Australian Wildfires Prove Denying Climate Change Won’t Save You From It

January 9, 2020

Climate scientist Michael Mann is in Australia, where the bushfire crisis is unfolding in real time. He says voters there need to look for 'climate hawks' who can counteract the climate-denying policies of politicians like current prime minister Scott Morrison.

Climate scientist Michael Mann is in Australia, where the bushfire crisis is unfolding in real time. He says voters there need to look for 'climate hawks' who can counteract the climate-denying policies of politicians like current prime minister Scott Morrison.


Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor.

It’s being called a climate emergency. Historic wildfires of swept across Australia; torching over 12 million acres of land, killing at least 25 people and an estimated one billion animals. And those numbers could be even higher. Experts say the fires could rage for months and ecosystems may never recover from the devastation. Thick smoke from the flames has already reached South America. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has undermined the reduction of carbon emissions to fight climate change and downplayed the role climate change is playing in the fires. Meanwhile, the debunked conspiracy theory that arsonists are largely responsible for the fires has spread widely on social media there.

Well, now joining us to discuss this is Michael Mann, a climate scientist and professor at Penn State University who authored the 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. His newest piece in The Guardian: Australia, Your Country Is Burning–Dangerous Climate Change Is Here With You Now. And he’s speaking to us from Australia. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL MANN: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.

JAISAL NOOR: So you actually traveled to Australia to study the links between climate change and extreme weather events. You didn’t go to cover what’s happening now, but describe what you have discovered since you’ve been there.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. It’s a bit surreal, because this trip, this sabbatical, was more than a year in the making. And indeed my goal was to come here to Australia to collaborate with some Australian scientists and understanding the scientific linkages between climate change and extreme weather events in Australia. And of course, ironically I arrived at the time that Australia was experiencing perhaps the most extreme weather on record in the form of unprecedented heat across the continent.

And of course these unprecedented bush fires that are literally spreading across the continent. I’ve witnessed these impacts firsthand here in Sydney where I’m staying. Yesterday, I couldn’t go outside and take my usual daily run because the air quality was dangerous from all the smoke that was blowing in from these wildfires. And so here in Sydney, climate change isn’t just some theoretical construct. It’s something that is playing out in real time. I can look out my window and see it.

JAISAL NOOR: So I wanted you to address Australian Prime Minister Morrison, the leader of the country. He’s someone who famously brought up a lump of coal into parliament, accusing people who are concerned about climate change and being scared of fossil fuels. He was chased from Cobargo in New South Wales last week over his response. He initially was on vacation in Hawaii as this crisis unfolded. And he’s downplayed the role climate change is having on these fires, something that’s also been echoed by Australian media especially; owned by the Murdoch family. Can you address that?

MICHAEL MANN: Sure. Well, what we have here is a prime minister who was elected by fossil fuel interests. He was assisted by the Murdoch media empire because he advocates for their cause. Murdoch, of course, the Murdoch media empire is the sort of greatest proponent of climate change denialism and Murdoch himself has ties to fossil fuel interests and he has literally polluted the public discourse here in Australia when it comes to climate change and has assisted in the campaign of those politicians like Prime Minister Morrison who support that agenda, that fossil fuel agenda, that agenda of climate inaction.

And as you note, Morrison has been remarkably tone deaf when it comes to this issue. Vacationing in Hawaii as Australians were experiencing these devastating wildfires with loss of life and property and vast expanses of rain forest. And he has a history of coddling coal, fossil fuel interests. His administration essentially sabotaged the Madrid Climate Conference a couple of weeks ago, along with a number of other petrostate actors like United States under Trump and Russia and Saudi Arabia. Essentially sabotage that meeting. A small number of state actors, which now includes Australia, is basically blocking action internationally to do something about climate change.

So in this case, Morrison of course is getting a lot of pushback from the people. He was chased away by a woman who was understandably upset by the damage and destruction that she had experienced herself. It’s pretty clear that he has no interest in doing anything about climate change. And as I said in my Guardian commentary, if Australians don’t want to see ever worsening impacts of climate change, if they want to be part of the solution, if they want a prime minister who will engage with other politicians, other leaders around the world to actually do something about climate change, they’re going to have to show up at the voting booth.

They’re going to have to vote out climate change deniers like Morrison, and they’re going to have to vote in climate hawks, politicians who were willing to do something about the problem. But Murdoch has a stranglehold on the media here. He owns much of the print media and the television media, and he has used that as a megaphone to promote climate change denialism. In this case all sorts of false claims about these wildfires, bogus claims that they were caused by arson. The authorities are already weighed in and said that that was not the case. These wildfires were started by lightning strikes and the ignition isn’t the important point here.

The reason that these wildfires are spreading so quickly are becoming so large are covering such a large area is because of the unprecedented heat and drought that Australia is experiencing right now. That’s an inconvenient truth to the Murdoch media and to the conservative establishment and they’ve done everything in their power to try to promote myths about what’s going on so that the public won’t connect the dots. They won’t connect the dots between a prime minister and a government is unwilling to act on this problem and the death and destruction that’s arising because of that failure to act.

