Everything Is On Fire

I passed the new year’s celebration in Singapore, watching Australia burn. Our climate change doubter-in-chief, the Australian PM, Scott Morrison, released a hilarious New Years message that not only doesn’t link climate change to the bushfire crisis but which suggests that the current fire season is somehow business as usual: nevermind the apocalyptic images of red skies over Mallacoota, or even the yellow world that dawned over in Dunedin, New Zealand, thousands of miles away. Or the freak fire tornado that killed an RFS volunteer only two days before the message.

Did you see that video of the fire front overtaking a truck? This is not business as usual for Australia.

It’s hard to know what to write. A national bushfire recovery fund was only established on 6 January — months after the fires already started burning in New South Wales, turning Australia’s most populous city, Sydney, into something that looked like the set of a disaster movie. It took a couple of months for the government to move from calling people who linked climate change to the current catastrophe “inner-city raving lunatics” to having to mobilise the troops to rescue people off the beach.

Sadly, ScoMo still has no plans on changing Australia’s emissions reduction policy. Nevermind that Australia was recently rated the worst-performing country on climate change policy out of 57 countries. Yeah, worse than the USA, which as far as I can tell is currently led by an evil Cheeto that has mysteriously gained sentience. Somehow, the crisis in Australia feels worse than watching Cheetolini bumble around trying to start the next World War. It isn’t just that it’s closer to home: it’s that so much of all of this could’ve been avoidable. The last decade has been rife with climate inaction, fearmongering, denial, and attacks on what could’ve been a healthy, bolder local renewables plan. Business as usual — in politics — has gotten us here.

Where next? As Robinson Meyer writes in the Atlantic, Australia is caught in a climate spiral:

For the past few decades, the arid and affluent country of 25 million has padded out its economy—otherwise dominated by sandy beaches and a bustling service sector—by selling coal to the world. As the East Asian economies have grown, Australia has been all too happy to keep their lights on. Exporting food, fiber, and minerals to Asia has helped Australia achieve three decades of nearly relentless growth: Oz has not had a technical recession, defined as two successive quarters of economic contraction, since July 1991.

But now Australia is buckling under the conditions that its fossil fuels have helped bring about. Perhaps the two biggest kinds of climate calamity happening today have begun to afflict the continent.

The first kind of disaster is, of course, the wildfire crisis. In the past three months, bushfires in Australia’s southeast have burned millions of acres, poisoned the air in Sydney and Melbourne, and forced 4,000 tourists and residents in a small beach town, Mallacoota, to congregate on the beach and get evacuated by the navy. A salvo of fires seems to have caught the world’s attention in recent years. But the current Australian season has outdone them all: Over the past six months, Australian fires have burned more than twice the area than was consumed, combined, by California’s 2018 fires and the Amazon’s 2019 fires.

The second is the irreversible scouring of the Earth’s most distinctive ecosystems. In Australia, this phenomenon has come for the country’s natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef. From 2016 to 2018, half of all coral in the reef died, killed by oceanic heat waves that bleached and then essentially starved the symbiotic animals. Because tropical coral reefs take about a decade to recover from such a die-off, and because the relentless pace of climate change means that more heat waves are virtually guaranteed in the 2020s, the reef’s only hope of long-term survival is for humans to virtually halt global warming in the next several decades and then begin to reverse it.

Meeting such a goal will require a revolution in the global energy system—and, above all, a rapid abandonment of coal burning. But there’s the rub. Australia is the world’s second-largest exporter of coal power, and it has avoided recession for the past 27 years in part by selling coal.

Coal is why we’re here… and, sadly, a political love of coal isn’t going to go away anytime soon. ScoMo, after all, is famous for being the clown who brought a lump of coal to question time. So far, his stance has worked out for him, bringing victory to his embattled government this year. It remains to be seen whether his tepid response to the bushfire crisis will change anything.

Advertising on Fire

One of the more amusing (insofar as everything now is bleakly amusing) memes to come out of the bushfire was labelling ScoMo as “Scotty from Marketing”, a joke that was born out of the Betoota Advocate, a prominent Australian satirical site. As Reddit put it:

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, before he went into politics, had a career in marketing, and specifically in tourism marketing (having been responsible in some way for campaigns related to Australia and New Zealand – he is associated with a prominent and controversial Australian tourism campaign with the catchphrase ‘where the bloody hell are ya?’).

