Defend Truth


The Great Knysna Fire was not caused by climate change

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The faithful are quick to blame natural disasters on the sins of man. True to form, the ruins of Knysna were still burning when the Mail & Guardian’s environmental reporter, Sipho Kings, blamed climate change. “This is the new normal,” he wrote. Of course, that’s nonsense, and it’s pretty distasteful to boot.

In 1869, a newspaper gave an account of major fires in and around Knysna, based on reports in the George Advertiser and the Grahamstown Journal:

Tuesday, the 9th February, 1869, is a day that will not easily be erased from the memory of the inhabitants of the Knysna district. Soon after sunrise, a hot N.E. hurricane sprang up, and continued to blow until 3 p.m., when it suddenly veered round to the N.W., and blew with increased strength, bringing with it columns of fire, before which men, women and children had to fly for their lives. Horses and livestock were swept away and destroyed; every particle of vegetation, forests, &c., was demolished. Ten families have been reduced to poverty. News of the ravages committed by the fire comes in from all directions. As the day wore on, tidings arrived that every house on Eastford had been burned down. A little after that a note was received from Mr. Darnell requesting that a wagon might be sent for his family, as all the buildings, and everything else at Westford, were destroyed. The fire rushed on with such force and rapidity that it was not possible to save anything, and it was as much as Mrs. Darnell and her children could do to escape with their lives. Then came more news that the residence of Mrs. Barrington, of Portland, was burned down, as well as the houses on other farms. Meanwhile, the fire went raging on to Plettenberg Bay, where a large number of houses, together with sheep and a large quantity of produce, were destroyed.”

This is just a short extract. Forest fires had been raging along a 400km stretch of the southern Cape, from Swellendam in the west to Humansdorp in the east. Vast swathes of coastal forest were destroyed. Great properties were burnt down. People fled for their lives, and families were reduced to poverty. It was the first fire to be declared a national disaster, and became known in local lore as the Great Fire of 1869.

If it weren’t for the date, the punctilious punctuation, and the reference to a wagon, this might have been written about the Knysna fires of 9 to 12 June 2017. They were also part of a string of fires stretching from George to Humansdorp. Even the winds fanning the conflagration sound exactly the same: a hot north-easterly berg wind preceding a westerly gale.

Yet in the Mail & Guardian of 14 June, with the terror of the fires still raw in everyone’s minds, Sipho Kings claims to see the fingerprints of climate change. “Once a narrative of the future, of 2030 and 2050, the increase in extreme events are realities that countries are having to deal with now,” he writes. “The reason for this requires no debate.”

Of course not. It is divine gospel that human sins – in particular, our greedy use of energy – cause Gaia to rain down fire and brimstone upon us. Faith brooks no debate.

He continues: “Therefore, South Africa has to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Either way, the roughly predictable 18-year weather cycle of droughts and floods is coming to an end.”

Kings does not stop to wonder why the south-western region of the country has been known for centuries as the Cape of Storms. He does not explain why prophecies about the distant future should suddenly come to pass today. He also offers no source for the claim of a “predictable 18-year weather cycle of droughts and floods”.

A paper by Mathieu Rouault and Yves Richard, published in 2003 in the journal Water SA, disputes this claim. The paper says there is “considerable decadal variability” in droughts, and an 18- to 20-year cycle is only detectable in one measure: the number of dry districts in the summer rainfall area. It finds that the worst eight droughts since 1922 occurred in 1926, 1933, 1945, 1949, 1952, 1970, 1983 and 1992, and drought years are usually associated with El Niño events. A 1933 newspaper report on drought in South Africa warned of “the worst outlook in 50 years”.

These dates give us an average of 9.4 years between droughts, with a minimum of three years and a single outlier maximum of 18 years. Adding the more recent droughts of 2003 and 2015 to this list makes little difference to the average. There appears to be no such thing as a predictable 18-year weather cycle that is coming to an end.

Since 1980, South Africa’s rainfall has declined only marginally, according to the Water Research Commission, while water storage has risen sharply. This contradicts Kings’s narrative that rapid climate change is affecting South Africa and that authorities are proving themselves unable or unwilling to adapt.

More broadly, there is little evidence that extreme weather events are on the increase globally, either in frequency or severity. A 2012 paper in Nature concluded that there has been little change in global drought over the past 60 years. Since 1971, tropical cyclones have not increased notably in severity or frequency. Northern hemisphere snow cover hasn’t seen any records, high or low, since 1990.

Apparent increases in severity of natural disasters such as floods and storms are almost entirely attributable to societal and demographic factors, according to a 1999 paper published in the journal of the American Meteorological Society. The value of property built in high-risk areas is increasing, which makes disasters appear worse in financial damage terms. That climate change has not (yet) had any impact on losses from natural disasters was reconfirmed in a 2011 paper by a different scientist.

Only a couple of decades ago, climate researchers would warn about the consequences of exceeding 2°C warming above pre-industrial temperatures by the year 2100. It was about risks in the distant future. There was no talk of climate change already causing damage, although a 0.8°C of the increase had already happened. In fact, climate scientists used to warn that specific weather events cannot reliably be attributed to a warming climate, even if there was a plausible link.

Since then, however, observed temperatures have not risen any further, stubbornly refusing to follow the relentless increases predicted by climate models. Some claim that the hiatus was caused by La Niña. Others say the missing heat has been absorbed by the deep ocean, from whence it will one day rise like Godzilla to destroy us all. But whatever the cause or the implication for long-term climate change, the hiatus is certainly real: global surface temperatures have not risen substantially for two decades.

Throughout this pause, the only alarming rise has been in the tendency to attribute extreme weather events – floods, snowfalls, heat waves, storms and droughts – to climate change.

This only makes the similarity between climate alarmists and religious prophets of doom more remarkable. Like the zealots, they persist in blaming every natural disaster on the sins of humanity, even in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary. They predict disaster, safe in the knowledge that disaster will eventually strike, which they can then claim vindicates their ominous predictions. But predicting what inevitably will happen anyway doesn’t vindicate anything. And when they do add a deadline to their predictions, they inevitably turn out to be wrong.

Drought is a regular and recurrent feature of South African climate, as the Rouault paper affirms. Catastrophic fires happened long before climate change had any impact. It is impossible to attribute the Great Knysna Fire of 2017 to climate change.

It is distasteful that climate alarmists lay guilt trips on people who have just lost everything, presumably in the hope of scaring them into line. It’s about as classy as an insurance company responding to the fires by advertising that people should have been better insured. Sure, perhaps they should have been, but nobody has been crass enough to say so. By all accounts, insurance companies are being extremely helpful and understanding. The same is true for estate agents, banks, supermarkets, charities and other private enterprises dealing with people who were affected by the fires.

Like true believers, climate propagandists are too opportunistic to let themselves be hamstrung by the uncertainties of science, or by the emotional impact of their fear-mongering. As a former chief of staff for Barack Obama put it: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted