Doomed Planet

The Curious Avenues of Professorial Inquiry

Professor Petra Tschakert at the University of Western Australia is halfway through a project to “locate loss from climate change in everyday places”. These places include my very own Perth stamping ground of Willagee.

Heavens, my parents moved to Willagee in late 1953, when it was raw sand. Willagee featured the Housing Commission’s half-finished jerry-built houses, for wharf toilers like my stepfather and ferals like our neighbours. I say jerry-built because, for example, our bath was cracked. The Commission installed a replacement, also cracked. We lived with it. My parents died but my big sister to this day is a Willagee girl. No-one knows more about 67 years of climate change impacts in Willagee, if any, than me and my sister.

I write all this with trepidation. I was backlashed when I last wrote about Willagee in 1981. Bob Gottliebsen had just started Business Review Weekly and for a year I had to write all the Letters to the Editor. It was boring and as a family in-joke I wrote myself a letter urging capital gains tax on family homes, and signed it, “G. Princip, Willagee, WA”. Someone from Perth wrote us a real and blistering response saying there was no G. Princip of Willagee on the electoral roll. The rotter had noticed my G. Princip might be the same Gavrilo Princip who shot the archduke and started the First World War. After reflecting for several seconds, we threw that complaint in the bin.

Anyway, Geography Professor Tschakert is discovering — with the help of a $353,000 research grant from grateful taxpayers — how my sister and I, plus other Willagee types, manage our climate “grief and hope”. Innovatively, she helps us cope with our “intolerable losses”.

Her four-year study also covers suburban Attadale and Kelmscott, further-out Darlington, and the wheatbelt towns of Toodyay, Northam, Merredin and Southern Cross. The research is not just academic folderol. She claims two significant benefits: “from this science of loss” she will do a “critical analysis” of our “community resilience in the face of socio-economic and environmental threats”. She will also sool town planners or others from the government to help us. Her broad aim is to see how the ghastly impacts of climate change, namely “fire, drought and flooding”, are putting our deepest values at risk.

Memo to Dr Tschakert: It would take a Noah’s Ark extreme event to flood Willagee. It’s mostly on a big hill.

Fires? The only Willagee fire I can remember is when some lousy brats lit our Guy Fawkes’ bonfire and ran off laughing. Drought? Our sprinklers doused the back lawn all morning in the Fifties and Sixties. For dam shortages since, blame The Greens.

The professor’s project also embraces Willagee’s near-neighbour, Attadale, a riverside joint once home to Heath Ledger and cricketers Mitchell and Shaun Marsh. Not much flood, fire and drought there either.

Her third suburb, Kelmscott, did suffer a bushfire in 2011, lit by some idiot on his private block in defiance of a windy fire-ban day. There’d been drought-fuelled build-up of grass and dry bush — nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. Ex-Resources Minister Matt Canavan last March forced sheepish CSIRO top brass to admit they had no studies demonstrating a link between climate change, fire weather and bushfires. Likewise, top climate crusader Dr Andy Pitman, of UNSW, publicly let slip last June there was no reason why global warming should worsen droughts, rather the contrary.[1] Since both Pitman and Tschakert are IPCC top lead authors it’s time they got their stories aligned.

I don’t really understand Willagee’s climate grief because the latest HadCrut global temp trend shows a mere 0.8degC warming trend in the past 80 years. For most Willagee veterans, the priority is flogging their blocks in a dud real estate market.

As for the professor’s concern for safeguarding our values, my Willagee family know a lot about values. We got kicked out of our rented home on Stirling-highway, Nedlands in 1953 and wound up in “Mulberry Farm”, a decrepit ex-air force camp near Fremantle. Mum has written of it as

this pinched little settlement where the homeless and dispossessed of the city were herded … Nights erupted into fights, the crash of breaking bottles, torrents of abuse between couples run ragged by the tension of waiting [for a Commission home], dogs barking in sympathy, an altercation that took a serious turn, a burly axe-wielder chasing a woman shouting, ‘Don’t you try that trick again, you bitch!’ followed by the shriek of a police car siren.[2]

Stepfather Vic lumped sacks “down hold”, the wharf’s most dangerous and dirty work: “Bags of asbestos sometimes broke in the sling hanging from the high crane and showered men with the stuff. Only later did they know it to be deadly, even to women washing their overalls.” Bad as the job was, it was worse when Vic caught the bus to Freo and got no job at the morning pickup, wasting his morning and his fares.

