Australia’s Fires and the Upside of Anger

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S1: This episode has got just the tiniest bit of salty language, but it’s in an Australian accent, so we allowed it.

S2: Emily ADKISON would love to write a hopeful climate change story. Her old editors that always ask for that. But in the end, these kinds of stories always bummed her out.

S3: Every time I read a positive climate story, it’s just some wacko business. Like some 23 year old guy being like, I built a machine to take all the trash out of the ocean. And you’re like, Oh, dude, you poor guy.

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S4: To get the trash.

S2: Emily doesn’t have to write stories like this anymore. She left her staff job at New Republic last year to start a newsletter about climate change. It’s called Heated. That’s how she made this decision. The feel good climate story she wants to tell. It happens in the future.

S5: I was listening to something the other day about how the reason the civil rights movement started to pick up steam was not just because everyone was talking about how screwed up things were, but because, you know, Martin Luther King started visualizing, you know, his dream for the future and what the future looked like.

S6: That’s what I think of when you think of a positive climate change story. I can’t wait until we’re teaching not only the science of climate change, but the history of climate change in schools.

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S7: And, you know, we’re learning about how we overcame these things and we’re biking everywhere and eating like lots of vegetables. And the air is clean. And there’s all this renewable energy is just like it sounds cool and sounds sounds nice, you know?

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S2: Emily wants you to hear the words climate change and picture possibilities. She knows that when you think about climate change now, you’re probably thinking about all the potential that’s been lost, like when you hear about those bushfires in Australia.

S8: Fires authorities are urging people living in areas that are under threat to leave or risk becoming trapped. And we know the cost to human life. We know the cost to land 16 million acres of land and an estimated 1 billion, 1 billion animals. And the pictures have just been awful. Haven’t they?

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S3: Fires expected to rage all when I see a headline that says a billion animals are dead in the wildfires. I guess I have a unique understanding of what that means just from the pictures. Like I remember this one. A cow is standing in a field by itself as the sky behind it is just bright red in flames and smoke.

S5: And you know that you know that that cow is probably going to die. And another thing you see is just people going about their daily lives in smoke filled areas of Australia. You also get a little numb to it because you’re like, well, that that koala skeleton isn’t adequately centred on the page. And then you’re like, oh, god, what?

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S2: Emily jokes about it. But she’s not numb to these pictures. They make her deeply angry when she looks at them. She sees more than scorched animals and smog choked skies.

S3: When I see it, I see a government that’s long denied the realities of climate change, just like the United States, where that has refused to do anything to prepare Australians for a disaster like this that has long ignored warnings from scientists and that just like the United States has industries that have profited off of those lies.

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S6: So C like I basically just see. Grave injustice.

S2: And a grave injustice that can be made right if only all of us can agree on what we’re looking at.

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S9: Today on the show, Emily Adkins is going to try to convince you to stop feeling sad and start getting angry because she thinks it’s the only way she’s going to get to that feel good climate future. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S10: Americans are used to hearing about wildfires in California. But can we talk a little bit about what makes Australia special when it comes to fires, like why are these fires so big? And is it the same situation where they’re just seasonal and they happen all the time?

S3: I mean, in some ways they’re the same in that they are seasonal.

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S11: Australia has a bushfire season. But in another way, is there the same as the California wildfires we’ve been seeing recently in that they’re way worse than they normally are in a way that makes firefighters say, you know, of course, this has to be climate change, because I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. One of the worst California wildfire seasons on record was twenty eighteen. But I saw I saw a statistic that the bushfire season in Australia right now is over three times worse than that in terms of acreage burned. What makes this a climate disaster is that it’s being fueled by a climate change caused drought. So a drought that’s been made far worse by a hotter atmosphere when there’s a wildfire and then it’s really hot and really dry. It’s really hard to put out the wildfire because it just just catches everything around it and spreads super quickly. So that’s sort of what Australia has been dealing with for literally months. I think people forget that this started in July. It’s January. You know, it’s it’s been literally months.

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S10: I’m glad you said how the fires had been going on since the summer, because I really do feel like most people, United States haven’t been paying attention until this winter, until really the Christmas season. Can you talk a little bit about how reaction to the fires has evolved as they’ve kept going and spread?

