Environmental Extremes

As Drought-Hit Australia Burns, Victims Cling to the Idea That Climate Change Is 'Unproven'

The northeast interior has become a case study in global warming. Here we see the ramifications of a changing climate, but also how humans hold onto preconceptions regardless of new evidence.

by Gavin Butler
18 September 2019, 11:00pm

Firefighters battle blaze in Angourie, NSW, on September 10, 2019. Image via Jason O'Brien via APP and REUTERS

This article is part of a wider initiative by VICE looking at the state of the environment around the globe. Each VICE office is examining the main concerns from their territory, in an effort to gauge the health of the planet as a whole and to highlight the widespread need for political change. For other stories in this series, please check out Environmental Extremes.

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When Guyra Bowling and Recreation Club greenskeeper Len Archer took a call from a group of golfers claiming the ninth hole was on fire, he was skeptical. Guyra’s golf course is built on a drained section of the Mother of Ducks Lagoon, in a part of inland New South Wales described by one local tourism group as being “popular for trout fishing in pretty streams and birdwatching in protected wetlands.”

But there’d been no meaningful rain in months, and Len arrived at the ninth hole in April to find the earth smouldering like brimstone. The dried out peat had spontaneously combusted, and it continued to burn for a “good three weeks”.

"It's obviously very hot under the ground somewhere, but we don't know where, or how deep, or anything else, so we're playing it by ear,” Club vice-president David Wilcox told the Guyra Argus at the time. “We're hoping Mother Nature's letting us take her course, and we'll see what happens."

Some might call it Mother Nature, others a climatic omen. But there’s no disagreement on the fact that Guyra, recently dubbed “ground zero” for Australia’s drought, is in the midst of a historic weather event. Ninety-nine percent of NSW is now officially in drought. Just north of Guyra, the towns of Stanthorpe and Tenterfield are on track to be among the first in Australia to reach “day zero”, when the water runs out and the taps are turned off. Recent projections wagered that the latter had less than 300 days of water left on the clock.

For people on the ground, the situation has been called “indescribably desperate.”

“It’s all just brown,” Tenterfield local Mary Hollingworth told me a couple of weeks ago. “The trees are dying. There are a few blossoms that are trying to be brave: there are some daffodils, and the flowering crabapples are doing their best. But it’s dismal, and dry, and sad.”

Stonehenge in drought
Extreme drought has depleted the dams in Stonehenge, just south of Tenterfield, New South Wales. Image via David Gray via REUTERS

Then, in the midst of what already felt like a natural disaster, the landscape caught fire. Ravenous, unseasonable infernos swept through the borderlands, carbonising huge swathes of former grazing land and burning homes to the ground. Even as Mary spoke on the phone—describing the improbable resilience of the daffodils and telling me that “people are determined to see this through”—residents were being told “it's too late to leave”.

More than 50,000 hectares of land in the New England region have since been ravaged by fire. At least nine homes have been razed across the north of NSW; as many as 17 in southern Queensland. Hundreds of locals were evacuated to escape the front and hundreds of firefighters were deployed to suppress it. In a number of already drought-stricken communities, putting out fires has sucked the dams completely dry.

Emergency crews were forced to employ “dry firefighting” techniques, using bulldozers and hand tools to carve out containment lines. In Tenterfield they doused the flames with sewage water to avoid tapping into the town’s dwindling resources.

"It means everything to us to not be using town water,” said Mayor Peter Petty. “We can't afford to be using it."

Firefighter
More than 100 fires have ravaged the landscape around northern New South Wales and southern Queensland (pictured). Image via John Park via APP and REUTERS

Apparently this is what happens when two environmental disasters collide: a firestorm in a sun-baked dustbowl, and few water reserves to quell it. This month, Queensland’s acting premier Jackie Trad told reporters “there is no doubt that with an increasing temperature... events such as these will be more frequent and they will be much more ferocious.” Later, Queensland’s Fire and Emergency Services’ predictive services inspector Andrew Sturgess added the whole thing felt like “an omen, if you will; a warning.”

