Australia on Fire

When will we at last acknowledge the reality of climate change?
Sheep are seen as Rural Fire Service crews engage in property protection during wildfires along the Old Hume Highway near the town of Tahmoor, Australia, outside Sydney, Dec. 19, 2019. (CNS photo/Dean Lewins, AAP via Reuters)

The fires in south and east Australia began in August—an unusually early start to the fire season—and have been burning longer and hotter than the wildfires the region typically experiences. As of this writing, at least thirty-three people have died, thousands are homeless, and many more have been displaced. It’s been reported that one billion animals have died, not including bats, frogs, insects, and other invertebrates. The animals that survived the initial fires will struggle for survival in ecosystems devastated by flame and ash. The fires are expected to continue for months.

Climate experts agree that the combination of hotter temperatures and drier conditions made this year’s fires particularly severe, and that human-caused global warming has likely played a role. Australia’s average temperature has increased one degree Celsius since 1910; 2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record. Though it’s “difficult to diagnose” (as one scientist put it) a specific cause for the severity of this season’s fires until more research is done, there is little doubt that climate change has something to do with it.

That doesn’t stop some from continuing to peddle uncertainty. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp—which controls more than half of Australia’s newspaper market (and in America owns Fox News)—has waged a disinformation campaign about the role of global warming. According to one such false narrative, arsonists are solely to blame. True, some of Australia’s fires were intentionally set, but then, no one claims that climate change starts fires—just that it makes them more dangerous, regardless of what sparks them.

The fires are thus not only a symptom of climate change but also another contributor to it.

Murdoch outlets have also blamed environmental advocates for the fires, accusing them of opposing fire-prevention techniques like “prescribed burning,” the setting of small, controlled burns of underbrush to keep yearly bushfires from becoming too destructive.

Similar accusations surfaced during California’s 2018 wildfire season; then, as now, it was untrue. Environmental-advocacy organizations generally support prescribed burning. It’s possible that had more prescribed burning been done in Australia, this season’s fires wouldn’t have been as severe. But, ironically, the rising temperatures associated with climate change shortened the window in which prescribed burning was permitted.

Meanwhile, Australia’s leaders have done little to dispel confusion. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a long record of climate denialism and friendliness to the fossil-fuel industry. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and one of the world’s biggest per-capita emitters of the greenhouse gases known to contribute to global warming, accounting for 1.3 percent of global emissions. While Australia has committed to reducing emissions, its pledge  falls short of the Paris Agreement target. At December’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, Australia derailed talks on carbon trading; also in December, a group of climate-change think tanks labeled Morrison’s government “an increasingly regressive force” in global efforts to combat warming. Morrison has ignored requests for meetings by fire chiefs to discuss their concern about fire preparedness; he even explored the possibility of outlawing climate-related demonstrations on the basis that such activism would harm the economy.

As their country burns, tens of thousands of Australians have taken to the streets to protest the government’s response and its inaction in combating global warming. So far, Australia’s fires have released more than 400 million metric tons of emissions, three-quarters of the nation’s annual total from all other sources—and more than the combined annual total of the 116 lowest-emitting countries. The fires are thus not only a symptom of climate change but also another contributor to it.

Published in the February 2020 issue: 

Regina Munch is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

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