Bandt’s inconvenient truth

Martyn Smith writes: Re. “Richard Farmer’s chunky bits” (Friday). When Richard Farmer castigated Adam Bandt for his ‘”tactless intervention” he was in the company of Murdoch’s un-Australian, which was full of outrage (again).  Murdoch has strange, hypocritical views on free speech. Bandt might have been tactless, but he told an inconvenient truth, linking the fires via climate change to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s regrettable decision to do nothing on carbon pricing. Perhaps Bandt is fed up with all the hand-wringing in the media and the pious statements about how the community is bravely pulling together and seeks to fix the cause of the problem. We all feel for the people who are suffering and applaud their courage, and some of us would like to stop it happening to them again. His timing was excellent. Thanks to Farmer and the un-Oz we at least heard of Bandt’s remarks, and hopefully he will continue to make them, popular or not.

Michael Rowan writes: Thanks for the link to the article on F P Ramsay. An extraordinarily clear and subtle thinker about probability who deserves to be much more widely read. I wonder if he would have said something like this about climate change, the weather, fire and Adam Bandt.

You can’t change the climate and not the weather. That much is definitional. But neither can you say this particular weather is a result of climate change. That is a causal connection we could never establish beyond considerable doubt, given day-to-day and year-to-year variability.

But if I am betting on heads and you are betting on tails and we toss the coin a few times with me winning more than losing, what would your reaction be if I say, “Well that’s to be expected, as the coin is biased to heads”? Will you demand my winnings back? What if I say, “Even a fair coin will come down heads more than tails in some runs of tossing, so you can’t establish beyond considerable doubt that it was the bias of the coin that caused it to land heads on the tosses when you lost. So my winnings are fair, and I will keep them”?

We don’t need Ramsey’s genius to see that if you agree and keep betting you will soon lose your shirt. And later your house.

Colin Smith writes: Anti-environmentalists have not hesitated in the past to use bushfires to argue (absurdly) for more alpine grazing, for more logging of native forests and for unrealistic fuel-reduction targets. Nor does one find the media holding back after a dreadful level-crossing smash from demands to have such crossings eliminated, or after a dreadful head-on smash from demands for increased penalties for drink-driving.

If one has an argument to make, it makes sense to make it when there is an object lesson in the news. And it makes even more sense when one has almost irrefutable evidence that the very viability of our economy and the very future of our civilisation are under threat from our unbridled persistence in the burning of fossil fuels; our constant obstruction and disruption of attempts to accelerate the move towards clean energy; and our determination to avoid any risk whatsoever that we might get ahead of the rest of the world and provide any sort of leadership in taking action to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Claims that such “political” opportunism shows a lack of respect for victims rest upon a cynical and a nihilistic view of political argument as such — a view in which anyone with any sort of partisan connection is automatically assumed to be saying what s/he is saying out of naked self-interest without any genuine regard for the truth or the public interest.

Burning not the only way

Keith Thomas writes: Re. “At the flick of a switch, a potentially brutal fire season begins” (Friday). The article lists four “climate switches” that, when all “on”, raise the likelihood of serious fires. I suggest that his wording of the first of these (“having enough unburnt biomass or bushland to burn”) is loaded to channel thinking toward one preventive measure — controlled burning — over others.

The problem is not that the biomass is unburnt. The problem is that it has not already been consumed by other methods before it becomes tinder and fuel. Healthy forests are rich ecosystems with every form of life making its living breaking down other biomass (and in those processes reducing fire risk and intensity).

Before Europeans, the natural microbial decay rates were much faster than they are today, and forest litter broke down quickly, enriching the soil, stimulating vigorous growth, including shade that kept the soil moist over summer. The growth also pumped respirated moisture and bacteria up into the atmosphere, with the bacteria being the optimal size to nucleate raindrops, and so summers were not as dry as they are today. Mammals and birds were part of this high-turnover ecology too, not only through their faeces and corpses, but also by snapping off dead twigs too weak to bear their weight (often years before they would otherwise fall, and a little less dry). Wallabies and bettongs broke the fallen twigs again with every step; lyrebirds, choughs and others accelerated the mulching through scratching; Christmas beetles, true to their name, converting flammable leaves into risk-free frass a few weeks before the then fire season.

What do we need to do? We need to break the desiccating cycle where we can — by shredding the fallen branches into a coarse mulch to support microbial life 365 days a year. We need to avoid controlled burning, which changes the plant profile to favour more fire-prone species.

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Peter Fray
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