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Massive Fires Blaze through Australia; Imagine a World

Aired October 21, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

It is not supposed to be fire season yet in Australia, where summer hasn't even begun. But more than 60 devastating bush fires are already raging in a ring around Sydney. Authorities have declared a state of emergency after fires burned through more than 1,200 square kilometers, which is an area about the size of New York City.

Coincidentally, this happens just a month after Australia elected a new prime minister, Tony Abbott, who once called climate science absolute rubbish, though of course he did use more colorful language, as you can see, and it's likely the worst is yet to come. Local officials fear that hot, dry and windy conditions could cause the largest of the fires to merge into a single massive inferno this week.

In the past 12 months, Australia has seen the hottest summer in the hottest year on record, so hot, in fact, that the weather bureau has added the new color purple to its maps to record temperatures once thought to be off the scale, up to 54 degrees Celsius or 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

And climate scientists acknowledge that even a small change in temperature can lead to a major change in the frequency and severity of heat extremes, leaving Australia particularly vulnerable to destructive bush fires.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Obviously, climate change isn't the only culprit here. Two boys, 11 and 15, were arrested for starting two of those fires north of Sydney. And Tony Abbott, a volunteer firefighter himself, seen here pitching in with his brigade, has walked back his remarks, rubbish and climate science, calling them a bit of rhetorical hyperbole.

But despite the fact that Australia is one of the world's largest polluters on a pro capita basis, Abbott ran on a pledge to kill a carbon tax that had already been in place, and he axed the country's independent climate commission.

My colleague, Stan Grant, is now back home in Australia and he's an editor and anchor at our affiliate there, Sky News. He gave me the lay of the land from Sydney just earlier.


AMANPOUR: Stan Grant, welcome. Thanks for joining us.


AMANPOUR: Tell me what is the actual facts of the matter right now. How bad are the fires that are anywhere close to being brought under control?

GRANT: Well, Christiane, it has in every sense been a living hell for people here, for almost a week now. There are 60 fires that are burning across New South Wales. And this is the most populated state in Australia.

Now of those 60, more than a dozen of them are still burning out of control. And the real key here is that things could get worse. Wednesday is being talked about as D-Day. That's when we're going to see high winds; we're going to see very high temperatures as well.

And there is a real concern here that the major fires that are burning in the Blue Mountains area, which is west of the largest city in Australia, Sydney, could actually link together and cause -- form what they're calling a megafire.

Now firefighters have been battling in the past couple of days to try to ensure that doesn't happen; they're being reinforcements brought in from other states. There are more than 1,500 firefighters who are out there.

They're using water drops from helicopters. They're using backburning, trying to make sure that they can hold these major fires at bay, and that we don't see them link up into what they're calling a megafire, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Stan, how much pressure is Prime Minister Abbott under right now, given his very public views on the idea of climate change and pretty much rubbishing them?

GRANT: There is a real political debate about how to deal with this issue of climate change. Now Tony Abbott in the past has been criticized for being a climate skeptic, if not a climate change denier.

Now he's stepped back a lot from the hard line that he's taken. But he's been very ideological when it comes to how to deal with this. He wants to scrap the Labour Party's carbon tax. He's going to face a real struggle in the Parliament to be able to do that.

And if he isn't able to achieve that, he's threatening to go back to the electorate, dissolve Parliament and go back to another election to get a mandate to do that.

Now at the same time, he's already scrapped the climate change commission here in Australia. He doesn't want to go down that path. He believes that is going to cause damage to the Australian economy; he's looking at more direct action.

There is a real strong political ideological battle over climate change and how to deal with it. The fires that we're seeing right now are only going to increase that pressure, increase the volume of that discussion and debate, particularly once we're past the worst of the fires, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: It's really fascinating to watch. And Stan Grant, thank you so much for joining me on this.

GRANT: Pleasure, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: Now wildfires are not a new phenomenon . But what is new are their patterns. And they're changing because of humans, that is, according to the scientists.

Christiana Figueres has devoted her life work to protecting the environment, from serious threats like climate change. She's a native Costa Rican and she is now the chief climate change official at the United Nations.

Currently in London for a major climate change conference, and we're fortunate to have her join me now in the studio.

Thanks for being here, Ms. Figueres.


AMANPOUR: So you heard all of that from Australia. Obviously the real serious danger of these fires, but also the politics behind trying to figure out climate change.

First and foremost, is there a link between climate and wildfires, brush fires?

