In 2009, the Black Saturday bush fires in the southern state of Victoria claimed 173 lives, the single largest loss of life from wildfires in Australian history. But what’s happening now in Australia seen as unprecedented bushfires for their intensity, scale and timing.
Since June 2019, there have been many large bushfires burning across Australia, especially in the south east where a state of emergency was declared in New South Wales. As of 14 January 2020, fires this season have burnt an estimated:
- 6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles);
- Destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including approximately 2,683 homes);
- Killed at least 34 people;
- An estimated one billion animals were also killed; and
- Some endangered species may be driven to extinction.
- Air quality has dropped to hazardous levels;
- The cost of dealing with the bushfires is expected to exceed the $4.4 billion of the 2009 Black Saturday fires;
- Tourism sector revenues have fallen more than $1 billion;
- By 7 January 2020, the smoke had moved approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 mi) across the South Pacific Ocean to Chile and Argentina; and
- As of 2 January 2020, NASA estimated that 306 million tonnes (337 million short tons) of CO2 had been emitted.
Climate change deniers propogate that alarmists have been too quick to blame climate change for the recent horrific fires in Australia. They are of the opinion that governmental decisions, made under pressure from environmental groups, have made what would normally be big fires into hellish bushfires. They also believe that although human actions do bear a large share of the blame for the scale of this ongoing tragedy, the cause is primarily bad management of policies, not dreaded climate change.
Here are some realities about the bushfires in Australia.
The Climate Council is an independent non-profit organization funded by donations by the public. Their mission is to provide authoritative, expert advice to the Australian public on climate change. The Climate Council Briefing Paper that they published on 12 November 2019, illustrates the following five points:
- The burning of coal, oil and gas is driving up global temperatures, leading to hotter Australian conditions. Consequently:
- Since the mid-1990s, southeast Australia has experienced a 15 percent decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall and a 25 percent decline in average rainfall in April and May; and
- Across Australia average temperature has increased leading to more record-breaking hot weather. Extreme fire danger days have increased.
- This year bushfire risk in parts of northeast New South Wales and Southeast Queensland has been exacerbated by drought, very dry fuels and soils, and heat. All of these factors have been aggravated by climate change;
- Rainfall for January to August 2019 was the lowest on record in the Southern Downs (Queensland) and Northern Tablelands (New South Wales). Consequently:
- Vegetation has been very dry with parts of New South Wales and Queensland experiencing record low soil moisture; and
- The low soil moisture is symptomatic of both the recent intense dry conditions, as well as longer-term below average rainfall since 2017.
- Drought means vegetation is more flammable and therefore more likely to support extreme fire behavior and spot fires. Heat is a factor too, both exacerbating dry conditions and enabling sparks to take hold; and
- Climate change is lengthening the bushfire season. Consequently:
- The northern and southern hemisphere seasons are now overlapping, making it difficult to pool resources such as personnel and firefighting equipment; and
- The opportunity for hazard reduction burning to limit the threat of bushfires is closing, with all year round bushfires.
Climate scientists warn that the scale and devastation of the wildfires in Australia are clear examples of the way climate change can intensify natural disasters. They also stressed that while many sources may ignite fires — including arson — climate change is a major reason why recent the blazes in Australia have been so destructive. Nevertheless, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has resisted calls for the country to reduce its carbon emissions, has been accused of deemphasizing the link between the bushfires and climate change, stating during a November interview that there isn’t “credible scientific evidence” that curbing emissions would diminish the fires.
“There are now disingenuous efforts to downplay the clear role of climate change in worsening the intensity and severity of the Australian fires, or to blame ‘arson’ as a way to distract from the growing threat of climate change. These efforts should be called out for what they are: gross climate denial,” Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and co-founder of Pacific Institute in California.
The Australian bushfires were exacerbated by two factors that have a “well-established” link to climate change: heat and dry conditions, says Stefan Rahmstorf, department head at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and a lead author of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report.
Looking long-term, climate experts say that extreme bush fires are likely to become a more regular occurrence as the climate continues to get hotter. “We will see even more severe fire weather conditions in the future, not every year, but every time that Australia has a drought,” said Karoly at CSIRO. “We expect even worse heatwaves, more frequent droughts in some parts of the country and more extreme fire danger conditions due to climate change.”
Unfortunately, in the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, released last month by a group of think tanks focused on climate change, Australia was rated as having the worst climate change policies among 57 countries assessed.
5 February 2020 – Greely, Ontario, Canada