We have the vaccine for climate disinformation – let’s use it



Exposing people to likely disinformation campaigns about bushfire causes will help inoculate them.
JASON O’BRIEN/AAP

Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol and John Hunter, University of Tasmania

Australia’s recent bushfire crisis will be remembered for many things – not least, the tragic loss of life, property and landscape. But one other factor made it remarkable: the deluge of disinformation spread by climate deniers.

As climate change worsens – and with it, the bushfire risk – it’s well worth considering how to protect the public against disinformation campaigns in future fire seasons.




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So how do we persuade people not to be fooled? One promising answer lies in a branch of psychology called “inoculation theory”. The logic is analogous to the way a medical vaccine works: you can prevent a virus spreading by giving lots of people a small dose.

In the case of bushfire disinformation, this means exposing, ahead of time, the myths most likely to be perpetrated by sceptics.

Bushfire bunkum

Disinformation can take many forms, including cherry-picking or distorting data, questioning of the scientific consensus by presenting fake experts, and outright fabrication.

On the issue of bushfires in Australia, there is little scientific doubt that human-caused climate change is increasing their magnitude and frequency. But spurious claims on social media and elsewhere of late sought to muddy the waters:

  • bots and trolls disseminated false arson claims which downplayed the impact of climate change on the bushfires

  • NewsCorp reported more than 180 arsonists had been arrested “in the past few months”. The figure was a gross exaggeration and distorted the real numbers

  • The misleading arson claim went viral after Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, tweeted it. A UK government minister, Heather Wheeler, also repeated the false claim in the House of Commons

  • NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro, among others, wrongly suggested a lack of hazard reduction burning – the fault of the Greens – had caused the fires

  • Conservative commentators claimed the 2019-20 bushfires were no worse than those of the past.

Where will it go next?

Climate science clearly indicates Australia faces more dangerous fire weather conditions in the future. Despite this, organised climate denial will inevitably continue.

Research has repeatedly shown that if the public knows, ahead of time, what disinformation they are likely to encounter and why it is wrong, they are less likely to accept it as true.

This inoculation involves two elements: an explicit warning of an impending
attempt to misinform, and a refutation of the anticipated disinformation.




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For example, research has shown that if people were told how the tobacco industry used fake experts to mislead the public about the health risks of smoking, they were less likely to be misled by similar strategies used to deny climate change.

It is therefore important to anticipate the next stage of disinformation about the causes of bushfire disasters. One likely strategy will be to confuse the public by exploiting the role of natural climate variability.

This tactic has been used before. When natural variability slowed global warming in the early 2000s, some falsely claimed that global warming “had stopped”.

Of course, the warming never stopped – an unexceptional natural fluctuation merely slowed the process, which subsequently resumed.

Natural climate variability may bring the occasional mild fire season in future. So lets arm ourselves with the facts to combat the inevitable attempts to mislead.

Here are the facts

The link between human-caused climate change and extreme weather conditions is well established. But natural variability, such as El Niño and La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean may at times overshadow global warming for a few years.

The below video illustrates this. We used historical data from Adelaide to project the expected incidence of extreme heatwaves for the rest of the century, assuming a continued warming trend of 0.3℃ per decade.

The top panel shows the distribution of all 365 daily maximum temperatures for a year, with the annual average represented by the vertical red line. As the years tick over, this distribution is moving up slowly; the red line increasingly diverges from the average temperature observed before the climate started changing (the vertical black line).

The bottom panel shows the expected incidence of extreme heatwaves for each year until 2100. Each vertical line represents an intense heatwave (five consecutive days in excess of 35℃ or three days in excess of 40℃). Each heatwave amplifies the fire danger in that year.

The analysis in the video clarifies several important aspects of climate change:

  1. the number and frequency of extreme heatwaves will increase as the climate continues to warm

  2. for the next few decades at least, years with heatwaves may be followed by one or more years without one

  3. the respite will only be brief because the inexorable global warming trend makes extreme fire conditions more and more inevitable.

Looking ahead

When it comes to monster bushfire seasons, the link to climate change is undeniable. This season’s inferno is a sign of worse to come – even if it doesn’t happen every year.

Educating the public on climate science, and the tactics used by disinformers, increases the chance that “alternative facts” do not gain traction.

Hopefully, this will banish disinformation to the background of public debate, paving the way for meaningful policy solutions.




