Thoughts and prayers are not enough

Nov 18, 2019 • 17m 33s

Last week, a million hectares of eastern Australia was burnt in catastrophic bushfires. In the main, politicians refused to acknowledge the science that links these fires to climate change.



Thoughts and prayers are not enough

123 • Nov 18, 2019

Thoughts and prayers are not enough

[Theme music starts]


From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman 1:

“Friday, was a 39 degree day. So there were fires breaking out all over the place. The fire officer that dropped by earlier in the afternoon had said that resources were so stretched that there wouldn't be any assistance if, if the fire came over the ridge and that we'd be on our own.

We did choose to evacuate at 3 a.m. on Friday morning.

I was up at 2 o'clock and couldn't see anything and I got a phone call at 3am by the neighbour opposite who said, “We think we can see flames - we're not sure”. So I get up again, I go outside on our veranda and nearly passed out at looking at what I saw on the mountainside opposite. All of a sudden it was glowing red, right down to the creek.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“A state of emergency has been declared in NSW. A catastrophic warning in place, with a fire danger the city has never seen…”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“There are currently more than 70 fires burning, half of them are out of control....”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Man 1:

“My boots are melting. Getting close to that is pretty full on I guess. Wow.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Man 2:

“You can actually hear it roaring….”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Man 3:

“I'm the captain of the federal brigade, been here in the brigade for 49, nearly 50 years.
Have you ever seen anything like this?
Never. Never.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman 1:

“Right there and then we all decided we had to get out straight away. People were streaming out of the valley. We all assembled down at the local farmers co-op in town at around 4:30am and we’re shell-shocked, just completely blindsided.

No one ever thought that a subtropical rainforest, here, would ever be under threat. With twelve feet of rain a year, no one ever thought something like this would happen.

What can we say? It's, it's deeply concerning and something's not right. And, and yeah, I'm sorry but thoughts and prayers aren't enough.”


Last week, a million hectares of eastern Australia were burned in catastrophic bushfires - including in northern NSW, where the story you just heard was recorded. Mike Seccombe covered the fires and the political response that followed.


Scott Morrison has refused to address the underlying cause of the fires, which is obviously climate change. Whenever he's been asked by reporters about any link between the fire emergency and climate change, he's simply refused to engage and says now is not the time. Now is the time for practical assistance. We won't talk about it.


Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.


While, for example, he was visiting some of the fire affected areas in northern New South Wales with the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, the week before last, both politicians were asked about it and both said it was not the time to be talking about climate change. And there was a protester who emerged during a briefing with firefighters who yelled, Climate change is real. Can't you see? The protester was immediately escorted from the building, and Morrison responded again. And I quote, “I'm focused on the needs of the people in this room, as is the premier.”

Morrison said that the last thing that people need in an urgent crisis at the moment is to hear politicians shout at each other...

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“I think it’s important that at moments like this that everybody take it down a few notches. What matters is people who are in need and ensuring the operational support is there for the services they need to ensure we can address this crisis...”


He also sent out a tweet offering his thoughts and prayers to those directly affected by the fires. I might add there was a lot of response along the lines of prayers aren’t a lot of help, we want action.


And then there were other voices from within the federal coalition.


Yes, there was. On Monday, the federal leader of the National Party, Michael McCormack, went on ABC Breakfast Radio to talk at length about how people shouldn't be talking about it.

Archival tape -- Hamish Mcdonald:

“Why are you so upset at people raising the question of climate change and its link to the drought and the conditions that have enabled these fires to take hold so fast?”

Archival tape -- Michael McCormack:

“We’ve had fires in Australia since, well...from, since time began. And what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance. They need help, they need shelter.”


McCormack also responded extremely angrily to a media release that had been sent out by the Greens MP Adam Bandt, in which Bandt suggested that Morrison through his support of the fossil fuel industry had, and I'm quoting again, contributed to making it more likely that these kinds of tragedies will occur. Bandt then called on the Prime Minister to apologise to the Australian people for putting their towns and lives at risk. McCormack was livid about that.

Archival tape -- Hamish Mcdonald:

“Why is it wrong to ask those questions?”

Archival tape -- Michael McCormack:

“Well they don't need the ravings of some pure enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they're trying to save their homes, when in fact they're going out in many cases and saving other people's homes and leaving their own homes at risk. What they don’t need is Adam Bandt and Richard Di Natale trying to get a political point score on this. I mean it is disgraceful, it is disgusting and I’ll call it out every time.”