Finally came the letter offering us a cottage in Willagee (nicknamed “White-ant City”). We lived a week inside by candlelight until the electricity came on from Collie fossil fuel, but we didn’t mind that.

Our neighbours comprised a man prone to beating his slatternly wife. Their feral kids and dogs all had fleas. The wife would lament to us that her oldest was “a ba-a-a-d boy!” hinting at misfortunes involving his sister and even herself. The least of his bad habits was throwing fire-crackers into the dunny where his mother sat screaming.

Mum at some point in exasperation told the husband to “drop dead”. Two days later he and I were walking to the bus stop and a snappy mongrel jumped at him. He slid to the ground dead of a heart attack or stroke. Mum went in to console the widow. “’e was the breadwinner,” she sobbed.

Their youngest boy grew up to serve a long stretch for rape. Mum provided the judge a character reference based on his hopelessly compromised Willagee upbringing.

Opposite our house was a newly-planted pine plantation on land owned by the incredibly wealthy University of Westerm Australia. We watched it grow for 40 years. It was cut down for suburban plots about the same year my folks paid off their mortgage.

Willagee today is gentrifying fast, swanky bungalows replacing the fibro-clad Commission homes. But pockets of old Willagee remain, including a cohort that forced the Archibald Street liquor outlet to become a steel-clad fortress against break-ins.

Dr Tschakert can use any of this in her peer-reviewed report, free of charge. I fancy it’s as good as her own output.[3]

For example, she thinks  recent bushfires, floods and cyclones are uniquely extreme. They ain’t. Not a climate modeller herself, she expresses touching faith in the mainstream IPCC models, of which 111 of 114 runs exaggerated the warming trends, according to the IPCC itself.[4] She thinks it “reckless” to ignore the models’ forecasts and worst-case scenarios, which the IPCC in 2001 said must by definition be bogus.[5][6] She needs to read the devastating critiques of climate forecasting models by oceanic modeller Dr Mototaka Nakamura (MIT, Duke, Jet Propulsion Laboratory):

These models completely lack some critically important climate processes and feedbacks, and represent some other critically important climate processes and feedbacks in grossly distorted manners to the extent that makes these models totally useless for any meaningful climate prediction. [7]

Professor Tschakert specialises in people’s “anticipatory” grief over global warming, ie., stuff that hasn’t happened yet and might never happen: “There is fantastic research that shows how to embrace grief and loss in an anticipatory way. A term that is used is anticipatory history.”[8]

She also appears to disparage individual resilience to climate because the nanny state ought to fix things:

… the Australian states would like to see their citizens ideally as resilient citizens that can adapt by themselves, that can make the right choices but on their own, (they) ought to be reinventing themselves to take care of something which, really, truthfully, ought to be the responsibility of the state.

Dr Tschakert seems unduly lugubrious, writing papers like “One thousand ways to experience loss: A systematic analysis of climate-related intangible harm from around the world.”[9] She needs to look up tangibles like global agricultural yields. After a half-century of warming and extra CO2, yields for wheat, barley, rice, soybeans, spuds, and bananas continue to rise.  On just about any indicator of health and well-being, the globe’s population has never been better off (ChiCom virus and ChiCom threats excepted).

In another co-authored paper called “A science of loss” she also plumbs “strategies for embracing and managing grief”.[10] A co-author was Melbourne Uni’s Jon Barnett who had enough common sense to call b/s on Extinction Rebellion zealots at Melbourne University last December, much to their indignation. I clearly recognise Barnett’s hand in this minatory paragraph:

Predictions of loss may themselves contribute to loss. Dramatic narratives about future crises have been shown to influence the risk of crises occurring. Several studies explain how talk of catastrophic climate futures rarely leads to mitigation and adaptation but instead results in fatalism, self-blame, underinvestment in vulnerable places, and even accelerated degradation of natural resources.

