Climate denial caused the losses from Australia’s fires

Summary: Climate denial is one of our worst problems. It comes in many forms; the worst is the least well known. It caused massive losses in Australia’s fires.

See the Greens’ lethal combination of ignorance and hubris.

No Fires In Australia - AdobeStock-320516528
By paseven, AdobeStock-320516528

Climate denial has become an epidemic in the West, a combination of ignorance about our natural climates and hubris about our ability to override its constraints.

We build cities in the desert (e.g., Las Vegas) and are astonished by water shortages. We develop areas prone to mega-droughts, then are surprised by droughts even a few years long (California, Texas) – and again when (as usual) the droughts end in floods (California, Texas). We build giant cities on coasts at sea level without the slightest protections – and are astonished when even a severe storm (not even a hurricane) devastate them (New York City).

Even worse than ignoring the inevitable severe weather, many regions actively modify their ecology to maximize the eventual damage from inevitable weather cycles. For example, the natural biome in much of the American southwest is adapted for droughts and frequent wildfires. A century of fire suppression has turned much of the region into a tinderbox, with an accumulation of undergrowth and dead timber. Now its people experience the inevitable payback – massive fires.

Now for the saddest aspect of our behavior: rather than see our mistakes, learn and adapt, we find a more politically useful cause – climate change. It is denial of the obvious. For another example, look to Australia. Wildfires were indiginous to Australia before the first people arrived. Belief that we can prevent wildfires is ignorant and delusional.

Australian fires: Climate ‘truth bomb’?

By Alan Longhurst.

Recipe for Australia’s climate ‘truth bomb’: dubious manipulations of the historical temperature record, ignorance of the climate dynamics of the Southern Hemisphere, and ignorance of Australia’s ecological and social history.

A correspondent of The Guardian newspaper writes that her personal ‘climate truth bomb’ hit her while she was picking ash from her glass at a wine tasting event – the Sydney Harbour bridge being dimly seen through the murk of bushfires. The truth came to her, she wrote, in the eloquent rage of Greta Thunberg and also in heat, smoke, and fire.

Although anthropogenic climate change sells well, especially at The Guardian, their Sydney correspondent cannot be so ignorant about the climate of Australia or about bushfires as she pretends. Put briefly, bushfires in Australia and elsewhere have two main sources: from thunderstorms or from human activity, deliberate or otherwise – cigarette butts, sparks from brakes on railway trains, from incautious welding on farm machinery and from electric transmission lines. In California, where almost 2 million acres burned in 2018 and claimed many lives, the electricity supply company now closes down its transmission lines in windy conditions to prevent sparking and fires.

As she should have known, climate change or not, that ash in The Guardian correspondent’s wine was very probably caused by the direct action of an Australian citizen. In the current drought, 36% of fires have been judged to be accidental, 37% as suspicious, 13% as deliberate and only 6% as natural. And that pattern is not new: Australia has a serious arson problem. “In short, up to 85 bushfires begin every day because someone leaves their house and decides to start one,” said Dr. P. Reid of the Australian Center for Research in Bushfires and Arson

The geography of the Australian continent is a special case, fire-wise. It has very flat terrain without major mountain ranges, and no major gulfs to allow marine weather to penetrate inland. The pattern of rainfall is driven by the wind systems over the surrounding oceans: Pacific, Indian, Southern. The strength of the SE Trades across the breadth of the Pacific Ocean, and the moisture they transport, are paramount for rainfall in Queensland. But periodically the trades fail during Niño events and so rainfall is intermittent and decade-long dry periods are the rule rather than the exception, especially in the eastern part of the continent.

In New South Wales and Victoria, rainfall variability is also influenced by the dynamics of the Antarctic Ocean, with blocking highs developing over the ocean; in western Australia, the dynamics of the Indian Ocean are important in carrying moisture to the continent. But, overall, the ‘canonical driver of Australian rainfall’ is the alternating state of the SE Trades, according to Risbey and his colleagues. So periodic droughts, more frequent in the east, are the inevitable consequence of Australian geography.

The indigenous vegetation and fauna were evolved to deal with these conditions and the pre-settlement human population had, likewise, evolved a lifestyle that placed sufficiently modest demands on the environment that their survival was assured. This included lighting seasonal ‘cool’ fires that prevented the build-up of dead vegetation and produced a mosaic of burned and unburned land: this technique has now been reintroduced in the Kimberly region and ‘right across the North’ [link]

But the wave of settlement during the 19th century by European pastoralists, who did not understand their new environment, changed all that very fundamentally: ‘sheep were cheap, water was available and graziers relied on saltbush and scrub to provide quality feed when overgrazing had destroyed the perennial grass [link] Rabbits, naively introduced in 1859, were in plague numbers over most of southeast Australia by the end of the century – busily digging out the roots of native vegetation, and ring-barking shrubs. After logging, the regenerating eucalypt woodlands lacked (and much still lacks) a closed canopy, a condition which encourages dry, shrubby ground cover and the propagation of fire.

