A burning need for climate action amid record Australian bushfires
January 7, 2020
If recent years are any indication, we’re on track for a future of fire. In 2018, wildfires consumed entire communities in California. In 2019, tens of thousands of fires ravaged the Amazon rainforest. Today, bushfires have threatened thousands of people and hundreds of millions of animals across Australia.
We’ve reached a new and devastating normal —from here on out, wildfires will be a tragic unifier, affecting areas from the dry Australian outback to lush Amazonian rainforests to the vineyards of the California coast, and everywhere in between.
Physically speaking, the recent Australian bushfires have been enormous. As reported by CNN, Australia’s wildfires have blazed 14.7 million acres of land since late July — more than double the area consumed by the 2019 Amazon rainforest fires and over ten times the acreage burned in the 2018 California wildfires.
Australia’s most recent fires are natural to an extent — largely ignited by lightning strikes in drought-affected areas — but the fires have been primed and fueled by a steady drip of human activities, particularly man-made climate change.
As we’ve pumped millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the last century and a half, we’ve also severely altered the Earth’s chemistry, creating a world where extreme weather is more likely. In other words, we’ve set the table for our recent devastation.
Last year Australia had its hottest, driest year on record, reflecting a larger global trend: Around the world, the last five years have also been the five hottest years on record.
Severe heat exacerbates drought, turning brush, forests and land into so much potential kindling. Fed by dry vegetation, these fires spread easily, leaving first responders and army reservists scrambling to contain the devastation.
And because the planet is experiencing warmer weather for longer periods of times, our wildfire seasons are also lengthening, meaning more fires will burn further and longer: Over the last 40 years or so, the wildfire season has lengthened by a quarter, according to research published in Nature.
The local impacts of Australia’s fires have been catastrophic, with at least 24 people killed and 900 homes destroyed. Additionally, 480 million animals have been affected by the fires, including the country’s iconic species: the koala bear. In one recent video, footage captured the haunting cries of a koala screaming while burning alive in the bushfires.
“Australia’s biodiversity was already declining at an unprecedented rate — this event may tip some species to the brink of extinction,” said Richard Turner, a behavioral ecologist at Australian National University, in an email. “For example, almost all habitat of the remaining wild populations of brush-tailed rock-wallabies has burnt or is at imminent risk.”
And those species spared extinction will still face insurmountable difficulties in both the coming months and years.
“Those not killed directly by the flames are now displaced — starving, dehydrated and vulnerable to predators,” said Turner. “The devastating scale of these fires means that many forests may take decades to recover.”
Besides their disastrous impacts on our environment, bushfires also pose a major health risk. Estimates report that breathing the air in some areas of Australia is comparable to smoking 37 cigarettes a day. As particulate matter, a common air pollutant from wildfires, increases in the atmosphere, so do risks of heart and lung disease, asthma-related issues, premature deaths, pediatric ER visits, more aggressive behavior and perhaps even violent crimes.
Playing with fire
As thousands of firefighters risk their lives to protect citizens, state and federal authorities must be commended for combatting the fires that our collective actions have created. But these courageous acts shouldn’t deflect blame from those responsible: Leaders who refuse to act on climate change.
Large, wealthy countries that should be leading us into an era of green energy are driving us further into catastrophe. As the embers cooled on two devastating years of wildfires in California, the United States started paperwork to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. And as Australia burns, its prime minster continues to support coal, the dirtiest of all traditional energy sources.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have a mere decade to reverse course and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The IPCC’s special report published in 2018 outlined the huge differences we can expect to experience between a world where we increase our world temperature by 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius. That distinction of half a degree is literally the difference between life and death for millions of species, including humans, on our planet.
Like so many environmental issues, simply reacting and responding is no longer a viable solution. Dousing a fire in water is far worse than preventing the fire in the first place.
Unfortunately for us, we’ve delayed climate action for so long, that while the 1.5-degree mark is technically reachable, it’s highly improbable. We’ve consistently emitted more carbon dioxide than the year before (and 2019 has set the latest record). Now, to hold temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, we must cut emissions by 7.6 percent every year for the next decade. And we need to start now.
Given our track record, which hasn’t seen action anywhere near this level of ambition, and in fact has actively gone in the opposite direction, this proposal can sound so outlandish that if the fate of humanity wasn’t at stake, it would be laughable.
Too hot not to handle
But even though the 1.5-degree mark is probably unreachable, to throw our hands up and give in to our doomsday fate is misguided, even dangerous, as David Roberts outlines in a recent piece for Vox.
“Exceeding 1.5˚C, which is likely to happen in our lifetimes, doesn’t mean anyone should feel apathetic or paralyzed,” writes Roberts. “If anything, the need to mobilize against climate change only becomes greater with every new increment of heat, because the potential stakes grow larger.”
We must maintain hope in the face of crisis, because without it, our society is that much closer to collapse. That may sound hyperbolic, but civilizations have collapsed from much less, including drought, famine, disease — all of which are expected to increase in a warming world.
Each fraction of a degree of warming will make it harder on our survival as a species. And we must resist the urge to accept these fires as the new normal, as author David Wallace-Wells warns in his recent piece for New York Magazine.
“The duration of this climate horror has allowed us to normalize it even while it continues to unfold — continues to torture, and brutalize, and terrify,” Wallace-Wells writes. “Coming to see the wildfire season as a permanent threat is another terrifying adjustment, though [we] are now doing precisely that.”
What’s happening to the planet is unprecedented and we must treat it as such. We must push forward bold, innovative solutions that acknowledge and address the historic magnitude of the climate crisis. We must break our complacency for — and complicity in — these manmade tragedies and mobilize around a new way forward. If we don’t, Australia’s recent fires will only be the beginning of what’s to come in a burnt new world.
On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — April 22, 2020 — tell leaders you won’t stand idly by as the world burns. Join the largest, most diverse mobilization in defense of the planet. Join the EARTHRISE movement.
Note: This article was edited to include comments from Richard Turner.
Image at top: A firefighter pauses after a 15-hour shift fighting bushfires in Bell, in the Western Downs Region of Queensland, Australia. Photo Credit: Daniel Knox and Andrew O’Dwyer