I did some “anticipatory history” of my own by attending Tschakert’s lecture at Sydney University next August titled  “Epistemic Violence and Slow Emergencies in Today’s Climate Justice: A Provocation”.[11] The problems of time travel compounded when the lecture was virus-postponed indefinitely but I still caught the gist of it, Captain Kirk-style.[12] She asked,

How do we find our ways within these emerging dilemmas [re basic climate justice] without losing track of core development goals in the Anthropocene and our commitment to decolonizing development and disaster scholarship?

It does all really make sense, or would if there actually was any “Anthropocene”.

The $64 question is how much Willagee temperatures have actually risen in the past century or so. The answer is 1degC, or nearly that. I can’t see how this small increase over 100 years can cause anyone much inconsolable grief and loss.[13] I wouldn’t notice 1decC change over five minutes, let alone 70 years.

 In any case my sister and I can now buy ample Kleenex at Willagee’s Archibald Street  IGA  to mop our climate tears.

Tony Thomas’s new book, Come to think of it – essays to tickle the brain, is available as book ($34.95) or e-book ($14.95) here.


[1] “…as far as the climate scientists know there is no link between climate change and drought…there is no reason a priori why climate change should make the landscape more arid…this may not be what you read in newspapers.”

[2] Williams, Justina, Anger & Love, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993, p164. Also p180.

[3] A little coincidence: our first home from ca 1942 was at Number 30, Stirling Highway, Nedlands. Professor Tschakert now works at No. 35.

[4] “… an analysis of the full suite of CMIP5 historical simulations [computer models] reveals that 111 out of 114 realisations show a [temperature] trend over 1998–2012 that is higher than the entire HadCRUT4 trend [actual temperatures] ensemble. This difference between simulated and observed trends could be caused by some combination of (a) internal climate variability, (b) missing or incorrect radiative forcing, and (c) model response error.” [chapter 9, text box 9.2, page 769]

[5] IPCC: “In climate research and modelling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.” (Chapter 14, Section )]

[6] MURRAY-DARLING BASIN ROYAL COMMISSION, Tschakert evidence, p3451

[7] Nakamura: The take-home message is (that) all climate simulation models, even those with the best parametric representation scheme for convective motions and clouds, suffer from a very large degree of arbitrariness in the representation of processes that determine the atmospheric water vapor and cloud fields. Since the climate models are tuned arbitrarily …there is no reason to trust their predictions/forecasts. With values of parameters that are supposed to represent many complex processes being held constant, many nonlinear processes in the real climate system are absent or grossly distorted in the models. It is a delusion to believe that simulation models that lack important nonlinear processes in the real climate system can predict (even) the sense or direction of the climate change correctly.

[8] MURRAY-DARLING BASIN ROYAL COMMISSION, Tschakert evidence, p3457.

[9] The professor also ran an undergraduate unit last year called, simply, “Disasters”.

[10] Nature Climate Change; London Vol. 6, Iss. 11,  (Nov 2016): 976-978. DOI:10.1038/nclimate3140

[11] If Professor Tschakert is a top-level UWA salaried professor she’s on a base pay of $188,708 plus masses of perks starting with 17% super. A nice little 2.6% pay rise for all UWA academics is scheduled next January.

[12] Commander of starship USS Enterprise

[13] Perth temp data from 12km away are all we’ve got.  The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM)  ships temp data for Perth to the UK as inputs to the HadCRUT global temp series. For some reason the Met mobilises two data sets, one called “Perth Regional Office”, and one called “Perth”, from slightly different site locations. Both start at 1910 but the first stops at 1992 and the other is on-going.  I know “the science is settled” but the two nearby sites have differed by as little as 0.4degC and as much as 1.4degC, with strange jumps perhaps suggesting data faults. The past century’s temp trend is either 0.8degC (“Regional Office”) or 1degC (“Perth”).

18 thoughts on “The Curious Avenues of Professorial Inquiry

  • Alistair says:

    Love it Tony! I particularly like “anticipatory history” I’m going to use that myself! I’ve been reading Gertrude Himmelfarb about postmodern history being liberated from the tyranny of facts and thought that pretty was good. But this opens a whole new range of possibilities.

  • Peter Smith says:

    I liked it too Tony. But I want to know whether people like Prof Tschakert have always (back into the sixties at least) occupied parts of academia and we simply didn’t notice. I assume not cos I didn’t notice back then. So when did they emerge and multiply; and how did they ever get these cushy jobs?