And Mike what did you make of this reluctance to engage with the science that links bushfires to climate change?


The idea that you can't talk about the causes of a catastrophe while it's unfolding and that you should offer prayers and temper your desire for politics is a classic line used by people who want to dodge culpability.

I spoke to Geoff Cousins. 23 years ago, he had been recently employed as an adviser to John Howard, who was then quite a new prime minister. And Cousins had a similar thought to mine I might say, which is that the government's response reminded us both very strongly of the way the National Rifle Association in the United States deals with mass shootings.


We’ll be right back.



Mike, last week you interviewed Geoff Cousins, who was an adviser to John Howard during the Port Arthur massacre. What did he tell you?


At that time he was privy to the internal divisions within the Howard government about how to respond to um Martin Bryant's rampage in which 35 people were killed and 29 people were wounded. Cousins described to me how hard faced down those people in his own party and particularly in the National Party, who argued essentially what Morrison is arguing now, that it was the wrong time to talk about tighter gun laws so soon after the massacre.

As Geoff said, Howard's response was, quote, “This is wrong. This is precisely the time to talk about gun control and more than that, precisely the time to do something about it.” And of course, Howard did and and reformed our gun laws.

Archival tape -- John Howard:

“I’m sorry about that but there is no other way, no other way…”


When I spoke to Cousins, he'd just driven hundreds of kilometres, in his Tesla I might add, through that charred and smoky countryside from northern New South Wales to Sydney. And apparently as he was driving, he was thinking about one particular visual memory from his time back with John Howard after the Port Arthur massacre. There was a memorial service for the victims and walking out of that, John Howard saw the father of one of the young men who'd been killed and immediately went over and embraced him. It wasn't a staged moment, but the media caught it and there were some very powerful images that resulted.

This week, there was a very similar picture of Morrison hugging a man whose home had been lost to the fires in northern New South Wales. Cousins was reflecting on the two images and said that while they were similar images, the subtext was entirely different because Howard's spontaneous gesture didn't only convey sympathy, it conveyed a promise of change. He said that Howard's gesture was, quote, an absolute sign that action was to be taken. By contrast, Morrison's embrace offered, and here I'm quoting Geoff, some sort of hollow comfort without any action. He went on to call not only Morrison, but all those other senior politicians who'd said it wasn't the time to talk about it. He called them all Hollow Men.

In my piece for The Saturday Paper, I actually quoted a couple of responses from the National Rifle Association. One of them was from the time of the Las Vegas shooting in which I think was 50 odd. People died and hundreds were wounded. And the NRA response was, you know, now is not the time. Now is the time to let people grieve. And they say this every time, every time there's a mass shooting.And by saying so, they not only express this vaguely false concern for the victims and, and those who are grieving, they also, by implication, suggest that anyone who talks about the issue is being insensitive, which is is quite an effective way, I guess, of shutting down a lot of people who would otherwise pipe up about the need for change.


So, Mike, if there is a parallel between the way this government is approaching climate change and the way the NRA handles any attempts at gun control after a mass shooting, what happens next in that playbook?


The next step in the NRA playbook is to shift the blame. In America they almost always blame the mental illness of someone. The famous line, of course, is guns don't kill people. People kill people. So they shift the blame.

And we saw that happening this week. In the interview on ABC with Michael McCormack that I mentioned earlier he segways into the fact that there wasn't enough fuel load being cleaned out of the forests. He said, quote, “What we want to see is not these areas locked up,” meaning national parks, just for eco tourism.

And then shortly after that, over on right wing radio to 2GB, the shock jock Ray Hadley spoke with McCormack’s state counterpart, the deputy premier, John Barilaro. And they really escalated the blame shifting.

Archival tape -- John Barilaro

“So let’s just stop the rubbish debate, get on with the reality here and that is not allowing the Greens to stop us getting on with hazard reduction. And that’s been the problem, and that will be seen as the biggest part of the problem with these fires....”


This became the theme for a lot of right wing politicians and media commentators to distract and lay off blame. They suggested it was all due to the fact that conservationists opposed hazard reduction burning, which I might add is not true.

I've spoken with a lot of the conservation groups. A lot of them actually support hazard reduction burning on the basis of environmental science, that they accept that a lot of Australia's bushland is fire adapted and actually needs a bit of fire now and then to maintain biodiversity. It was completely untrue what they were saying. It's actually Greens policy to support hazard reduction burning in certain cases.

