By David Salt
This is a rant about the cognitive dissonance gripping society over climate change. Frequently, it seems, the greatest exposure to climate disruption we witness in mainstream media is where it interrupts our holidays.
The northern hemisphere is melting, burning and flooding before our eyes. The Mediterranean may well become our next ‘dead sea’. Florida’s coral reefs are broiling (water temps in places are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit – 38 degrees Celsius!) and then dying. Greece, Algeria and Sicilia are going up in flames. In Sicily it’s so hot that it has been reported that buried electrical cables are melting leaving entire cities without power. In Phoenix (USA) it’s being reported that people falling to the scorching ground are experiencing third degree burns. Our oceans are vomiting up heat like never before and temperature records are being broken everywhere by large margins.
Which is all a real bummer for people on holiday! Here are few scenes recently spotted on Twitter (now known as platform X).
The kitesurfing here is wicked. The fires in the hills are a bit of a worry but as long as the wind holds in the same direction it shouldn’t bother us. I’m sure that the squadron of fire-fighting planes has got it under control. (I certainly hope so; maybe they should send in more planes.)
You won’t believe it, we finally got to our houseboat and guess what, the river’s gone! The holiday is going to be so boring stuck on this puddle.
It’s hot, hot, hot. The only place to be is by the pool. Not sure what all the sirens are about.
Real images*, fake ‘messages to Mum’ added for effect. The effect I’m wanting to convey is, of course, the cognitive dissonance surrounding our engagement with climate change – that we ‘fiddle while Rome burns’.
What were we thinking?
I wonder what the thousands of tourists being evacuated from the island of Rhodes are thinking?
Is it: “I can’t believe my bad luck of being here when a wildfire breaks out. I wonder if my insurance covers this?”
Or “I can’t believe we’ve ignored the science on climate change for so long. Scientists have been warning this was going to happen for the last 50 years and we’ve done bugger all about it!”
Either way, the evacuated (those not from Greece, anyway) depart Greece and head home looking for the ‘safety and certainty’ of their non-holiday existence. Only thing is, no where is safe from what’s happening. What’s more, even if they were lucky enough to get insurance coverage for this summer’s set of disasters, they’ll have Buckley’s chance of getting it next summer. Either the insurance company will go broke or the premiums will be unaffordable. As our Earth system shifts, all our decisions based on poor risk management are coming home to roost.
A friend just returned from the US Mid West telling me his extended family there were well aware the weather was extremely hot, decidedly beyond ‘average’, yet no-one discussed what was behind it or where it was heading. They were conservative folk; the topic of climate change was not so much forbidden so much as it never arose. And, of course, it was not ever touched upon by the conservative mainstream media they were consuming. My friend, a scientist, described it as weird and stifling. A victory for the culture wars? A pyrrhic** victory at best.
And just to rub salt into the wounds of my cognitive dissonance, in this week’s Canberra Times there was a story on the evacuation of tourists from Rhodes:
“Fires are common in Greece,” the story reads, “but hotter, drier and windy summers have turned the country into a wildfire hot spot in recent years.” No mention of climate change in this story, though the connection has been made extensively elsewhere. (It’s a bit like my friend’s folks in the US – ‘hasn’t the weather been hot?’)
No, the thing that got me really angry was the little story in the next column which begins:
“The G20 major economies meeting in India have failed to reach consensus on phasing down fossil fuels following objections by some producer countries.”
(WTF!!, as we are wont to say on platform X)
Boiling or drowning?
Of course, I’m not the only one screaming on the inside at the insanity being witnessed around the globe at the moment***. In an effort to explain it all, several commentators have invoked the metaphor of the boiling frog. The idea here is that a frog in water which is slowly warming doesn’t notice the increasing temperature till it’s too late. Is that our situation?