Over the past 12 months Australia has been seeing other unsettling omens. In December, tens of thousands of fruit bats fell dead from the sky during a subtropical heatwave. Then, in January, hundreds of thousands of perch and cod—some of them more than 20 years old—were killed by an algal bloom in the Murray Darling Basin. Both events were driven by a complex medley of different factors, but scientists cited a warming planet as leading the charge.

Considered in isolation, a colony of dead fruit bats, a self-combusting wetland, or a state in drought could represent little more than bad luck—but piled together, month after month, it seems like something has shifted. To many Australians, it suddenly feels as though intangible warnings are becoming tactile. Climate change is morphing into a horror that can be smelled, touched, and seen. And towns like Guyra, Tenterfield, and Stanthorpe might have front row seats to the unveiling of a harrowing new climate.

But what's interesting is how this sense of change, and this feeling of existential urgency, hasn't reached the people living amidst drought. In many parts of conservative-voting rural Australia, climate denialism appears to be an immovable object in the path of seemingly unstoppable forces. Barnaby Joyce, who grew up in New England and has represented the region as Member for Parliament since 2013, has repeatedly cast aspersions on environmental experts and denounced climate change as an “elitist” concern. And he’s far from the only dissenting voice in the area.

“The very idea that we can stop climate change is barking mad,” Joyce declared in a recent Facebook post, citing retired New Zealand geologist David Shelley before going on to suggest that global warming is preferable to suffering through the next ice age. “Sea levels are rising and have been for thousands of years and will fall during the next ice age which is expected about now… One may suggest that warmer weather is the better problem of the two.”

Though Joyce’s language is hyperbolic, his overall sentiment is shared. Mayor Petty described the situation in Tenterfield as “terrible… the worst drought on record,” and told me that the recent spate of bushfires were “just something you wouldn't believe—right on the edge of our town.” When I asked him whether he thought climate change had anything to do with it, he told me that “no, personally I don’t.”

“We'll see good seasons again and we'll see bad,” he said. “They're saying the weather's going to be more severe and the dry's going to be longer and more severe—but that's all yet to be proven. I'm not a skeptic, but I just believe it goes in cycles.”

In some sense Mayor Petty’s right: weather trends tend to be cyclical, and a particularly bad season could be misinterpreted as a symptom of climatic collapse. But Professor Mark Howden, Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, argues that the extremes we’re seeing lately are the product of an elevated average—a trend that is pushing us into “uncharted territory."

“Yes, these things have occurred in the past,” he told VICE over the phone, "but that actually ignores something really important: that things are changing. If we just manage for the variability and not for the change, we're actually going to underestimate the risk and then we won't manage that risk effectively. We will suffer the consequences: we’ll get fires that occur in ways that can't be managed, and they’ll inflict a lot of damage.”

Scott Morrison after a bushfire
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison sifts through remains of a home during a visit to a bushfire-affected area of southern Queensland on September 13, 2019. Image via Dave Hunt via APP and REUTERS

Climate change didn’t cause the fires in New England, strictly speaking. As Mayor Petty is quick to point out, the blaze near Tenterfield is believed to have been triggered by “very strong winds coming from the west and powerlines hitting together in tinder dry country.” But that country was tinder dry because of a shortage in regional rainfall—a decline that has been linked to post-industrial greenhouse gases—and human-induced changes in climate are known to contribute to drier fuel, lower humidity, and occasionally higher winds: all of which feed wildfires.

As Professor Howden puts it: “it's not true to say that climate change causes the fires, but what is true to say is that, once they start, climate change tends to exacerbate the severity and intensity and spread rates. So each fire essentially has climate change embedded in it.”

That the battery of extreme weather events currently unfolding around the world are a result of climate change is not, by now, a particularly radical view. Scientists, activists, and Leonardo DiCaprio have been telling us for years that this is what happens when greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked. And yet climate change skepticism remains rife throughout both Australia and the world at large—even as ice caps melt, islands sink, and rainforests go up in flames.

It’s a hard fact that global temperatures are rising, along with sea levels, and that human behaviour is contributing to the crisis. But facts aren’t enough to change people’s minds. If someone genuinely believes that climate change isn’t a cause for serious concern, it’ll probably take more than a few scientific pundits and peer-reviewed papers to persuade them.