  • Tony Tea says:

    When I was at school in the 70s we watched a CSIRO environmental fillum called System 6: A Fragile Nest. It was a documentary about Perth’s ecosystem and how Perth was a monte to run out of water unless measures were taken. I can’t remember what those measures were, but the doco was a cautionary tale against overpopulation in Perth.
    I’m assuming that you in Perth are all pretty thirsty about now. I’m also assuming that if the temperature in Willagee has increased by 1°C in 100 years and there was nothing there in 1920 and something there in 2020, concrete, tiles and tar might just contribute to that 1°C rise. Not that you’d notice.

  • ianl says:

    It seems there are advantages to academic tenure that those unendowed have not fully appreciated. Going Through the Looking Glass with Alice is actually a simple, requisite activity.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Ianl, just as long as you check your sense of proportion at the door. It’s moments like these that make me content, if not exactly glad, that these cushy jobs in academia are available if only to keep such raving nutcases happily occupied, and away from real jobs where they could do real damage.
    Our taxes being well spent for once.

  • Michael Fry says:

    ‘Dramatic narratives about future crises have been shown to influence the risk of crises occurring.’

    Well, they certainly do in academia. The more drama that can be confected around matters climatic in the academic tea room the more driven are the grant seekers to even further excesses of zeal that lead to the finding of weather-driven crises everywhere, crises that need the healing balm of expensive academic exegesis to correct.

    Reminds me of something. In the 1970’s I once sat on an Australia-wide university committee to select a thesis of excellence for publication from a range of PhD’s and Masters Honours productions. So many of them had Althusserian Marxism as their ‘informing’ framework, full of grabbed references to the distressing presence of an ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ infecting the area of study, as this was the go-to framework of those times. These I discarded unless they were argued well within their own terms, which was rarely the case, and to their credit so did nearly all others on that committee, for they were clearly burble, which miraculously ceased once that Stalinist theorist had murdered his wife and the theoretical times had changed. ‘Climate’ anguish now seems to be the order of the post-modern ‘Anthropocene’ day. Just more burble that sensible academics on funding and publication committees should have the good sense to reject. We will look back on this nonsense in another thirty years with amazement. Sadly however, the worst of the burblers seem to now be in charge of the purse strings.

    Thanks Tony for a wonderful series of vignettes about life as it once was for those of us who knew the old migrant hostels and housing commission areas of yore. Mine were in Western Sydney but the tales were pretty much the same. Memory Lane is a grand old place, but geez it was hard going living those tales
    back then.

    Elizabeth, Michael’s Wife

  • Greg Williams says:

    Excellent read Tony. As a boy, born and bred in Scarborough, more than 70 years ago, but whose Mum still lives there just 10 days before she hits the century, I can say that when I was a lad at school, the climate was Mediterranean, and now, all those years later, the climate is still Mediterranean. Some years are a bit hotter, some a bit cooler, some a bit drier, and some a bit wetter. The sea level at the beach at which I spent many hours in my childhood and teens hasn’t risen noticeably, and the multi storey buildings that dot the shoreline there give testimony to the the fact that no one is too concerned about the minuscule rises that might have occurred in the past 70 years. One small point, Tony. I now live in Bicton, one suburb West of Attadale, and I am pretty sure Sean and Mitch live in my esteemed suburb, rather than Attadale.

  • Greg Williams says:

    Geez, I though you must have had dodgy information, but now that wikipedia has confirmed it, what can I say .

  • Rafe Champion says:

    I think that story is all made up.

  • Rafe Champion says:

    And at 7.30 this morning the wind was contributing 8.2% of the electric power for SE Australia. Enjoy your hot breakfast while we still have some coal-fired power. Beware the choke point in the wind supply!

  • Tricone says:

    I enjoy your writings Tony, but for some reason I thought you came from Midland.

    Anyway, what a wonderful capitalist free market society that can produce such surplus to fund such “angels dancing on pinheads” studies!

    I usually start conversations with such cosseted types by saying, “It must be awful for you with all the cutbacks and job losses”

    Usually ends the conversation too.

