Monday, February 09, 2009

Victorian bushfire tragedy: the media reacts

(Photo from Flickr).
The Victorian Government has tonight announced a Royal Commission into the bushfires that have ravaged the state in the last 48 hours with a death toll of 200 and still climbing. Australia’s worst ever natural disaster has left the nation shell-shocked and searching for answers. However, one worrying aspect of that search is likely to be a witch hunt on “arsonists”, a category of criminal that is likely to temporarily replace “child molester” in the national opprobrium. I hope the Royal Commission does not get bogged down in individual guilt because such a reaction is likely to rule out the true cause of the tragedy.

That may be an over optimistic hope on my part. Despite the fact that bushfires are an inevitable occurrence in Australia and have been so for millions of years, Piers Akerman found it fit today to attribute the fires to “home-grown terrorists”. TV was no better. Tonight’s Channel Ten news was typical as it gave the story a human cause over a background splash of “Mass Murder”. A clearly emotional Prime Minister was responsible for that headline as he lashed out at anyone who may have been responsible for lighting the fires saying "There's no words to describe it other than it's mass murder." Sensational copy for sure, but there are other words to describe it. With strong winds, a long drought and almost fifty degree Celsius temperatures, it is likely that Nature not nurture was the cause of most of the devastation. But pity some poor bastard who might be accused of arson. He or she will be pilloried as the enemy of the nation and will be lucky to survive to face trial.

Legal Eagle posited a common opinion when she said “the worst thing about it all is the possibility that at least some of these fires were deliberately lit by arsonists.” Its a possibility for sure, and arson is a terrible crime, but not "the worst thing". At most arson was probably a bit player in the extraordinary events of the last few days. By treating every fire as a crime scene Victoria Police is failing to take into account large causes that cannot be cordoned off behind police tape. This is not really a police problem. What is truly the worst thing is that over the coming years this event is likely to become more ordinary.

Clive Hamilton was one of several to suggest that human causes other than arson were at work in Victoria. He says human-induced climate change is the real culprit. Writing in Crikey he said climate scientists have long been predicting that as conditions in bushfire-prone areas become hotter, drier and windier, the result will be more frequent and severe bushfires. He quoted a report that predicted a two to four-fold increase in the number of extreme fire danger days by 2050 with interior of NSW and Northern Victoria a particular danger. He says we are seeing the future now. Hamilton asks will we face up to it or pretend they are one-off events?

The Rooted blog also blamed the carnage on climate change. It quoted a 2008 report by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre which says the number of days marked by ‘extreme’ fire danger will grow. As a result, the implications of climate change for bushfires are likely to create substantial economic, social and environmental costs. However the report warned of the difficulty of selling the message. “From a scientific viewpoint climate change needs to be understood at a both a global and regional level.” It said. “This is clearly a complex task, and many questions remain.”

Climate change sceptics will closely monitor this task. Andrew Bolt was quick to accuse Greens Bob Brown leader of “preaching politics” when he (Brown) made the climate change connection. He called Brown’s comments “grossly inappropriate”. Tim Blair also warned that “warmenists” are preparing to use the fires as fodder for climate change action “[j]ust as they used Hurricane Katrina.”

Others found causes out of the dangerous realm of climate change politics. Ben Eltham in New Matilda considers the lack of firestick farming as he examines the claims of those who predicted the carnage. He quotes former weather bureau and CSIRO scientist David Packham who told the ABC Thursday that the weekend would see “the worst bushfire conditions in 50 years”. Eltham said Packham blamed fuel loads that have built up in the past 30 to 40 years. "There has been a total lack of willingness to instigate a proper fuel reduction management program based on the skills and understanding of indigenous people who, after all, for tens of thousands of years were the stewards of our environment,” said Packham.

Over at Larvatus Prodeo Robert Merkel linked to an LA Times article which outlined the difference between Australian and Californian bushfire-fighting tactics. “Americans expect firefighters to protect their lives and property,” said the Times. “Australians in rural communities view that as their own responsibility.” Merkel also offers a note of caution to those that believe that this is a terrible portent of things to come when he said “lives lost in bushfires since Ash Wednesday have been far fewer in number, despite some truly gargantuan fires in the intervening period.”

Nevertheless there is justifiable considerable shock in the wider community at the weekend events, which was reflected in wide-ranging manner it was covered. Gary Hughes’s breathless present tense account in The Australian of how he and his family escaped the St Andrews fire is compelling reading. Down in Melbourne, Guy Beres contemplated on the disaster that was unfolding barely “thirty minutes away”. In a curious action that united the left and right, both Jeremy Sear and Iain Hall felt an unnecessary but understandable need to apologise for light-hearted comments about the weather the previous day before either were aware of the extent of the devastation. Meanwhile, The Inquisitr examined the role of social media in reporting the crisis while Dave Bath at Balneus looked at practical measures for punishing arsonists (beyond lynching) by seizing assets rather than imprisoning them. At Core Economics, Joshua Gans gave an economist’s view as he examined what technologies could be realistically be used to save lives in future bushfires.

But of all the reactions it was surely our Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy who had his finger closest to the pulse today. While a nation was in shock over the death toll, Senator Stephen Conroy blithely announced that tomorrow Australia would be “celebrating” something called “Safer Internet Day”. While Victoria burned, the Minister had something more important to tell us. “Young people around Australia,” Senator Conroy informed us breathlessly, “will participate in activities promoting responsible internet use during Safer Internet Day tomorrow.” Neither a sense of timing nor a grasp on reality appear to be Senator Conroy’s strong points.

1 comment:

Ian said...

An excellent article Derek, but at the same time as the fires were raging and many people were making the same connection as you between with human impact on the environment, in Northern Ireland the Stormont Government has an environment minister patently in denial.

He was interviewed on Radio 4, and in a rant which barely paused for breath, reiterated the old chestnut that firstly global warming is down to the Sun's activity, and that this view is reinforced by a large percentage of the scientific community.

As with say smoking and cancer specific cause and effect are very hard to pin down, and is the territory where this type of 'in denialer' can safely build their refuge.

However it may be a long way from Belfast to Marysville, but some of the CO2 being produced in Northern Ireland undoubtedly, and I mean undoubtedly, caused the blistering temperatures which led to the tinderbox conditions these fires fed on.