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The Conversation


Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol and John Hunter, University Associate, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humans are good at thinking their way out of problems – but climate change is outfoxing us



In some areas of human activity such as farming, we are exhausting our capacity to adapt to climate change.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

There is growing evidence that Earth’s systems are heading towards climate “tipping points” beyond which change becomes abrupt and unstoppable. But another tipping point is already being crossed – humanity’s capacity to adapt to a warmer world.

This season’s uncontrollable bushfires overwhelmed the nation. They left 33 people dead, killed an estimated one billion animals and razed more than 10 million hectares – a land area almost the size of England. The millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide the fires spewed into the atmosphere will accelerate climate change further.

Humans are a highly adaptive species. In the initial phases of global warming in the 20th century, we coped with the changes. But at some point, the pace and extent of global warming will outrun the human capacity to adapt. Already in Australia, there are signs we have reached that point.

Climate change and its effects, such as drought, challenge the human capacity to adapt.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Wine woes

For Australia, the first obvious tipping point may come in agriculture. Farmers have gradually adapted to a changing climate for the last two decades, but this can’t go on indefinitely.

Take wine grapes. In the space of just 20 years, a warming climate means grape harvest dates have come back by roughly 40 days. That is, instead of harvesting red grapes at the end of March or early April many growers are now harvesting in mid-February. This is astounding.

The implications for wine quality are profound. Rapid ripening can cause “unbalanced fruit” where high sugar levels are reached before optimum colour and flavour development has been achieved.




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To date, wine producers have dealt with the problem by switching to more heat-tolerant grape varieties, using sprinklers on hot days and even adding water to wine? to reduce excessive alcohol content. But these adaptations can only go so far.

On top of this, the recent fires ravaged wine regions in south-eastern Australia. Smoke reportedly ruined many grape crops and one wine companies, Tyrrell’s Wines, expects to produce just 20% of its usual volume this year.

At some point, climate change may render grape production uneconomic in large areas of Australia.

The Murray Darling crisis

Farmers are used to handling drought. But the sequence of droughts since 2000 – exacerbated by climate change – raises the prospect that investment in cropland and cropping machinery becomes uneconomic. This in turn will negatively impact suppliers and local communities.

The problems are most severe in relation to irrigated agriculture, particularly in the Murray–Darling Basin.

In the early 1990s, it became clear that historical over-extraction of water had damaged the ecosystem’s health. In subsequent decades, policies to address this – such as extraction caps – were introduced. They assumed rainfall patterns of the 20th century would continue unchanged.




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However the 21st century has been characterised by long periods of severe drought, and policies to revive the river environment have largely failed. Nowhere was this more evident than during last summer’s shocking fish kills.

The current drought has pushed the situation to political boiling point – and perhaps ecological tipping point.

Tensions between the Commonwealth and the states have prompted New South Wales government, which largely acts in irrigator interests, to flag quitting the Murray Darling Basin Plan. This may mean even more water is taken from the river system, precipitating an ecological catastrophe.

The Murray Darling case shows adaptation tipping points are not, in general, triggered solely by climate change. The interaction between climate change and social, political and economic systems determines whether human systems adapt or break down.

Power struggles

The importance of this interplay is illustrated even more sharply by Australia’s failed electricity policy.

Political and public resistance to climate mitigation is largely driven by professed concern about the price and reliability of electricity – that a transition to renewable energy will cause supply shortages and higher energy bills.

However a failure to act on climate change has itself put huge stress on the electricity system.




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Hot summers have caused old coal-fired power stations to break down more frequently. And the increased use of air-conditioning has increased electricity demand – particularly at peak times, which our system is ill-equipped to handle.

Finally, the recent bushfire disaster destroyed substantial parts of the electricity transmission and distribution system, implying yet further costs. Insurance costs for electricity networks are tipped to rise in response to the bushfire risk, pushing power prices even higher.

So far, the federal government’s response to the threat has been that of a failed state. A series of plans to reform the system and adapt to climate change, most recently the National Energy Guarantee, have floundered thanks to climate deniers in the federal government. Even as the recent fire disaster unfolded, our prime minister remained paralysed.

The big picture

Australia is not alone in facing these adaptation problems – or indeed in generating emissions that drive planetary warming. Only global action can address the problem.

But when the carbon impact of Australia’s fires is seen in tandem with recent climate policy failures here and elsewhere, the future looks very grim.

We need radical and immediate mitigation strategies, as well as adaptation measures based on science. Without this, 2019 may indeed be seen as a tipping point on the road to both climate catastrophe, and humanity’s capacity to cope.




