While the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests were—rightfully—burning up the country, another fire engulfed a continent-country. Usually on the margins of international news, Australia’s bushfires have been raging since September 2019 and engulfed massive swathes of this gigantic land, concentrating on the eastern and southern coast, in areas around its largest cities such as Sydney and Adelaide where most of its population lives. At least 28 people have been reported dead (as of 15 January 2020) and, equally bad, hundreds of thousands (if not millions—there are contesting estimates) of animals have died. More than 3,000 homes have been destroyed and about 24 million acres of land burnt. As a comparison, that’s larger than the size of Portugal. By the time the bushfires die down, these numbers are likely to go further up.
Bushfires are not uncommon in Australia. It is a feature of the country’s natural environment and hot summer seasons, usually triggered by natural causes such as lightning strikes and sometimes by human activity (deliberate and otherwise). However, these die out within a relatively short period and/or are contained within a manageable area. So, while there’s damage, it is not too significant or worth multiple headlines across national newspapers. In fact, many plant species depend on fire to regenerate, so bushfires have their uses as well. A quick glance at the Wikipedia page of major bushfires in Australia shows that the list runs into multiple entries.
There are several negative effects of bushfires. Aside from the significant loss of lives and homes, bushfires impact biodiversity, flora and fauna, air and water quality, and carbon stock. And the effects last for several years, which means that there is no easy way to reverse their impact. The severity of the current bushfires can be gauged from the fact that the smoke had already reached South America in December and might circumnavigate the entire planet.
Unsurprisingly, a debate has been brewing if this bushfire event is attributable to global warming or if it’s merely an anomaly, a freak of nature that happens once in a blue-green moon and has little do with a warming planet. At a time when climate deniers still exist (the President of America being its most famous proponent) even as there’s broad scientific and popular consensus that global warming is anthropogenic, it is important to understand the reasons for this not wholly natural disaster. Of course, glib statements from Australia’s political leaders, including prime minister Scott Morrison and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack, that it was bushfire season ‘as usual’ did not help. Such tepid reactions and lack of real actions seem even more of a glaring, avoidable mistake considering the fact that in November of last year, 23 former emergency chiefs sent letters to the prime minister that predicted the bushfire crisis and warned of the impact of climate change on Australia.
What’s not up for debate is the unprecedented scale of this fire. The NSW Rural Fire Service (New South Wales is the worst-affected state) has confirmed that the scale of the bushfire area is far beyond what is considered ‘normal’. By December 23, an estimated 3.41 million hectares had burned while in the past few years the total area that burned for the whole season was about 280,000 hectares. Also, the geographic range of these fires is unmatched by previous events, stretching from west to east coast, north-eastern state of Queensland and the island of Tasmania. Remember that Australia is a continent.
Climate-change impact on bushfires
There are several factors that contribute towards bushfires. The main drivers of bushfires are fuel amount, fuel dryness, fire weather, and ignition. A report commissioned by the NSW government, ‘Climate Change Impacts on Bushfire Risk in NSW’, found that the average and severe fire weather will increase in NSW in the future and be harder to control. As the same report points out, bushfires are complex hazards that are impacted by multiple factors, both natural and manmade. For instance, human systems such as land use and management can affect it substantially. So, while climate change has an effect, it is not easy to parse out the degree of its impact on the four main causes.
The main factors that create the conditions for a bushfire are fuel load (amount of fallen bark, twigs, leaf litter, small branches, and other such vegetation), fuel moisture, ambient temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed. The first four are directly impacted by climate change. In most cases, higher temperatures mean hotter, drier conditions that stoke the fire that is a bushfire. Australian National University climate scientist Dr Imran Ahmed called it a direct link: ‘Because what climate change does is exacerbate the conditions in which the bushfires happen.’
As the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s 2018 State of the Climate report states, Australia has warmed by just over 1 °C since 1910, which has led to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events like the current wildfires. Along with global warming, other short-term weather patterns colluded to produce the conditions that allowed for the bushfires to fester for so long. Delayed monsoons, wind movements, and a natural weather phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole brought dry conditions to the country which was the exact kind of toxic mix that fuels bushfires. This Vox article provides more details on these weather phenomena. It should be noted that studies have shown that the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can impact the dipole, so even weather events that were hitherto considered normal are now being shaped into more erratic patterns by global warming effects.
What is universally acknowledged is that climate change has fuelled the increase in average and extreme temperatures, contributing to the severely dry conditions. 2019 was the year the country witnessed the record-breaking drought, with some of the lowest rainfalls in decades. It was also Australia’s hottest and driest year on record – a phenomenon that’s directly affected by global warming. In fact, in 2019 rainfall was a whopping 40 per cent lower than average, based on records since 1900. Dry weather means lack of moisture and, hence, less cooling effect, and scientists have attributed the intensity of the fires to this, among other factors. Hot and dry weather means the vegetation turns drier too—a vast mass of tinder that only needs a small flame to ignite it. Droughts are also projected to become commonplace in many parts of the world due to global warming. And with climate change driving long-term trends toward higher temperatures, such catastrophic events are poised to become the norm rather than the exception.
What a warming planet means
In Australia, studies such as the one on Queensland’s 2018 bushfire season found that extreme temperatures that have coincided with fires were four times more likely because of human activities. Australia’s National Environmental Science Program has stated that human-caused climate change is responsible for the dangerous weather conditions that have led to bushfires in recent decades.
Extreme weather patterns will become more common in a heating planet, so confluences of such phenomenon and warmer temperatures will lead to a higher incidence of intense and damaging bushfires. While not every weather extreme can be directly attributable to climate change, the trend towards frequent and devastating events is linked inextricably to warming temperatures. The science is clear on this – both frequency and intensity are impacted by climate change. In turn, bushfires lead to unprecedented amount of carbon emissions, further fuelling global warming. According to one expert, the fires in southeastern Australia have produced as much carbon as the entire country does from manmade sources in more than eight months.
The Australian bushfires are a grim example and a dire warning for the entire world of what will happen if urgent and serious efforts are not made to combat global warming. In fact, extreme weather events are already becoming more common across the world, as climate science duly predicted. ‘Unprecedented’ is no longer a term that can be used to describe such catastrophes because multiple new precedents will be set and what was extreme a decade ago is likely to be considered normal in a few years. History can no longer be a useful benchmark because the underlying conditions themselves have drastically changed. Now what needs to be unprecedented is the collective global action to mitigate climate-change effects.
The problem, though, is that there’s very little action in overhauling the economic and political system that incentivizes profits over people and has led humanity to the precipice of annihilation. National governments are either (like the one in Australia) too beholden to corporate behemoths including the carbon-emitting fossil-fuel industry or (like India and China) are dragging their feet in implementing the sweeping changes required because it may ostensibly harm GDP growth. But when global warming burns up the forests and category 5 cyclones hit with the regularity of the annual monsoons and droughts force millions to become climate refugees, abstract concepts like GDP will hardly matter. And toothless pacts like the Paris Agreement which are not mandatory or enforceable are hardly up to the job of driving major climate action.
The world needs to heed the Australian bushfires as a wake-up call and recognise it for what it truly is: a teaser of what’s to come in a warming world. Climate dystopia will soon be a reality.