In short, settlement was disastrous for the original drought-adapted environment of the interior of Australia and it was not long before the inevitable occurred, even without the help of rabbits. Since reliable records began to be kept, a ‘severe’ drought has been recorded on average every 18 years, since that of 1803 which caused crop failures in New South Wales: each was accompanied by widespread bushfires.

The years 1871, 1895-1902, 1926, 1928, 1931, 1939, 1982 and 2009 each have their own Black day-of-the-week and notable high temperatures: the Black Friday fire of February 1931 burned 5 million ha. or 25% of the state of Victoria, claiming 12 lives, plus a million sheep and many cattle.

Picture from Australia’s Federation Drought (1896 – 1902).

Photo of Australia's Federation Drought
From the National Library of Australia.

Images of dead stock and advancing dust-storms abound from those years, local newspapers headlined maximum temperatures and wrote of hardship and abandoned farms; trains were immobilised by dust storms having updrafts so strong that they emitted ball lightning. Conditions during the Federation drought of 1895-1903 were very severe indeed, and a land surveyor recorded that he feared the heat would cause the mercury bulb of his thermometer to burst.

Today, it is widely believed in Australia that the drought and fire-storms of 2019 were the consequence of CO2-driven anomalously high air temperature; long forgotten is the fact that very high temperatures were reliably recorded during earlier droughts. During the Millennium drought of south-eastern regions from 1996 to 2010, the highest temperature recorded at Melbourne was 46.4oC in February 2009 – but on Black Thursday of 1851 Melbourne recorded 117oF (47oC) and on Black Friday of 1939 the same place recorded 45oC.

These are conditions sufficiently similar to those of the recent drought as not to make a great deal of difference to those enduring them: that is a strong statement, but it is supported by the Australian network of meteorological observations, which has a spatial coverage second only to that of the USA – and includes stations having continuous data since the 1880s. Observations were established in the early years of the Federation along with the telegraph network, and Australia boasts one of the very longest continuous records globally: observations in Adelaide began in 1856, but you will find the early data have been expunged from the currently-used Australian archives. …

What caused the 2019 drought & firestorms?

Finally, what was the probable cause of the conditions that led to the 2019 drought and firestorms? Do we have to invoke anthropogenic CO2 as has been widely done, or is there a more parsimonious explanation?

In fact, conditions were ripe for a catastrophic fire season in 2019. The strong Niño of 2016 and the weaker event of 2019 had created a significant rainfall deficit: in 2018, rainfall over southeastern Australian mainland was in the lowest 10% of historical observations, particularly from April onwards. New South Wales was deep in drought by August 2018 and remained so until May 2019, when more than half of Queensland was also declared to be in drought. The BoM declared the drought to be worse than the Federation Drought, the WWII drought (1937-1947), and the Millennium drought, but presented no evidence for that doubtful statement.

But that may not have been the most important factor in the fires. Fire reduction burning had been done in only 1% of the Victoria woodlands when at least 10% was required, according to the foresters, and previously agreed to by government. But the expert advisory committee described the governments reaction to their advice as “a farce, conveniently ambiguous and deceptive to the point of arrogance”. Consequently, there were dangerous fuel loads in Victorian bush-lands and the members of the forest fire advisory group accused the Victoria government “of tacitly neglecting its commitments to fuel reduction to appease the green lobby”.

If you want to see the resultant conditions for yourself, take a drive on Google Earth up any small road in the hills of NSW or Victoria…you will see scorched trees, a thick layer of dead leaves and abundant underbush.

Given the rainfall deficit together with such conditions in the bushlands, accidents are inevitable and, together with the propensity of some people to arson, one needs to look no further for the cause of the unstoppable fires. Today, as I write this, the BBC is reporting that a volunteer firefighter of 19 has been arrested for seven counts of alleged arson in an area south of Sydney, NSW. And another arsonist finds himself charged with manslaughter.


So there is really no need to complicate things by the insertion of CO2 forcing into this rather sad story – which William of Occam suggested we shouldn’t do unless it was really essential. …Failure to understand the climatic and other causes of the Australian bush fires cause our failure to implement sensible policies to ameliorate the situation.

Posted on February 24 at Climate Etc.


About the author

Alan Longhurst (see Wikipedia) is an eminent oceanographer with many professional honors on his C.V. He has an H-index of 51. He and his wife Françoise run Galerie l’Acadie, a gallery of contemporary art in Cajarc, France.