FIGUERES: Yes, there is absolutely. Now the W model (ph), World Meteorological Organization, has not established the direct link between this wildfire and climate change yet. But what is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heat waves in Asia, Europe and Australia, that these will continue, that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency.

So what we've just seen on the screen is an example of what we may be looking at unless we take actually vigorous action.

AMANPOUR: And vigorous action, the reason we're focusing and drilling down now on Australia is because you have to deal with the politics of vigorous action.

So what does it mean for your efforts and for global efforts when an elected prime minister runs on an anti-climate change platform, promises to scrap a carbon tax initiative -- he says for the good and to do the right thing by the people of Australia -- axes the independent climate commission.

How bad is that for your work?

FIGUERES: Well, what the new government in Australia has not done is it has not stepped away from its international commitment on climate change. So what they're struggling with now is -- are not what are they going to do but how are they going to get there.

And as has just been pointed out, what we think is they're going to have to pay a very high political price and a very high financial price because the route that they are choosing to get to the same target that the previous government has could be much more expensive for them and for the population.

AMANPOUR: So sort of paradoxically, then, Mr. Abbott, the prime minister, in his campaign, said, listen, this carbon tax makes it just way too expensive, way too restrictive, you know, businesses and jobs are being affected.

You're saying, though, by not having the carbon tax, it could have the same effect on people.

FIGUERES: Or worse, because the fact is we are already, as you have just pointed out, we are really already paying the price of carbon. We're paying the price with wildfires; we're paying the price with droughts. We're paying the price with so many other disturbance to the hydrological cycle. That is all the price that we're paying.

So what we need to do is put a price on carbon so that we don't have to continue to pay the price of carbon. And in fact, what you have just seen on the screen is one scenario, Christiane. And it is a scenario that we would walk toward unless we take, as I say, very vigorous action.

But there is another scenario, OK? What we have seen are just introductions to the doom and gloom that we could be facing. But that's not the only scenario. We could, as humankind, we could take vigorous action and we could have a very, very different scenario. That's a scenario that is worth examining.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, because of course fires are not just restricted to the place that we've just been talking about, but it's happened in September in the United States, the West Coast. It happened over the summer in Turkey. So it is actually all over.

But what about, then, the -- trying to convince people that this is something that you actually -- has to tackle quickly before it become irreversible?

What is the timeline that we as a human species have before this become irreversible?

FIGUERES: We have very little time. The important thing is that we still have time, although inasmuch as we delay, we are closing the window in (inaudible) and on -- upon ourselves. But we do have time. What we know is that we have to reach global peaking; that means we have to get to the maximums. Currently the trajectory of emissions is still going up. We're still rising.

So we have to get to the global peaking point this decade. And then begin our trajectory down as opposed to up, which is where we are. And we have to get to zero net emissions, zero net emissions, not zero emissions, but zero net emissions by the second half of the century. That's a very different path. And we can do it.

AMANPOUR: What do you say, though, to nations such as Australia, which have had so much success with their minerals, with what they are able to extract, with what they're able to sell to places like China and others?

This is their export industry. And other nations which continue to import huge amounts of fossil fuels to use?

FIGUERES: And we will not move into a magical world that doesn't have fossil fuels, OK? We have to be realistic. Yes, it, over the long term, what we will have, is a much more balanced and a much healthier energy mix in which the bulk of the growth of energy which has to come will come from renewable energies. But there will always a base load that was going to be provided by fossil fuels.

The issue is, however, that those fossil fuels -- in particular coal - - cannot pursue business as usual for the coal technologies that we have.

They have to invest the coal industry itself has to invest in carbon capture and storage so that they can burn some coal but do it with less carbon footprint. They need to become much more efficient because they are horribly inefficient right now. Most of the (inaudible). And they need to invest in the new technologies of the future.

AMANPOUR: Christiana Figueres, thank you very much for explaining. Thank you for being here.

FIGUERES: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: As those massive fires blaze through Australia, China is dealing with its own environmental problem.

Once again, huge amounts of smog are choking off entire cities in the northeast of the country, forcing the closure of highways and schools. There are barely enough masks to keep up with demand and one Chinese web user says that it took only 30 minutes for his mask to turn black.

And after a break, another kind of threat facing young people everywhere, as close as the palm of their hand. We'll explain when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Now do you know what your children are doing on the Internet? This is perhaps the scariest piece of technology for many parents out there, and a new online survey just out here in Britain reveals that primary school age children admit they stay awake into the early hours of the morning on the Internet unsupervised. That's 9- to 11-year olds.