A 1975 Stanford experiment went some way towards highlighting the human incapacity to accept new information that contradicts prior convictions. Using a method that might seem controversial now, researchers assembled a group of undergraduates, handed them a number of suicide notes, and asked them to distinguish which notes were real and which were fake. Some of the students were told they’d scored incredibly well in distinguishing the real from the fake, while others were told they’d scored incredibly poorly. But the students were later informed that these scores themselves had been made up.

They were then asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually identified correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. Researchers found that students from the high-score group still clung to the belief that they’d done well, while students from the low-score group still felt they’d done poorly—even in the face of factual evidence pointing to the contrary.

“Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant,” the researchers observed.

Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book The Enigma of Reason, explored these ideas further and looked specifically at the cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias: that is, people’s tendency to embrace information that aligns with their beliefs and reject information that doesn’t. Mercier and Sperber highlighted this as a serious flaw in human reasoning, and suggested as a case in point that a mouse “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around” stands little chance of survival.

The “cat”, in this case, seems to be human-induced climate catastrophe, which people around the world may well be ignoring at their own peril. Certainly, residents of the drought- and-fire stricken region of central NSW seem to be sticking to their prior (and perhaps perilous) convictions.

Amanda Harrold, secretary of the Stanthorpe and Granite Belt Chamber of Commerce, is also skeptical of the “pencil pushers” in the cities and their foreboding climate change rhetoric. When I ask her about the extreme drought and wildfires around Stanthorpe, she invokes the familiar spectre of a force majeure.

“It’s Mother Nature,” she says. “We've always had fires, we've always had floods, we've always had drought. I'm just not convinced that it's all human caused. It's very easy to always blame everything on climate change.”

Bushfire in Queensland
A bushfire rages in the Scenic Rim region of South East Queensland. Image via Regi Varghese via APP and REUTERS

Both Amanda and Mayor Petty insist that this recent spate of natural disasters has done nothing to sway their climate change skepticism, and seem to think that it's something of a moot point. “Do you think it's going to help the person whose house burned down to say ‘sorry, it's climate change’?" Amanda asks. Then she reiterates: “We’ve always had drought, we’ve always had floods, we’ve always had fires.”

Which, of course, is true. Humans didn’t invent fire. Floods were here before any humans. And unpredictable weather patterns have given us drier-than-usual periods that we’ve been calling “drought” since time immemorial.

But as Professor Howden explains, people often make the mistake of focussing on variability—that is, the fact that we get lows as well as highs; wet periods as well as dry periods—rather than averages. “We get wet years and dry years, bad fire years and good fire years. And that's fair enough, and we need to manage that variability,” he said. “But what we're seeing now is there's a change in the average: temperatures are going up and fire risk is going up.”

“That changing variability and changing averages is a really important part of this,” he continues, "and that's much more complex than just thinking ‘oh it's all happened before.’ Because what the climate record shows, and what the CO2 record shows from the ice scores, is that this hasn't all happened before. This is uncharted territory.”

As it stands, things are set to get worse. Experts are expecting temperatures and fire danger to continue rising into the future as a result of various factors, many of which are linked to human-induced climate change, while a recent landmark report by the United Nations found that the natural world is diminishing at rates unprecedented in human history—and that will likely have grave impacts on people’s livelihoods around the world.

Sir Robert Watson, from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), noted that the UN report “presents an ominous picture.”

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” he said. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide.”

Meanwhile, in the bone-dry plains around Guyra, Tenterfield, and Stanthorpe, the fires continue to burn. There’s no sign that the rains are coming any time soon, and if things continue the way they’re going then crippling drought could render a number of communities in the region all but inhospitable in 12 months’ time.

As the dry continues, local councils are turning to other possible solutions: ferrying truckloads of water in from neighbouring towns and cities, at a cost of up to $2 million a month; building a pipeline to pump water around the north of NSW; digging for water deep in the earth.

“They're drilling bores here [in Tenterfield] as we speak,” said Mayor Petty. “And we have found areas. We've been successful with one bore, and that supplements our water supply. But our argument has always been that if that bore fails, we have 200 days left.”

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