S3: Well, we don’t pay attention to natural disasters in other countries. I mean, we barely pay attention to natural disasters in our own country. Cough, cough, Puerto Rico.

S11: We only pay attention to natural disasters in other countries if they’re really, really bad. One of the stories that broke it into the national spotlight was this Forbes story that claimed that koalas were now functionally extinct in Australia. And for some reason, anyone cares about that. It was false because they’re not functionally extinct. But but it started a conversation going and then people started to realize not only that this was really bad, but that this was something that could also happen here, because Australia is like the United States in a lot of ways, especially politically. So it’s and I think, you know, I’m not if I’m going to be honest, I think maybe the fact that there are white people who speak English probably helps.

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S10: Yeah. And I think people also started to pay attention when the prime minister in Australia went on this Christmas vacation where he went to Hawaii and, you know, pictures came out of that at the same time that this massive natural disaster was going on in his own backyard.

S8: I get it. The people would have been upset to know that I was holidaying with my family while their families were under great stress.

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S3: Something I’ve realized since launching this newsletter, actually, is that a lot of people are interested in climate change, are just looking to feel like they’re not alone in feeling like this is crazy.

S11: Like, why is this happening? And so I would hypothesize that part of the reason once we see this similar political situation of an absent leader who refuses to acknowledge reality and tries to escape away on vacation when something important is happening. Part of the appeal of that is just being like, oh, my God, we’re not alone. Oh, my God. It’s happening to other people, too.

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S10: And it’s compelling to look at these videos coming out of Australia of people reacting to the prime minister when he goes into the fire zones and tries to shake hands with people. And, you know, say good job, good job. And people refusing to shake his hand. People heckling him is not welcome here. What?

S12: You’re really not getting any advice for anybody?

S10: Can you put Australia in a little bit of context? How has Scott Morrison led the country through the climate crisis?

S3: So Australia’s the that’s forecasted to be the sixth largest producer of fossil fuels in the world by 2030. So they are quickly becoming more of a huge player in the the carbon emissions world. So there they hold a big responsibility for climate change. But what Prime Minister Skomal claims. That’s what they call him Skomal, that Australia is not really responsible compared to, say, the United States, China. They’re not responsible. So and they’re too small to make a difference. So it doesn’t matter what they do and they’re not going to take huge action to act until other countries do.

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S13: And this is an argument that even the United States makes. Well, we’re not going to do this until China does this or China says we’re not going to do this till India does this. The. Generally scums approach. And also just like the United States. He’s very generous towards fossil-fuel interests. Australia supports forcefield industries in a number of ways. It’s a close industry government relationship.

S10: I’m sure you can imagine how that how that plays out between the coal industry and the Australian government. Yes. And the oil and gas as well. Can you characterise Scott Morrison’s special relationship with the oil and gas and coal industry? Like what? How have they gotten involved with him as a politician? Do you know?

S14: I know that.

S5: He repeats their talking points. You know, the same talking points that oil and gas industries use are the ones that come out of Scott Morrison’s mouth.

S15: Australia is doing our bit on climate change and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.

S3: Like many, he’ll say that there is no way that Australia, which is only accountable for 1.3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, that our actions are specifically impacting fire events. You know that that’s not scientific or, you know, there’s nothing that we can do here that will make a difference in our fire season. Conversely, if we stop funding fossil fuel production, then we’ll lose all these jobs. So it’s a net positive for us to keep supporting these industries and propping these industries up, which is exactly what those industries obviously want them to say.

S16: Know, that talking point is interesting. You bring it up because Scott Morrison is known for going onto the floor of parliament with a big hunk of coal and basically holding it out. This is a couple of years ago and basically saying this is about jobs that don’t be afraid of coal because we need coal to keep people employed and financially solvent. Is that a fair argument?