The Betoota Advocate, a prominent Australian satirical website, tweeted a link to an article of theirs on November 12th which satirised Morrison’s response to the (still-current) bushfire crisis that was beginning to emerge at the time (sigh). This satirical article portrayed him as cynically using public relations techniques to minimise the importance of the fires, rather than doing something about them: PM Morrison Dusts Off His Marketing Hat To Rebrand The Climate Fires

On the 7th of December, the Betoota tweeted a link to another satirical article titled Mate, Do Something, Anything. Taking a similar slant to the previous linked article, this one started with the words ‘Scotty from Marketing’ referring to Morrison (I think this was their first use of the specific term). ‘Scotty’ as a slangy version of Morrison’s first name has connotations of a lack of respect, and ‘from Marketing’ rather than ‘Prime Minister’ implies lack of leadership; marketing as a profession is often seen as full of people well practised in the art of bullshit, the implication being that there is more to leadership than being able to bullshit.

After Morrison took a holiday in Hawaii during some of the worst of the bushfires in mid-December, the phrase seemed to strike a chord amongst #auspol (Australian politics twitter), and became a prominent hashtag, #scottyfrommarketing, which has now been used by everyone from celebrities to commentators to former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Perhaps because having an instinct for irony requires some understanding of shame, Scotty from Marketing recently ran a Liberal Party ad celebrating his government’s response to the crisis. Unsurprisingly, this was met online with derision/revulsion:

Michael Klaehn, QUT associate lecturer in Social Media, Advertising and Communication, writing on Facebook: “Ads can be funny, heartbreakingly emotional and anywhere in between. Producing an ad in the middle of a national disaster to promote yourself is absolutely disgusting. How much money was wasted on producing and booking this that could be used better. Mindbogglingly stupid.”

The ADA also took offence:

The Australian Defence Association (ADA) — a public-interest watchdog of Australian Defence matters — said on Twitter the video “milking ADF support to civil agencies fighting bushfires” was a “clear breach of the (reciprocal) non-partisanship convention applying to both the ADF & Ministers/MPs”.

Oddly enough, ScoMo has stood behind his decision to release the ad. Keen-eyed people on twitter noted that ScoMo’s donation button link on his Facebook post with the ad was raising money for the Liberal Party, and not for bushfire relief:

After the twitter outcry, the link was quickly removed, but the ad remains. What’s worse, it’s a bad ad, with Todd Sampson from Gruen saying:

“Advertising! There is something not right about running political advertising during a devastating National Crisis. It’s like being ‘sold to’ at a funeral. PR Crisis 101: say less and do more.(Btw, the bouncy elevator music is too juxtaposing and really annoying.)”

You’d think Scotty from Marketing would’ve at least known better.

Donate… but not to the Liberal Party

Did you know that Australia doesn’t have permanent funding for the nation’s bushfire services? It’s just run on a top-up basis. It’s amazing to think about that — and frustrating to know that only in May 2018, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre asked for a $11m top up to its annual budget that was left ignored:

The business case shows the annual costs of leasing aircraft and coordinating that NAFC have been rising due to inflation, but the contribution from the federal government has remained the same.

On Saturday morning, the NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said: “We haven’t seen a positive response to that business case.”

The NAFC – which works coordinates aerial firefighting across all states and territories – asked the federal government for an extra $11m a year, on top of the existing $14.8m a year budgeted in the five years to 2017-18.

I could go on, but there’s a limit to how much rage you can put down in words all at once. Government aside though, the bushfire response has been great. More than half a million people across the globe have pledged a total of $30 million to the NSW RFS through Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraiser. The firefighting efforts have been heroic. The clothes and food fundraising for Victoria has been so overwhelming that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has been urging people to donate cash instead, stating that other donations have now become a logistical issue.

If you’re still looking to donate, check out the following pages:

[Red Cross]
[Community Enterprise Foundation]
[World Wildlife Fund]
[Gippsland Emergency Relief]
[Wildlife Victoria]
[Zoos Victoria]

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