last 20 years. I then changed to subject because my language was about to get colorful.
This sibling’s response to me was exactly the same as their (lack of) response to me when I raised uncomfortable questions about Book of Mormon historicity due to DNA. The issue has been out of bounds for two decades. Their unwillingness to talk about both issues is driven by fear.
My evolution from climate agnostic
You would think that someone who has worked in scientific research his entire career would have accepted global warming after looking at the evidence. It turns out I’m no different from everyone else. I was naturally suspicious of climate science research when I first heard about it, because it was outside my immediate field of expertise. I only became convinced humans were causing our climate to change after I met a unique group of people who knew a lot more about our climate than me.
In 1999 I joined the Division of Forestry at CSIRO, Australia’s national scientific research organisation. Up to that point I had not known any climate scientists, and because of that I hadn’t taken it seriously. I was essentially a climate agnostic. At CSIRO I soon found myself working alongside dozens of scientists who worked across all disciplines related to forest trees. This included ecology, bushfires, native forest management, wood science, water, soils, genetics, carbon capture, plantation management etc. Virtually all of these diverse disciplines are being directly impacted by our changing climate. It may surprise some of you to learn that all advanced forestry companies plan their naturally long term forest rotations with climate change uppermost in their minds.
Because I was living, working alongside and socialising with this very capable group of people I formed very good friendships with many of them. I witnessed their curiosity, passion for truth and commitment to scientific rigour and I soon began to trust them. I knew they weren’t lying to get another grant, as they were women and men of integrity, and they were well funded anyway. That trust drove my own curiosity and I quickly became convinced that our climate was changing and that the science underpinning the forecasts by scientists was utterly compelling. The underlying physics of climate change has been well understood for over a century. There are plenty of websites that describe the science much better than me.
By the time I realised the problem, the fossil fuel industry was well ahead of me. Just like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry knew the science well ahead of the general population and the threat it posed for their future profits. Most of the developed world has headed the prophets of science. The US and Australia stand out as the biggest feet draggers on this issue because of their dependence on the profits from burning fossil fuels. Our two countries are largely responsible for holding back progress on climate agreements and Australia remains the largest polluter per capita in the world. It’s a source of national shame that many of you probably also share.
Unfortunately, some things that are true are not very…pleasant. As a species we naturally avoid facing things that make us uncomfortable. Many of us have faced our fears when confronted by the terrible truth that the LDS church has lied to us our entire lives. But the sooner we face our fears, the easier it is to change and the sooner we can put all our energies into making wise choices and facing the realities of living on this remarkable, but fragile planet.
This is exactly what the European Union is doing because it is heeding the warnings of climate scientists. The EU recently announced it would be committing 1 trillion euros to ensure Europe is climate neutral by 2050. This deal will support economies that, through no fault of their own, have historically relied heavily on fossil fuels for energy.
Maybe I’m dreamin
Wouldn’t it be great if the LDS Church chipped in a lazy $100 billion to help poorer countries adapt to the biggest challenge the world is facing? Maybe if we look away the leaders can create evidence that this was why they hoarded the money in the first place. At least facing the facts can’t stop us dreaming.