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S3: I also don’t know the exact economic conditions of Australia, but what I do know is that’s what the coal industry does here and is also a lie. I have spent a lot of time in West Virginia as a reporter and the coal industry has such a big presence there. And it has really convinced, you know, a large portion of people that that if that industry goes away, then nothing can replace it, which a lot of people underst- understand to be false. But it really permeates into people’s minds, and especially when that’s the industry that’s employed your family for multiple generations, the industry that has historically been the only source of good paying jobs and are in a rural economy. When that happens, then the industry becomes the only the only entity that people in those areas really trust. But it’s more complicated than that. You know, something we miss a lot is that coal companies and fossil fuel companies are heavily subsidized by government funding, which is why they’re able to give such good benefits and pay to people while renewable energy industries are not subsidised in that way. If we just changed our priorities, we could certainly change local economies. It’s not you know, it’s not that hard to do an idea. But in political practice, because those industries, the coal industry, oil and gas industry are so powerful and so big already and already have all this money, it’s hard to change on the ground.

S10: You’re such an optimist, because I feel like in order for what you’re saying to be true, there’d have to be a new industry to swap in immediately with whatever the fossil fuel industry was, coal or whatever else.

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S16: And that seems like a tall order.

S3: Yeah, it seems that way because you’ve been you’ve been made to think it’s that way. I’ve been greenwash. I mean, you know, the oil and gas industry alone spends three and a half billion dollars a year on advertising and PR to convince us that this is the only way that fossil fuels are, the only way that we can power our economy and that renewables can’t replace it. And there have been multiple scientific studies that have showed that that’s just not true, that renewables can at this moment. If we wanted to power the majority of our country, we you know, we obviously need a transition phase. It can’t happen overnight. But I’ve been trying to think of like a good way, a good comparison to make about this recently. And something I think about a lot is like if you get diagnosed with like heart disease or you have a heart attack or something and your doctor says that the only way for you to not have another heart attack is to like lower your cholesterol. And there are a bunch of other foods available that you can eat like veggie fruits and vegetables, but like you don’t want to stop eating hamburgers. So you’re just like saying, well, I need another hamburger alternative, like some new type of like all low cholesterol, low fat hamburger that will be created out of nowhere. I can’t just replace all this food in my diet with fruits and vegetables.

S13: That’s ridiculous. But it’s like actually, you know, you can it’s right there. You don’t need this other thing like that to just be created out of nowhere.

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S10: But I think the politicians have trouble because it means tradeoffs. Right. Because there’s this argument they make.

S16: And I’m curious what you’d say about it, that we’ve basically made this life for ourselves, that it’s impossible to power this life with all of our electric lights and our computers and everything, our cars without fossil fuels.

S13: You know what, it might be true, but what is the alternative? The alternative is that climate change, which is something that you can’t prepare for, that you can’t really say what it’s going to do or how bad it’s going to get or what natural disaster it’s going to cause. The alternative is that it comes and wipes away that quality of life. Either way. So you can either make a choice now to try and power the life we have now differently. Perhaps we have to make a couple of sacrifices. Perhaps there, you know, we have less cars on the road road or perhaps like its meat gets more expensive in the store, perhaps like our quality of life temporarily decreases as we try and make this transition. I mean, do you want to. Do you want to have consequences that you can prepare for and and predict or do you want to have consequences that you can’t prepare for and predict and that are literally irreversible? Those are your choices. And so I don’t really see how it’s such a hard choice to make as journalists, like people are like welsch jobs or death.

S4: And you’re like, what? Who taught you that this was fair?

S10: You’ve done this project. We’re collecting advertisments from the fossil fuel industry. And you’ve talked a bit about how the fossil fuel industry is telling us this story, but we can’t have it any other way. What are those ads tell you about the story? The fossil fuel industry is telling the rest of us.

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S5: They tell me that the fossil fuel industry wants us to focus on the past. They tell me that the fossil fuel industry wants us to look at what they have done for us over the last hundred years. And they don’t want us to focus on what will happen in the future if they stick around. Give me an example.

S13: The American Petroleum Institute, which is the largest oil and gas trade group in the United States, just launched what they’re calling a seven figure advertising effort to tell this.

S5: What they say is, quote, tell the story of our industry that these ads that they’re going to start putting out in newspapers, on public transportation, you know, sponsoring sports teams are going to say things like oil and gas powering America’s past and future and play to our nostalgia about, you know, when America was great and coming out of, you know, the war and and how much money we had and all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, they’re going to say, and we’re changing with the future, too. So, you know, we’re investing in carbon capture like algae, biofuels, new new weird types of low cholesterol hamburgers. You know what I’m saying? Like things that aren’t solar and wind or stuff like that, but like ways to game it so that we can keep using fossil fuels forever.

S10: You’ve written to about how the oil and gas and fossil fuel industry has prepared for this moment. You’ve talked about how in 22 years ago there was this internal document where a Royal Dutch Shell basically predicted the moment that we’re in right now. Can you talk a little bit about that?

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S5: Yeah, that blew my mind. We have all these documents, internal documents from oil companies dating back to like the 1960s, 1970s that demonstrate that these companies knew that their products, if they continued to burn them, would cause climate change. And not only that, they would cause climate change, but that that climate change would be really harmful to society and create weather patterns, that that would really screw things up and create a lot of economic damage. They knew that that’s almost become a common common knowledge. Now, at least, you know, and in news circles. Right. But something you like even I didn’t know was that oil companies, they game out what the future might look like so that they can prepare their business for that future. The document that I found was from Royal Dutch Shell and in nineteen ninety eight they basically gamed out the scenario where they said climate change would get worse and that people would start to see it, and that once people started seeing it, the youth and the generation that would be impacted by it would start protesting against fossil fuel companies, and that they would want to make fossil fuel companies pay for the damages caused by climate change, and that they would specifically cite the fact that fossil fuel companies knew about climate change but didn’t do anything about it, and that they would launch a class action lawsuit claiming that fossil fuel companies knew and seeking damages. Shell’s documents said that this movement would closely resemble the anti tobacco movement, which successfully got the tobacco companies to pay for the damages caused to people’s lungs because they they lied about knowing that tobacco caused lung cancer.

S4: How does this all match up to the reality? That’s exactly what’s happened.

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S5: The only thing that’s not the same is that there’s not one lawsuit. There’s like fifteen. And they they’re being brought not just by class action lawsuits, but also by state governments, state and local governments who are seeking damages from fossil fuel companies for the fact that climate change is causing multi-million slash billion dollar damages to their states and cities.

S10: And just to be absolutely clear, are any of these fossil fuel companies ponying up money to help with disaster relief in Australia?

S5: One of them is Chevron put out a press release saying that they donated a million dollars to wildfire relief. Basically, if, like the average American donated about four dollars, like that’s the equivalent based on how much they make in a year, it means as much to them as $4 means to the average American.

S10: You brought up the tobacco companies as an analogy that we can learn from something that happened a number of years back. We can sort of see how it played out. I wonder if you look back to the tobacco companies and see where we took a path where we can now learn that didn’t work, we shouldn’t do that again.

S5: I mean, what I see is a path that did work where we did sort of realize that we had to hold these companies accountable and not have them spouting lies about what their intentions are, about how, you know, four to five doctors recommend camel cigarettes in the pages of our most respected news outlets. You know, it it took us a long time to realize that tobacco companies were lying to us about the effects of their products in order to manipulate people. What I would hope is that we would learn from that and. And start not letting them lie on public airwaves now. I mean, we’re at this place now where fossil fuel companies run these ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR. They’re everywhere. And I would hope that the lesson that we learned is that we shouldn’t allow them to spread false claims, misleading claims. But that hasn’t happened yet.

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S17: You know, none of our most respected media institutions have yet been willing to grapple with the idea that perhaps they’re being used by the fossil fuel industry to spread harmful messaging about climate change.

S18: Emily, I can thank you so much for joining me. Yeah. Thank you for having me. Emily Adkins writes a newsletter about climate change that will make you not want to rip your hair out. We promise. Find it online at heated dot world. It’s really fun. You should subscribe today to Shell Oil. Corporate spokespeople became paid subscribers to my newsletter.

S4: And I was like, hey, did you write back?

S3: No. I was just I was just very tickled that I got like money from the oil industry today.

S19: You know, and I was like, oh, I guess that means it’s going well.

S18: That newsletter one more time is he did find it at heated dot world. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson. Jason de Leon Morris Silvers and Danielle Hewitt. We had help today from Rosemarie Bellson. What did you think of the show? Let me know. You can always track me down on Twitter. I’m there like all day and probably too late into the night. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.