And one in five of them say they've gone out to meet the people they've found in cyberspace. Again, alone and unsupervised.

So what impact is the web having on a generation that doesn't know anything else? British film director Beeban Kidron is perhaps most famous for directing the blockbuster movie, "Bridget Jones' (Diary)."

But as a mother of teens, she was frightened enough by teenage behavior to turn her cameras on them and their virtual world, and she joined me here recently to discuss her new documentary, "InRealLife."


AMANPOUR: Beeban Kidron, welcome to the program.

What made you decide to make this documentary? It's pretty violent in every aspect.

BEEBAN KIDRON, FILM DIRECTOR: (Inaudible). But I felt that the world around me was just sort of closing in. And I suddenly realized that then, you know, over a year since I had seen a young person without some sort of device in their hands.

And I walking into my own kitchen and there were six young people, six teenagers, one on a computer, one on a game console, and four of them lined up on the sofa, each one like this. And I looked at the picture and I thought, well, I understand generationally why they may not be talking to me. But why aren't they talking to each other?

AMANPOUR: And it's not just about looking at their smart devices, it's about what they're doing.

KIDRON: It is. I think the question I started to ask myself was not is this good or bad, but what does it change. And I think that that was actually the great gist of the film, in a way, was that I was trying to see whether it was going to change, what kind of human beings these young people would be.

AMANPOUR: Well, we're going to play a clip in a second. But just to say that one of the most incredible learning experiences for teenagers is about sex and sexuality. And what they're getting online is a completely distorted view in terms of pornography, right?

KIDRON: Absolutely. And if you think about the purpose of pornography, it's very adult, male-centered. It's very, very bad about things like consent and about gender images and so on. And if that is your entry level to what you think sex is and what is normal, think about what that means as you try and practice it in your real life.

AMANPOUR: Let's play this clip.



KIDRON: What do you think about those (inaudible)?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they're perfect, like that's what you want. That's what you'd look for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You sort of try out a girl and get a perfect image of what you've watched on the Internet.


AMANPOUR: So it's called "InRealLife," your documentary, but it's clearly not about real life. I mean, after all, you and I know that porn is acting. Those kids don't know.

KIDRON: No, I mean, you heard him say then he's actually a very wonderful young man and he's very sort of self-reflective in the end, after days spent with me. I finally thanked him, I said, you know, how do you think it changes who you are?

And he turned 'round to me and he said, "It's ruining love. It ruins love for us all," and what he described is how the images of porn are the images that he is trying to recreate in his relationships with young women.

AMANPOUR: What about girls? What are they most affected by?

KIDRON: Well, I think that you have to look at the other side of that, which is that, you know, we say a lot about advertising and celebrity, but the young women I came across are comparing themselves to pornified images of women.

And I think that a lot of the sort of -- the sense of being rewarded on the Internet for looking sexy, getting a lot more likes, being more popular, is incrementally pushing young women into a sexualized version of themselves.

AMANPOUR: In the film you mention a statistic: 80 percent of young people think they can get away with bullying online as opposed to in real life. And we talk about this because every day we read more and more stories about how young people are committing suicide because of online bullying, 80 percent of bullies think they can get away with it.

KIDRON: Yes, because it is this culture of anonymity and I think that there is something really disturbing about thinking you can take a poke and no one will find you.

AMANPOUR: What did parents say about this? What is the big worry? I mean, I know as a parent that I worry that our kids are growing up just in a virtual reality without real relationships.

KIDRON: I think the thing that parents were grateful for, that the film describes, is this question of the technology itself being controlled, being not neutral (ph) and being very addictive.

I think that now they understand or when they understand that it's a reward mechanism, that it's gamified, that there's someone there pulling the strings, they feel much stronger about intervening and about saying, hang on a minute; do you realize you are being manipulated?

Do you understand how your behavior is actually being -- you know, there is a Svengali in the room. And I think that gives parents a lot of confidence, because they feel very concerned about cutting kids off. What has been amazing is the response of teenagers.

AMANPOUR: Which is.?


AMANPOUR: That they blame their parents as well, right, for being too far and too far gone on their smart devices?

KIDRON: Oh, yes. I mean, I could make a whole other film about the things that young people have said about their parents, about the inattention. And that's what I've ended up feeling. It's like it's -- we are the inattentive generation, bring up the restless generation.