Although he retired in 1995, he has written about two of our most serious global ecological problems: Mismanagement of Marine Fisheries (2010). In 2015 he published a book about another of our serious problems: Doubt and Certainty in Climate Science. See Judith Curry’s description and review of it.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, all posts about the RCPs, and especially these …

  1. The Extinction Rebellion’s hysteria vs. climate science.
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  3. After 30 years of failed climate politics, let’s try science! – A proposal to break the policy gridlock.
  4. The guilty ones preventing good policy about climate change.
  5. Toxic climate propaganda is poisoning US public policy.
  6. An obvious solution to the climate policy crisis.
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  8. An autopsy of the climate policy debate’s corpse.

Activists don’t want you to read these

Some unexpected good news about polar bears: The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened by Susan Crockford (2019).

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr., professor for the Center for Science and Policy Research at U of CO – Boulder (2018).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.


14 thoughts on “Climate denial caused the losses from Australia’s fires”

  1. This seems to be a common theme in your posts: humans do stupid thing, humans receive consequences of stupid thing, humans blame consequences on unrelated thing because reasons. Maybe this is the story of humanity.

    1. Twice,

      I disagree. We have built a global civilization with standards of living beyond the imagination of people even a few hundred years ago. We can learn and do better, which makes those episodes where we don’t the exception – not the rule.

    2. Your story is the binary opposite of reality. If anything humanity is overwhelmed by it’s competence and potential. Admittedly still a problem, but not a bad problem all things considered.

      Two weeks ago my prostate clamped my urethra completely, excruciating. My wife drove in our car on a paved road and dropped me off at a hospital. A silicon catheter was inserted, the bladder drained, pain free within 20 minutes of walking through the automatic sliding doors. A week later the bladder became infected; 6 days of antibiotics seems to have cured it. A week from now a camera will be inserted in my urethra by a man with a decade of training. He will do a biopsy for cancer and may have to perform small tissue removal. Even if it is cancer, the prognosis is excellent.

      I don’t want to imagine my fate 100 or even 50 years ago.

      1. peasant,

        Thank you for sharing your story. It’s one thing to look at our accomplishments in the abstract, another to see a specific case.

        “If anything humanity is overwhelmed by its competence and potential.”

        I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective, but it is a powerful one. We are overwhelmed by the possibilities opened ahead of us. Some lead to wonders, some to ruin, and some to dead ends. We have to choose wisely.

      2. Peasant, I’m with you. Fortunately I haven’t had a backup or needed catheterization.

        My consult is on the 19th. Then biopsy and treatment, Cryoablation. Prognosis is good.

        I hate to contemplate how it would be 50 years ago.

        Good luck and may victory be yours!

  2. Yes, a fine well reasoned very convincing piece.

    As to whether silliness irrationality is rising? Perhaps its like extreme weather. The incidence of episodes may not be rising, but the costs per episode may be, and so the total costs may be rising.

    Louis XIV for instance did huge damage by his devastation of the Palatine and his war on the Huguenots. But the damage was nothing compared to that done by Hitler or Stalin in their similar wars on sections of their own population and their devastation of neighbouring territories.

    I had been going to suggest that it was industrialization and technology that allowed the madnesses to scale up. But on reflection not so sure, and not even sure that it has scaled up. The Chinese and the Cambodians in the late 20c did just as well as Stalin and Hitler without benefit of industrialization.

    The Cuban missile could have been a technology amplified orgy of destruction. We got lucky that time.

    The key variable seems to be a population in the grip of a murderous delusion, and our propensity to that has probably not changed. Given that, the damage may basically only be limited by the size of the territory whose people are in the grip of the delusion.

    People are going to look back in 50 years with amazement at the global warming hysteria, and even more so on the enormous spending on wind and solar which people have decided for no apparent reason is a remedy for this imaginary problem.

    Stuart Sutherland’s book ‘Irrationality’ is a fine contribution to our understanding of this from a most remarkable and much missed man.

    His book ‘Breakdown’ also, impressive for different reasons, and it will stay with you, especially if you are familiar with the dysfunctional social environment in which it is based

  3. The level of illuminated common sense here is delightful. Sharp. Penetrating. Insightful. No nonsense. In a world of agenda driven political correctness this is refreshing. Thanks.

  4. Currently reading “Doubt and Certainty in Climate Science”, to me the most complete and unprejudiced reference on the subject so far. A must read. I am surprised, it took me 5 years and Longhurst’s article on Australian fires to find it. This seems to indicates the book is not popular with neither “believers” nor “deniers”.

  5. Pingback: Smears and science denial from the New York Instances – Daily News

  6. Pingback: Smears and science denial from the New York Occasions – All My Daily News

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