The trouble with the ‘boiling frog’ metaphor is that it suggests we are unaware of change because it is happening too slowly. That doesn’t really reflect our situation. We know, as in society’s capacity to detect change, that change is happening. The numbers are there, the science is rock solid. However, we, as a society, are choosing not to engage with this change.
For me, the better frog metaphor is the ‘drowning frog’. In this story a scorpion asks a frog to take it over a river. The scorpion tells the frog it won’t sting it because then it would drown too. Half way over the river, the scorpion stings the frog. As they go down, the frog asks ‘why’. The scorpion responds ‘I’m a scorpion, it’s in my nature’.
In the complex world of human society, it seems it is in our nature to prioritise short-term political power and economic development over long-term sustainability. To help us avoid the inconvenient truth of existential collapse, we distract ourselves with the trivial and the inconsequential, or give up and join in the orgy of misinformation and conspiracy thinking.
(I explored these frog metaphors in greater detail a couple of years ago in The frog in the equation. In that blog I also pointed out the boiling frog metaphor has no basis in reality. Frogs, unlike humans, know when the heat is killing them.)
Coming to a town near you
However you spin it, nowhere is safe.
The horror being witnessed in the northern hemisphere is already on its way to us in the antipodes as the sun tracks south.
Not that we haven’t seen some dimensions of this climate disruption ourselves in Australia in recent years. We had mass coral bleachings on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022. The summer of 2019/2020, our ‘Black Summer’, saw the scorching of much of the forest biome along our eastern seaboard. And we’ve witnessed flooding on a scale never witnessed before.
Unfortunately, as in the northern hemisphere, none of these events prompted a change of direction by Australia’s national government, just a toughening of laws against climate activists (who dare to disrupt ‘business as usual’) and a bit more money for disaster relief. While the rhetoric on ‘strong climate action’ is louder, we’re still opening up new fossil fuel developments (under the cloak of dodgy carbon offsets), and still prioritizing ‘growth, growth, growth’ with every decision.
The societal scar tissue from the Black Summer, however, is still pretty raw. Anyone who directly experienced these unprecedented fires discovered a few unwelcome truths. Not only do you lose the capacity to travel through the ravaged areas (all the roads are closed) but you also don’t have access to power or water, the internet doesn’t work because all the relay towers are out of action and you can’t even raise the local radio stations.
You can run (deny and/or delay or maybe retreat to your favourite holiday idyll) but you can’t hide.
*Real images: The Kite surfers are in the Columbia River Gorge, Washington State, US (July 2023). The stranded houseboats are on Lake Meade, Arizona, US. It was taken in the summer of 2022 during an ‘unprecedented’ drought in the US Mid West. The poolside fire is on Rhodes (July 2023) but similar scenes were being recorded all across Greece and Sicily. I originally included a fourth image in the story of golfers with a massive forest fire in the background. I only saw it recently but when I researched where it had came from I discovered it was from Oregon, USA, back in 2017. On reflection I thought I shouldn’t include it with the other images on this season’s climate dissonance but it’s such a great pic I include here as a postscript (with another fake ‘Mum message’). Of course, 2017 was another extreme weather year, just not as severe as what’s been experienced in the last couple of years.
Having a great time. The golf comp is so intense. So is the fire up on the mountain. I reckon they should do something about it, though. If it gets much closer we may not finish the tournament.
** A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. The phrase originates from a quote from Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose triumph against the Romans in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC destroyed much of his forces, forcing the end of his campaign. The battle took place in the same region being ravaged by heatwaves today.
*** Another example of our capacity to ignore existential collapse: “According to Google’s news search, the media has run more than 10,000 stories this year about Phillip Schofield, the British television presenter who resigned over an affair with a younger colleague. Google also records a global total of five news stories about a scientific paper published last week, showing that the chances of simultaneous crop losses in the world’s major growing regions, caused by climate breakdown, appear to have been dangerously underestimated. In mediaworld, a place that should never be confused with the real world, celebrity gossip is thousands of times more important than existential risk.”