I’m writing from Australia with a heavy heart and a growing sense of anger.
Uncontrolled bushfires, sparked in September and raging since October, continue to ravage the southern and eastern parts of the continent. So far, 25 people have lost their lives, thousands of houses have been destroyed, and whole towns have been razed to the ground. Countless native animals and livestock have died. Communities are grieving. And there are months left to go in this fire season.
While the unfolding tragedy that has captured global headlines highlights our vulnerability in a rapidly warming climate, it also exposes a gaping absence of climate leadership both in this country and globally. Communities have been left shattered, exhausted and looking for answers. As a climate scientist who has been working on these issues for decades, I share below some thoughts on how we got here and the urgent new course we need to set.
Iconic places, fragile ecosystems
This week, flames ripped through landscapes that I had spent my youth exploring. Land that has been nurtured by indigenous stewardship for millennia. Places like the Wollemi, the Blue Mountains, Kosciusko, Namadgi, Wombeyan and the Budawangs. If you aren’t familiar with these places, look them up. They are–or were–stunning examples of the planet’s unique cultural and ecological heritage.
As a teenager, I walked in dense old-growth rainforest with plant species that had survived from Gondwana. I swam in creeks and streams cascading off sandstone escarpments. And I marveled at aboriginal cave art that had existed for thousands of years. Many of these jewels may now be lost for future generations.
In addition to these irreplaceable sites , some of the planet’s most unique species live only in Australia. To date this season, an estimated one billion animals have died in the fires. These include many of our marsupials–such as koalas, kangaroos, wombats and bandicoots– as well as reptiles and countless bird species.
Some of these native fauna may now be on the brink of extinction. Even those lucky to survive the fire front will likely perish because the ecosystems on which they depend may be struggling to recover for years and may never succeed. A burnt landscape offers little in the way of water, food and shelter. Across the country, decades of conservation efforts have been undone by these unprecedented firestorms.
And on top of all this is the desperate human tragedy. People lost their lives defending their homes. Others were engulfed in flames while fleeing to safer ground. A firefighter was killed when a terrifying wind rolled a ten-tonne fire truck. And several elderly people living on their own were not able to evacuate from their properties. Entire villages have been scorched off the map. In towns across the country, people are choking on smoke-filled air. Major cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra are cloaked in haze and red sunsets, with residents dealing with serious reductions in air quality for weeks on end.
Part of my decades-long role as a climate scientist has been to explain to people what’s at stake if we fail to protect our climate. Over the years, I have produced journal articles, reports, infographics, and videos warning of impending climate impacts. I’ve spent time walking the U.S. halls of power, attending meetings on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures to suggest innovative and effective solutions. I’ve given interviews and speeches on how little time we have left to de-carbonize our energy sources before our planetary life systems start to fail.
In all this, I’ve found that words are useful . But nothing we scientists have done could wake people to the climate threat the way that seeing the places you know and love destroyed has done. And having to tacitly acknowledge that we all have played a part in that.
Hot and dry
In the three months since October, an area the size of Tennessee has been left a blackened wasteland in the most intense fire season on record. Images of the Australian continent from space show plumes of smoke across the whole southeastern coast. In addition, the smoke haze is currently blanketing parts of New Zealand, more than 1200 miles to the east across the ocean. The smoke is even reaching across the Pacific to South America. Firefighters have arrived in Australia from Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, and the US, with other offers of assistance from France and Singapore.
Our fire season is starting earlier, lasting longer and taking an increasingly catastrophic toll. There are months yet to go in this one. We are truly living through a climate emergency.
Earlier this week, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology declared 2019 our hottest and driest year on record. Our annual mean temperature in 2019 was almost 3°F above average, and our average rainfall was 40% below normal. These were both key factors influencing current fire conditions across the country. Aussies are not unfamiliar with fire seasons by any means, but climate change is supercharging these fires. They are now deemed to be in a new category called “catastrophic” by the fire authorities. Last year, former fire chiefs issued a warning that the country was not prepared for the kinds of conditions projected, but their concerns were rebuffed by the current administration, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Many Americans have been shocked by the sheer scale of the fires in Australia. Australia is a big country–roughly as wide and tall as the contiguous United States . These current fires in the southeast of the country cover an area about a hundred times the size of last year’s CA fires and around twelve times the area of the CA fires the year before that.
As we’re not even halfway through our summer here, with dry summer heat to endure yet, there is little hope of containing these fires.
To the rest of the world, I cry “This is what climate inaction looks like.” 2019 was the second hottest year on record, globally, as announced just this week. The six hottest years ever recorded are now the last six. In this warming world, Australia’s climate is trending in a terrifying direction. Yet, Australia is one of the world’s highest emitters of carbon pollution, per capita, as well as the world’s largest exporter of coal. Our emissions reporting would triple if we took account of our exports.
But the conservative political elite in Australia still refuse to support any meaningful action on climate.
If they stopped there, it would be gross negligence on a global scale. But it’s worse.
In the face of unequivocal evidence linking global warming to increased climate impacts including bushfires, we have a leadership that misleads and deceives to maintain the status quo. A leadership that pumps out denial memes and shirks our global responsibility as an industrialised economy.
They do this for profit: their ties to the fossil fuel industry are strong. And they have help: the machine of Rupert Murdoch’s enormously powerful media empire. His organisation continues to spread lies and climate denial in our national media.
This week, one of its own employees at The Australian newspaper resigned, slamming their dishonest coverage of the bushfires that downplays the role of climate warming. This week, the paper is peddling the line that arsonists were largely responsible for the ignition of these fires, a claim that has been flatly refuted by police.
The Australian government continues to assert – most recently at the COP meeting in Madrid–that we are an insubstantial player on the world stage, responsible for a mere percentage or two of global emissions and thus our emission reductions would make little difference. But this argument is an immoral cop-out .
When it suits the Australian government, we are proud to “punch above our weight”. We proudly followed the British into multiple wars, we were a founding member of the United Nations, we even claim to be a world leader in protecting whales. Strange that we took on those roles, given we only have a measly 0.3% of the global population. At the climate negotiations, our government’s lack of leadership has branded us an international pariah.
But in a scorched Australia, this morally bankrupt stance of climate science denial and climate policy negligence will have little traction anymore. We are at a turning point in public opinion. These fires have shaken us awake. Australia’s climate has changed forever. The public mood here is one crying out for real leadership and a path forward. We can no longer put up with vacuous and irresponsible tropes from a government beholden to fossil fuel cronies. There is clearly an alternative path.
Australians understand the enormity of what we face. It is clear we need to de-carbonise as a major priority. We know this must be a global effort to achieve that goal. And as we struggle to keep our precious lands from burning, we see that this action must be on nothing less than a war footing. Because that is the scale of what we are dealing with.
Inaction is not an option. We cannot afford to lose the country that we rely on, that we are a part of, that we owe our existence to. To save this beautiful land–and ourselves–we will need to innovate, to build resilience, to change our ways and to fight like there is no tomorrow. Our time is now. And Australians are already marching in the streets.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.