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The Conversation


John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fire almost wiped out rare species in the Australian Alps. Feral horses are finishing the job



Feral horses are destroying what little threatened species habitat was spared from bushfire.
Invasive Species Council

Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

On Friday I flew in a helicopter over the fire-ravaged Kosciuszko National Park. I was devastated by what I saw. Cherished wildlife species are at grave risk of extinction: those populations the bushfires haven’t already wiped out are threatened by thousands of feral horses trampling the land.

The New South Wales park occupies the highest mountain range in Australia and is home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Many of these species are threatened, and their survival depends on protecting habitat as best we can.




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Kosciuszko National Park provides habitat for two species of corroboree frog (critically endangered), the alpine she-oak skink (endangered), broad-toothed rat (vulnerable) and stocky galaxias (a critically endangered native fish), among other threatened species.

As the climate has warmed, the cool mountain habitat of these species is shrinking; bushfires have decimated a lot of what was left. Feral horses now threaten to destroy the remainder, and an urgent culling program is needed.

Devastation as far as the eye can see on the burnt western face of Kosciuszko National Park.
Jamie Pittock

Not a green leaf in sight

Australia’s plants and ecosystems did not evolve to withstand trampling by hard-hooved animals, or their intensive grazing. Unfortunately, the New South Wales government has allowed the population of feral horses in the park to grow exponentially in recent years to around 20,000.

I flew over the northern part of the park with members of the Invasive Species Council, who were conducting an urgent inspection of the damage. Thousands of hectares were completely incinerated by bushfires: not a green leaf was visible over vast areas. A cataclysm has befallen the western face of the mountains and tablelands around Kiandra and Mount Selwyn.




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Further north and east of Kiandra the fires were less intense and burnt patchily. On Nungar Plain the grassland and peat wetlands were only lightly burnt, and the first green shoots were already visible along the wetlands of the valley floor.

At first, I wondered if the fires may have spared two animals which live in tunnels in the vegetation on the sub-alpine high plains: the alpine she-oak skink and broad-toothed rat (which, despite the name is a cute, hamster-like creature).

The hamster-like broad toothed rat.
Flickr

But not only was their understory habitat burnt, a dozen feral horses were trampling the peat wetlands and eating the first regrowth.

On the unburnt or partially burnt plains a few ridges over, 100 or more horses were mowing down the surviving vegetation.

Precarious wildlife refuges

Next we flew over a small stream that holds the last remaining population of a native fish species, the stocky galaxias. A small waterfall is all that divides the species from the stream below, and the jaws of the exotic trout which live there.

The aftermath of the fires means the last refuge of the stocky galaxias is likely to become even more degraded.

Over the years, feral horses have carved terraces of trails into the land causing erosion and muddying the stream bank. As more horses congregate on unburnt patches of vegetation after the fires, more eroded sediment will settle on the stream bed and fill the spaces between rocks where the fish shelter. Ash runoff entering the stream may clog the gills of the fish, potentially suffocating them.

An Alpine she-oak skink.
Renee Hartley



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Many key wetland habitats of the southern and northern corroboree frogs have also been burnt. These striking yellow and black frogs nest in wetland vegetation.

A corroboree frog.
Flickr

We hovered over a key wetland for the northern corroboree frog that had not been burnt, deep in the alpine forest. A group of feral horses stood in it. They had created muddy wallows, trampled vegetation and worn tracks that will drain the wetland if their numbers are not immediately controlled.

Horses out of control

Five years ago a survey reported about 6,000 feral horses roaming in Kosciuszko National Park. By 2019, the numbers had jumped to at least 20,000.

We saw no dead horses from the air. Unlike our native wildlife, most appear to have escaped the fires.




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Flying down the upper Murrumbidgee River’s Long Plain, I saw large numbers of feral horses gathered in yet more wetlands. Displaced by the fires to the south and west, they were already trampling the mossy and heathy wetlands that store and filter water in the headwaters.

The Murrumbidgee River is a key water source for south-east Australia. The horses stir up sediment and defecate in the water. They create channels which drain and dry the wetlands, exposing them to fire.

One-third of Kosciuszko National Park has been burnt out and at the time of writing the fires remain active. Feral horses are badly compounding the damage.

If we don’t immediately reduce feral horse numbers, the consequences for Kosciuszko National Park and its unique Australian flora and fauna will be horrendous.

Responsible managers limit the numbers of livestock on their lands and control feral animals. The NSW government must repeal its 2018 legislation protecting feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and undertake a responsible control program similar to those of the Australian Capital Territory and Victorian governments.

Without an emergency cull of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, burnt vegetation may not fully recover and threatened species will march further towards extinction.The Conversation

Jamie Pittock, Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.