As the week drew on the efforts at distracting from the underlying cause, climate change grew more and more ridiculous. Barnaby Joyce, the former National Party's leader who's got a long history of denying human induced climate change, actually told Sky News that changes to the sun’s magnetic field could be the cause of the fires. And unaccountably, he also speculated very tastelessly that two people who died in the fires in northern New South Wales were probably Greens voters.


Mike, what is the science of this? Can we actually, though, link fires to climate change?


Well, Climate change is making this part of Australia drier. It is making this part of Australia hotter. In particular, it's making winter and spring rains considerably less. And we see a long term trend to both a longer fire season and more intense fires.

Numerous experts can attest to these changes. Among them is the former New South Wales Fire and Rescue commissioner, Greg Mullins, who is a signatory along with former fire chiefs from every state in the nation who issued a statement several months ago about these changes. They were seeking more funding. They were seeking more resources. They wanted to meet with the government. They were ignored. He said this week that blaming the greenies for preventing hazard reduction burning was a, quote, familiar, populist and basically untrue claim.

Brendan Mackey, who is the director of the Climate Change Response Program at Griffith University, spoke with me through the week. And he says that what Australia is facing now is what he called a different type of fire. He notes that the fire hazard index, which was a formulation established in the 1970s based on temperature, dryness, fuel load, wind speed, had begun to register values greater than the maximum on the scale. And that was why we've had to invent this new category of “catastrophic,” which was used for the first time in relation to the risk in Sydney this week. Things are changing and the government is refusing to accept essentially that those things are changing and refusing to take the steps that the science tells us we need to take. The science is unequivocal. But so’s the empirical evidence that's that's there for everyone to see, the changes are happening and they're happening actually even faster than was predicted.


So the science accepts that these fires are a symptom of climate change. The nature of them is changing as a result, becoming more intense. Looking at the government's response last week and looking at what Cousins has been calling this NRA playbook, what do we think is likely to happen with regards to climate action in Australia?


Well, I despair a little bit. According to the most recent Climate and Climate of the Nation survey done by the Australia Institute released last September, 71 per cent of Australians already believed then that bushfires were increasing in number because of climate change. And no doubt that proportion will have gone up since then. In the US, though, we see that there's a similar percentage. About three quarters of people tell pollsters and have done so for years that they support tighter restrictions on guns. And yet the NRA remains powerful and nothing much changes in the United States.

So the reality is that the fossil fuel lobby in this country, just like the gun lobby over there, retains its hold on politics with its playbook and with its check book. And it will just keep on winning the debate until the people muster the political will to back their beliefs. You know that they don't just become distracted a couple of weeks after the event, which is what these people count on.

I think possibly this week shows that this is beginning to happen. This week, it wasn't the normal suspects who led the debate. It wasn't the Greens. It wasn't the conservation groups. It was the firefighters. It was the rural mayors. It was the victims themselves. And I think that's a really significant development.


Mike, thank you.


Thanks mate. Okay, bye.


Thank you to the residents living in fire-affected areas who spoke to our producer Ruby Schwartz for this episode.

Elsewhere in the news:

In an interview on BBC’s Newsnight, Prince Andrew has “categorically” denied accusations that he had sex with a teenage girl who says she was trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein. The Duke of York claimed that on one of the nights it’s alleged he had an encounter with the 17-year-old, he was at home after taking his daughter out for pizza. He said he has “no recollection” of ever meeting the woman and suggested that a widely circulated photo of the two of them was doctored.

And Chinese soldiers stationed in Hong Kong left their barracks over the weekend to clear roads blockaded by anti-government protestors, after one of the most violent weeks in the five months since the protests began. People’s Liberation Army soldiers -- who are only supposed to be deployed at the request of the local government for disaster relief or to maintain public order were used to clear bricks, desks and other debris that protestors had left around the Hong Kong Baptist University to stop riot police entering the campus. A group of protestors issued a statement about the incident, titled “clearance today, crackdown tomorrow” describing the move as an “ill-disguised attempt to intimidate them.”

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Tuesday.

Last week, a million hectares of eastern Australia was burnt in catastrophic bushfires. In the main, politicians refused to acknowledge the science that links these fires to climate change. Mike Seccombe on the political strategy behind these denials – and where it comes from.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Actually, it is climate change in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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123: Thoughts and prayers are not enough