Skip to main content

Global warming, cold days, bushfires

There are currently bushfires raging in New South Wales. They are grave and sobering. Also raging is an enormous fuss about the putative connection between these fires and global warming. So far, as far as my extremely limited attention to this can tell, the debate has ranged over whether this connection exists, whether it's appropriate to talk about it, whether it has any policy implications, whether Wikipedia is a reliable source...

This is not serious. It is very silly, from everyone involved, but particularly from the people who I would generally have more political affinity with. The whole thing has been scattergun and stupid; too much so for me to even write a post as long as I was planning to. So this is now very short.

Global warming did not cause this bushfire and cannot cause any bushfire. It will, over time, mean more bushfires on average than if it did not occur. Even if you imagine an extreme where there is a bushfire literally every week, though, no one of these fires will be 'caused' by climate change, since any one of them might well have happened anyway. What wouldn't have happened anyway is all of them, but there's obviously no clear causal story to tell there. Get over it. Stop trying to tell one. You know people who use the existence of cold days as a refutation of global warming? Neither do I, actually, because I'm pretty sure those people don't exist, but you get the idea, popularised as a sort of lefty-environmentalist bogeyman. Those 'people' are idiots because they are looking for links between a broad phenomenon with system, probabilistic effects and individual instances of things. Obviously global warming is not connected to the temperature on any given day. Neither is it connected to any given bushfire.

What's happened since the whole thing kicked off - with a series of tweets from Adam Bandt, I think - is just bemusing. Boring repetitive people like Gerard Henderson have taken the opportunity to write the same article complaining about the Greens that they always do. (Had you forgotten that the Greens voted against emissions trading in 2009? Don't worry! Gerard will remind you!) Other people have decided that this is a good time to raise the tired old question of what is acceptable in political discourse, which - you will recall from such edifying spectacles as 'Julia Gillard Is A Woman' and 'Margaret Thatcher Is Dead' - is a question with the magical property of dividing people precisely along ideological/partisan lines and so resist ever being resolved. For what it's worth, I think this is probably tactless and counterproductive messaging; I'm not sure there's anything to be gained from fruitless attempts to draw big red lines around what politicians should or shouldn't talk about.

Coalition politicians have turned down the chance to say something sensible and (from their perspective) true, like: "Climate change is extremely serious; we're committed to fighting it and we think we have the best way of doing that, but right now our attention is on the families who are losing their homes to this tragedy." Instead, they have patiently explained that bushfires have always existed, and that Wikipedia says something, and generally do their very best to come across as the quasi-climate-sceptics they're always assuring us they aren't. It's all just very strange.

But at least we're going to raise the debt ceiling!