JAISAL NOOR: Now have we reached a tipping point when it comes to climate change and these catastrophes that are unfolding not only in Australia but you see around the world. You see this growing devastation that natural disasters are causing. And is it possible to reverse this at this point? What would that look like?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, so there is the danger of tipping points. You know when things get dry enough and hot enough, you can see a very dramatic escalation of these wildfires and bush fires here in Australia. And arguably that’s what we’re seeing in California and the Western US. That’s what we’re seeing here in Australia and in any many other regions around the world where summers are getting hot enough and dry enough that you just see this almost exponential escalation in these wildfires.

So we may indeed be starting to cross a tipping point where, in the very best case, we are dealing with the new norm. That is to say, if we stop warming the planet and we sort of stabilize temperatures, we don’t worsen the problem. We’re going to be dealing with this. Australia is going to have to continue to deal with these sorts of fire seasons. And if we continue on the path of inaction that we’re on, if we don’t act to bring down our carbon emissions dramatically over the next decade, then it’s worse than the new normal. It’s an ever escalating problem. Things get hotter things get dryer and these wildfires become more extensive. They become more intense to the point where large parts of Australia essentially become unlivable both to human beings and other life that occupies this continent.

JAISAL NOOR: Critics of those who want to see action on climate change in Australia, you know, they say like people like Prime Minister Morrison… They say, “Look, Australia is only responsible for 1% of the of global emissions. Therefore, you know what? Australia does doesn’t really matter.” I think that’s sort of what they’re trying to argue. But as you’ve noted and others have noted, it is a leading exporter of fossil fuels. What do you see as the connection between the bush fires and fossil fuel activity, especially in Australia? Is there a connection there?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, there’s a direct connection. The fossil fuels that we’re burning, the carbon pollution we’re putting into the atmosphere, is warming up the planet and it’s leading to these unprecedented extreme weather disasters like the bush fires that are breaking out across Australia right now. There’s no question about that. The science is clear on that. Australia, like many other Western nations historically has played a critical role in fossil fuel burning and generating the carbon pollution that’s already in the atmosphere.

Now other countries like China and India are starting to come online with industrial economies. But if you look at the cumulative contribution from Western nations like the United States, Europe, Australia; on a cumulative basis in terms of the total contribution to this problem, those are the leading contributors. As you know, with Australia it’s misleading to look simply at the carbon that they’re burning here in the continent. Because they are the largest exporter of coal to the rest of the world, including to China, and so they are responsible for much of the coal burning. And coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel. It’s the worst of the fossil fuels, when it comes to carbon pollution.

And here Australia is playing a major role in exporting coal to the rest of the world at a time when we need to be dramatically lowering our carbon emissions. We need to bring them down by a factor of two within the next decade if we’re going to avert catastrophic warming of the planet. And here Australia is continuing to export. In fact, Scott Morrison supports the construction of the Adani coal mine. This is a coal mine that would actually double Australia’s coal based carbon emissions at a time when they need to be bringing them down. Morrison and those fossil fuel interests, coal interests that he represents are doubling down in the mining, the extraction, and the burning of fossil fuels.

JAISAL NOOR: And finally, we’re almost out of time, but we had a question from a viewer. And they wanted to ask you if you can address the link between the Indian Ocean and its role in Australian bush fires.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. We’re warming up the planet, we’re warming up the continents in the summer, making them dryer. That’s the main contributor to the increasing wildfires that we see. But on top of that, there is variability in the climate. There are things like the El Nino phenomenon that can influence how wet or dry of the continent of Australia is in any given year. And there’s something known as the Indian Ocean dipole, which is sort of like the Indian Ocean’s own version of the El Nino phenomenon. And when it’s in what’s known as the positive phase, which it’s in right now, sea surface temperatures off the East coast of Australia are actually a little colder than normal.

Now you might think, okay, well that’s good, a cooler, but no colder water means there’s less moisture over the ocean and that region and there’s less of that moisture coming into Australia. There’s less monsoonal rainfall that Australia relies upon in the summer. And so that adds to the dryness. So there are these modes of variability in the climate that can ride on top of the effect of global warming. And sometimes they worsen things and sometimes they alleviate them a little bit. But as we continue to warm the planet, we continue to dry out the continents. When we do happen to get one of those positive dipole events like we’re getting right now, it will give us yet a new extreme, a new extreme of drought and heat and that’s really the problem.

We’re seeing more and more extreme drought and heat because of climate change along with the variations related to things like this, a dipole. And one of the interesting findings now of the scientific community is that climate change might actually be making that Indian Ocean dipole stronger, more likely to be in the positive phase. So even that component that’s adding to the heat and drought might be driven by climate change, might be driven by human caused climate change.

JAISAL NOOR: All right, Michael Mann, it’s always a pleasure to have you on climate scientist and professor at Penn State University. We’ll link to your newest piece in The Guardian: Australia, Your Country’s Burning–Dangerous Climate Change Is Here With You Now. And actually We posted that at The Real News, so our viewers will have already read it. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL MANN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.