Australia’s burning while the climate changes

The Australian bushfires have shocked the world. To fight the fires of the future, we need to work better together, writes Australia-resident Bart Meehan.

The bushfires that are devastating so much of regional Australia, have rightly received international attention.  They are unprecedented events: Mega fires that have burned almost six millions hectares,  as well as destroying 1500 houses and, as of the time of writing, killing  28 people (along with an estimated 500 million animals – wild and domestic).

Some of the worst fires have been on the south coast of New South Wales, where thousands of people were holidaying over the Christmas/New Year break.   A friend, who owns a home in that area, posted a video that graphically depicts the threat he and others faced.  While he managed to save his house, many lost everything. Recovery, when it begins will cost billions and take years.

For those overseas, and indeed even in Australia, it may be hard to truly understand the power of bushfires.   I am a city boy, so most of my experience of fires has been limited to horrific images on the nightly news.

The one exception was as a young man, when I was serving in the Australian Air Force.  I was assigned to help volunteer firefighters battling a massive blaze in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.

We were clearing an area to make a fire break when the wind changed.  Flames 30 metres high suddenly started racing towards us, hitting dry bush and gums trees that literally exploded.  It was a scene from the Apocalypse and there was no way of  stopping it.  (I should note that, at this point, I looked around and saw the fire fighters had started running towards the vehicle.  I had given them a 10 metre head start but still beat them to the backseat.)

Each year, somewhere in Australia, communities face the threat of fire.  Indeed my own city, Canberra, was devastated in 2003, when bushfires roared into our southern suburbs, burning hundreds of houses, as well as destroying the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo campus.

While Canberra has not, as yet, been directly threatened by this year’s fires, the city has been blanketed by the smoke for weeks, creating health problems particularly for those with respiratory conditions, highlighting another significant risk posed by this disaster.  On several days the air quality was rated the worst in world, with an measurement of 7700.  The Air Quality Index ranks 200 as hazardous.

Other major fires in the past hundred years have included:

1926: Victoria 60 dead, 1,000 buildings destroyed

1939: Victoria 71 dead, 5,000 buildings destroyed

1967: Tasmania 62 dead, 1,300 buildings destroyed

1983: South Eastern Australia 75 dead, 3,000 buildings destroyed

2009: Victoria  180 dead, 3,500 buildings destroyed

As tragic and terrifying as this list is, it confirms a reality:  Fire is part of Australia’s natural cycle.  We are a country that burns and, indeed many of our eco systems have evolved to become fire-dependent.

Notwithstanding this, the question of what role climate change has played in this recent disaster, has rightly been asked.

Breaking records

In a progressively warming world, 2019 was the country’s hottest and driest year on record.  That comes on top of a long period of drought that has seen much of the native vegetation dry out, thus creating a fuel source to feed fires.  Added to this, rising temperatures have extended the bushfire season (the first significant fires began in September last year), while reducing off-season opportunities to complete hazard reduction activities, such as controlled burning off of these fuel loads.

Climate change has played some part in all of this and while bush fires are a complex phenomenon, with a number of contributing factors, science has been warning about likely impacts of global warming, particularly in relation to frequency and intensity of fires, for years.

Despite this, and even as the country still burns, there is an ongoing partisan argument about the role climate change has played.  Senior politicians (such as a former Deputy Prime Minister) have blamed the disaster on environmental activists who forced “green caveats” on State governments, that stopped hazard reduction burns.  This claim has been largely debunked by the rural fire fighting authorities, but continues to be repeated in conservative media and online.

Others have pointed to dissenting scientific opinion, that argues climate change has no role in the fires and that global warming, as a gradual process, has little effect on the drying out of vegetation.

This position is a minority view, but is at least based in science, as opposed to opinions expressed in social media.  Without any evidence, these promote conspiracies that a number of the fires were deliberately lit by green extremists who wanted to change public opinion.  With that change, the government would then be forced to more aggressively pursue policies to reduce emissions.

This sort of nonsense is not surprising given how climate change has increasingly become a purity test for political ideologies.  In this environment, governments are often more concerned with the immediate economic (and electoral) impacts of meaningful action, than long term results.  To justify their approach, they ignore the weight of scientific evidence and offer reasons that are little more than sound bites.

For example, while the current Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, says he accepts the link to bush fires, he qualifies this by adding  ‘..climate change is a global phenomenon… and to suggest that at just 1.3% of global emissions, that Australia doing something more or less would change the fire outcome this season — I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.’

A global effort

This statistic deliberately plays down our importance in a global effort to combat climate change,  while ignoring the fact that Australia is the world’s second-largest per capita producer of greenhouse emissions, as well the second largest exporter of coal (thus feeding emissions generated by other countries).

As a result, we make a disproportionate contribution to the environmental footprint and should be a leader in addressing the climate crisis.  Instead, even the country’s national response to climate change (offered up by government as ‘a see what we do’ defence) has been criticised as a minimal effort that will do little to transition Australia to a new and more environmentally sustainable future.

When this crisis ends there will undoubtedly be extensive (and appropriate) discussions about how to respond to bushfire threats in the future.

Medium-term strategies about better management of risk factors such as fuel loads, and improving fire fighting capabilities, will be high on the agenda, along with how to ‘fire harden’ the built environments of ‘at risk’ communities.  However, any discussion that does not include the long term effects of climate change and how to address them, will be prioritising political expediency.

Experts are already saying that we do not know how to fight the fires of the future, which will be of unprecedented scale and intensity, so governments, industries, business and households will all need to develop strategies based on the best advice of science for stopping, or at least slowing, climate change, if we want prevent annual mega fires that will destroy economies and ruin lives.

Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan

Visiting fellow and research associate, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

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