  • gary@erko says:

    Is there anything like the IgNoble Awards for science, but for the field of sociology?

  • HJW says:

    Rafe Champion, I wonder if you (and if possible your research colleague KP Barley) might contrive a postmodernist version of your excellent 1969 paper, one that would compare the invasive behaviour of the root hairs in relation to clay with campus gender violence and the genocidal iniquities of Captain Cook?

  • Tony Thomas says:

    From a friend in WA:
    The Housing Commission weatherboard cottages were identical in Wyalkatchem where I grew up in the 50s and early 60s. Except they were perhaps slightly larger. A few of my mates lived in them.
    Because my father was employed by the State Railways we were in a Railway house – we moved out of the two tents we lived in during late 1950 to early 1952.
    Strange as it may seem, looking back on those times (which were not really as bad as some think) I found nothing untoward in living in those circumstances.
    For my parents being in two tents and a corrugated iron kitchen was a little strange at first, but one hell of a lot better than what they’d endured in the previous decade or so.
    My mother was in a small cottage in her East European village. Then after she was “ethnically cleansed”, residence was in the womens’ barracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau, from where she was fairly quickly moved to a sub-camp called Babice (Babirtz) for nearly 2 years from whence she would be marched out 6 days/week to the soggy fields around Auschwitz digging, draining, planting, and harvesting spuds, beetroots, rape, and a few other such items. Then she was moved to a sub-camp of Natzweiler over in Lorraine (Fr) for a short time – and when these women were marched out of there into the Reich, she escaped when their group was attacked by an allied fighter.
    So they hid in the forest and then in the Maginot Line for a while. But hunger brought them out and the few women she was with slowly merged in a village in Lorraine.
    After that it was nearly 5 years in an UNRRA refugee camp, no complaints there, by either of my parents. And finally off to WA. It was Northam refugee camp for a few months and then off to Wyalkatchem, which was a great place for a kid to grow up in.

  • en passant says:

    The rot was already gnawing at the UWA foundations in 1972 when I enrolled at UWA. As a ‘mature age’ student (I was 26) I had experienced something of life, but was keen to learn about the ‘bigger picture’, the full canvas, the underlying core, etc and all that. It took me very little time to discover that academia was full of drones, termites and Peter Pan’s who never left the cloistered existence at the feet of the cultist gurus. I did not fit in and constantly disrupted their certainty.
    Unfortunately, I found that free thought, independent research, the use of texts not on the curriculum, private schoolboy science projects and challenging the orthodox consensus was not welcomed. To obtain a “C” pass in Dark Arts Economics I reluctantly followed the party line. The academic consensus was to their unflinching support for the Club of Rome’s religiously crafted end-of-days world-catastrophe model as espoused in their best-seller ‘The Limits of Growth’ (1972). LoG was now the only liturgy allowed to be heard or chanted in the hallowed corridors of the university.
    Yes, even in the 1970’s we were taught that the activist consensus mandated our doomed outcomes with absolute certainty. One that did seem a little ‘off’ to me at the time as I sweated through a Perth summer was the absolute certainty that the next Ice Age was due in just twenty years – and when it inevitably descended upon us the world was doomed. After all it was a proven fact endlessly set out in high quality tables, colourful graphs, mathematical formulae and new-fangled computer models all leading to the inescapable conclusion that the world would be uninhabitable by the Year 2000 (not ‘2012’ as the Mayans calculated in their apocalyptic calendar). The icing on the cake, so to speak was that the North Atlantic would be frozen over for 3 – 4 months a year. It was written in the wind, the ocean currents and their graphs (created from their flawless computer models). With so little time left I had to ask myself if it was worth the effort of continuing on and finishing my degree … Maybe it would be better to just party.
    I am still partying despite not dying in deadly dull dystopian Danistan on the Yarra.
    When the Chinese Piper calls to be paid, I think you have spotted a probable area where savings can be made.

  • DG says:

    Someone, George Box, perhaps, is famous for saying: all models are wrong, but some are useful. Every time some academic (not a proper statistician) or reporter, or politician makes a claim based on ‘models’, and I’m not talking Airfix here, but fails to talk about probabilities, ranges and error bands, I have a quite chuckle to m’self.

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