- In the last five months, bushfires have razed an estimated 25 million acres in Australia. That’s an area larger than South Korea.
- Prime minister Scott Morrison has said that he doesn’t think more aggressive cuts to Australia’s carbon emissions would have changed the outcome of this fire season.
- On Friday, thousands of Australians took to the streets to call for more robust action on climate change.
- Science shows that the drought conditions and high temperatures caused by climate change lead to larger, more frequent fires.
- The carbon dioxide that fires send into the atmosphere further contributes to climate change, raising the risk of more intense blazes.
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Australia has become an inferno: Since the start of the bushfire season in September, an estimated 25.5 million acres have burned, according to Reuters.
On Friday, more than 10,000 Australians took to the streets to protest what they see as prime minister Scott Morrison’s inadequate response to the fires. Many demanded more robust action to address climate change, and some even called for Morrison’s resignation, chanting “ScoMo has got to go,” according to The Washington Post.
Australia’s bushfires erupted amid exceptionally hot and dry conditions there. The country experienced its driest spring ever in 2019. December 18 was the hottest day in Australian history, with average temperatures there hitting 105.6 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius). Eight of Australia’s 10 warmest years ever have come in the last 15 years. Meanwhile, winter rains, which can help reduce the intensity of summer fires, have declined significantly, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
But Morrison has said his government will not consider downsizing Australia’s coal industry, despite the known link between fire risk and climate change. Australia is the biggest exporter of coal worldwide; its annual coal exports total to about $US47 million US.
“I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries,” Morrison told Australian broadcaster Channel Seven last month, according to the AP.
‘Coal interests and politicians on the one side, and then firefighters and volunteers on the other’
In a protest in Melbourne, a speaker named Jerome Small said politicians like Morrison represent a “massive political and economic roadblock” on the path to better climate policies, the Post reported.
Gavin Stanbrook, one of the organiser of Friday’s protests, told the Post that there’s a schism between politicians and the people most impacted by the fires.
“We are divided between coal interests and politicians on the one side and then firefighters and volunteers on the other and the rest of us who are either impacted or our friends and family are on the front line, or in cities surrounded by smoke,” Stanbrook said.
Morrison’s political rivals have also criticised his administration for its approach to climate policy,
“His totally inadequate response to these fires and his obstinate refusal to accept what we have known for decades: that burning climate-changing fossil fuels would lead to more frequent and intense bushfires is putting the lives of Australians at risk,” Richard Di Natale, leader of Australia’s Greens parties, said of Morrison last week.
Morrison wants to keep emissions down but does not plan to downsize the coal industry
In November, Morrison told the Herald that he doesn’t think more aggressive cuts to Australia’s carbon emissions would have made a difference in this fire crisis.
“To suggest that with just 1.3% of global emissions that Australia doing something differently, more or less, would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all,” he said.
Angus Taylor, Australia’s minister for energy and emissions reduction, told Reuters on Monday that he does not think Australia needs to cut its emissions more aggressively.
“When it comes to reducing global emissions, Australia must and is doing its bit,” Taylor said.
Morrison’s administration has not, however, denied the link between global warming and fire risk overall.
“There is no dispute in this country about the issue of climate change globally and its effect on global weather patterns, and that includes how it impacts Australia,” Morrison said in a press conference over the weekend, according to the Associated Press.
He added: “I have seen a number of people suggest that somehow the government does not make this connection. The government has always made this connection and that has never been in dispute.”
When asked what his government’s plans were to mitigate and plan for the long-term impacts of climate change, Morrison said: “Our goal is to meet and beat our emissions reductions.”
“What we will do is ensure that our policies remain sensible, that they don’t move towards either extreme and stay focused on what Australians need for a vibrant and viable economy, as well as a vibrant and sustainable environment,” he said.
However, Morrison was noticeably absent from the September United Nations climate summit in New York. At the UN’s December climate talks in Madrid, meanwhile, world leaders accused Morrison’s administration of cheating to meet 2030 emissions targets by using carryover credits – the amount of carbon dioxide by which Australia beat previous, less stringent targets set under the Kyoto protocol.
‘One of the key drivers of fire intensity is temperature’
Climate change increases the likelihood, size, and frequency of wildfires, since warmer air sucks away moisture from trees and soil, leading to dryer land. Rising temperatures also make heat waves and droughts more frequent and severe, which exacerbates wildfire risk, since hot, parched forests are prone to burning.
“Climate change is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires,” Dale Dominey-Howes, an expert on disaster risk at the University of Sydney, told Business Insider Australia. “Widespread drought conditions, higher-than-average temperatures – these are all made worse by climate change.”
On average, Earth has warmed about 1 degree Celsius. July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded, and 2019 will likely be the third-hottest year on record globally, according to Climate Central. Only 2016, 2015, and 2017 were hotter (in that order).
“One of the key drivers of fire intensity, fire spread rates and fire area is temperature. And in Australia we’ve just experienced record high temperatures,” Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University, told Reuters.
Climate scientist Michael Mann, who has been on sabbatical in Sydney this winter, put it simply in an article published January 2 in The Guardian:
“The brown skies I observed in the Blue Mountains this week are a product of human-caused climate change,” Mann wrote. “Take record heat, combine it with unprecedented drought in already dry regions, and you get unprecedented bushfires like the ones engulfing the Blue Mountains and spreading across the continent. It’s not complicated.”
A carbon-dioxide feedback loop
Climate activist Greta Thunberg also criticised Morrison’s response to the fires on Twitter.
“Not even catastrophes like these seem to bring any political action. How is this possible? Because we still fail to make the connection between the climate crisis and increased extreme weather events and nature disasters like the #AustraliaFires,”Thunberg tweeted on December 22.
Already, this season’s fires have released 350 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s roughly 1% of the total global carbon emissions in 2019, and two-thirds of Australia’s carbon emissions from 2018.
And there are least two more months of bushfire season to go.
Carbon emissions from these and other fires could become part of an ominous feedback loop: The more land burns, the more carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere, and the more trees – which act as natural carbon sinks – disappear.
The more CO2 gets released, the warmer our planet gets; that raises the risk of more big and deadly fires.
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