And I think that's not very good for everyone, and we have to look at that. But I do think that companies have a big responsibility in this.

AMANPOUR: Well, did you get any of the companies to talk to you?

KIDRON: No, no. I mean, the -- we all know that their line is that they're just there, not delivering content; they're just like the --


AMANPOUR: Facilitating?

KIDRON: -- facilitating a utility. And I think that's absolutely unsustainable.

AMANPOUR: Do they just refuse to talk to you?

KIDRON: Yes, some of them strung me along, you know, and said, oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. But the day never came. Others just said, no, this is not something we can be involved in.

They don't feel they have a case to answer. And I think that that's part of what we have to do next, is say, oh, yes, you do.

AMANPOUR: And what is the solution then? Who polices this?

KIDRON: (Inaudible)


AMANPOUR: (Inaudible)? Who monitors?

KIDRON: I think we have to look at it a bit like smoking. It took everybody, yes?

AMANPOUR: And you do say it is addictive. It's addictive like cocaine, like alcohol, like cigarettes.

KIDRON: Oh, absolutely. And it's not what I say. This is evidence- based. You know, they are using reward technology, the dopamine is released in your body. You must get another hit, another like, another touch.

AMANPOUR: Facebook just has announced that it is easing its restrictions on privacy, allowing teens to let anybody see their status updates and the like, not just their friends. And they say it's to give more choices. But it seems like it's really to increase the monetary remuneration for them.

KIDRON: Yes, of course it is. And I think, you know, enough is enough. We -- in every area of life, delivering things safely to the consumer is part of the bottom line. So now we have to ask Facebook to deliver these services safely.

AMANPOUR: Can I take you from the smartphone and the computer screen to the big screen?

Bridget Jones? You were very successful in directing "Bridget Jones." There's a new book that's just come out. Darcy is dead. Is that good or bad? Is that going to make a film or not? What's that going to do to the story?

KIDRON: I think Helen Fielding is a genius. How could she make Bridget Jones III be front page news? There was only one way, and she found it. I would have never thought of that. It's absolutely brilliant and I can't wait to see it.

AMANPOUR: Would you direct a film without Darcy in it?

KIDRON: Of course not.

AMANPOUR: All right. Beeban Kidron, thank you very much indeed.

KIDRON: Pleasure.


AMANPOUR: So that's the word on Bridget Jones, as for "InRealLife," Beeban Kidron's new documentary that we just were talking about is being released in the cinemas and it will soon come out in DVD form.

Meantime, talking about the benefits of sleep, whatever age you are, a study in the "American Journal of Science" recently explained that sleep acts as a washing machine for the brain. It rinses all those toxins away after a hard day's thinking.

And while young people worldwide are subject to dangers online, others and their families court death on dangerous waters in a desperate journey to find a new life. Today on the coast of Sicily, there was a memorial to the hundreds of migrants who lost their lives earlier this month after one of those ships caught fire and capsized off the island of Lampedusa.

What causes people to take such risks? One answer is as basic as bread, begging for crumbs when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, we've seen the awful plight of desperate migrants willing to risk their lives in leaky ships on the high seas.

Now imagine a world where millions of refugees are trapped in a vicious cycle of food and flight. Ertharin Cousin, who's the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme told me on this show how food or the lack of it is feeding Syria's refugee crisis.


ERTHARIN COUSIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE UNITED NATIONS WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME: The challenge is many times those people are without assistance. They go hungry or they leave the country, which is why we're seeing increasing numbers of refugees. UNHCR has now documented 2 million refugees who've -- Syrians who have left the country to find assistance.


AMANPOUR: So how desperate is it? Well, the World Food Programme itself is running short of food and has sent out an SOS for more funds. And perhaps you've heard of the cleric in Damascus who's issued a fatwa allowing starving Syrians to eat cats and dogs, which is a practice forbidden under Islamic law.

Now scientists say the world produces enough calories, around 2,700 per day per human, to feed the whole planet. All the while, though, in the richest countries on Earth, enough food to feed a whole nation is going to waste. The British supermarket giant, Tesco, has just admitted dumping 30,000 tons of food in the first half of this year alone, nearly half of its bread is never eaten.

Remember when your mother told you to finish your peas and carrots because of people starving around the world? As usually, your mother was right.

And that's it for tonight's program. Remember, you can always contact us at and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.