Australia’s Vast Wildfires Foretold in 2007 UN Climate Warning
The country’s plight has put a global focus on the connection between fossil fuels and climate change.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Do you believe in prophecy? More than a dozen years ago, in a report released in July 2007, it was written: “An increase in fire danger in Australia is likely to be associated with a reduced interval between fires, increased fire intensity, a decrease in fire extinguishments and faster fire spread. … In south-east Australia, the frequency of very high and extreme fire danger days is likely to rise 4-25% by 2020.” That forecast of a potential effect of the proliferation of greenhouse gases around the world comes about midway through 976 dense pages of scientific citations and assessments by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Given the countless other statistics and prognoses, you might be excused for overlooking the prediction when it was made.
It’s impossible to ignore what’s happening in Australia today: Bush fires have charred a combined area twice the size of Switzerland and are continuing to burn. The catastrophe is of Biblical proportions—the chariot of fire that swept Elijah into heaven returning to wreak hellish havoc on Earth. But it’s not sufficient to cite Scripture or science. The scale of Australia’s agony is beyond celestial or cerebral; it is human.
On Dec. 30, Samuel McPaul, a volunteer firefighter, was battling an inferno in southeastern Australia. The blaze was so large it generated its own weather system, a pyro-convective column thousands of feet high that caused cyclonic winds when it collapsed. McPaul was in a 10-ton firetruck. The storm flipped it over and killed him. The 28-year-old would have become a father in May.
On New Year’s Eve in Malua Bay, about four hours south of Sydney, Dan Gocher, his two teenagers, and their friend sheltered on the coastal town’s crescent-shaped beach with perhaps a thousand other people as fire raced in. “We had wet tea towels wrapped around our faces, tried to sit under larger towels—wearing them like a cowboy—and put sunglasses on as the smoke began to sting,” says Gocher, 41, the director of climate and environment at the advocacy group Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility. “We were basically as close to the water as you could go. And it wasn’t just people, there were horses, dogs, cats, rabbits. You name it, people were taking the pets that they loved with them.”
Australians have long lived with the threat of bush fires and have borrowed from indigenous practices to reduce risks through controlled burns during the cooler winter months. But with drought and heat exacerbating tinderbox conditions, fires broke out as early as July. By September, lightning strikes led to out-of-control blazes in remote areas of New South Wales. In early November the state’s Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, warned of an extremely dangerous fire season. On Nov. 11, Sydney was placed under a “catastrophic” fire danger rating for the first time since the warning system was introduced in 2009. Air quality has plunged in the usually pristine city, and choking smoke wafting in from surrounding bush fires blanketed the metropolis for several days in December.
The crisis has built since then. More than a hundred fires are still burning in New South Wales alone, and the Southern Hemisphere summer is barely under way. The devastation will mount as more fires start. “We can’t stop those fires,” Rob Rogers, the deputy commissioner of the state’s largely volunteer Rural Fire Service, said on Jan. 3. “We can’t stop the fires we already have.” The toll and cost are rising: at least 25 people killed, 25 million acres burned, the colossal estimate of more than 1 billion animals dead. The world has collectively gasped at photographs of Australia’s emblematic fauna—kangaroos and koalas—incinerated or asphyxiated.
The fires come as the country is polarized by the debate over global warming. With Canberra, the country’s capital, shrouded in smoke, the government has downplayed the link between the fires and climate change. Indeed, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who advocates expanding the coal industry, Australia’s second-biggest export earner last year, cautioned against a knee-jerk response that further curbs carbon emissions at the expense of jobs and growth.
The emergency has put Morrison—only eight months ago lauded as a conservative hero for winning a come-from-behind election victory—on the defensive. The prime minister cut short his Hawaii vacation after two firefighters were killed on Dec. 19 as they battled to contain the Green Wattle Creek blaze, which has consumed 677,000 acres southwest of Sydney. While touring a ravaged community on Jan. 2, he was heckled by locals and filmed turning his back on a pregnant woman appealing for more resources. “People are angry,” Morrison, 51, said in a radio interview a day later. “I understand the emotion, I understand the hurt, the anger, the frustration.”
He’s called up 3,000 army reservists and committed A$2 billion ($1.4 billion) over two years to assist recovery efforts. But he’s not bowing to demands from environmentalists for more concerted action against climate change. Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal in Parliament in a show of support for the industry, argues that Australia is responsible for only 1.3% of global emissions and is on track to meet its Paris accord commitments. Australia has committed to reducing its CO₂ emissions by at least 26% from 2005 levels by 2030. “Any suggestion that the actions of any state or any nation with a contribution to global emissions of that order is directly linked to any weather event, whether here in Australia or anywhere else in the world, is just simply not true,” he said on Dec. 12.
Critics counter by saying that Australia’s contribution to carbon emissions should include the massive amounts loosed into the atmosphere from the coal it exports to India, China, and other countries. The Australia Institute, a public policy think tank, says the nation is the world’s third-biggest exporter of potential carbon dioxide emissions locked in fossil fuels, behind oil giants Russia and Saudi Arabia. As it is, the current bush fires—which dwarf recent disasters in California, Siberia, and Brazil—have so far pumped out more than half of Australia’s total greenhouse gas footprint last year. Smoke and ash have drifted 1,400 miles across the sea to New Zealand, staining its glaciers.
The fires have contributed one dramatic thing to the debate that scientific arguments and reams of statistics and documents couldn’t. They stand as the most emotional and visible evidence of the impact of a harsher climate. Scientists have toiled on research for decades, but they could never provide a real-life feel for just how bad the exacerbating effects of higher temperatures might make things. In its August 2019 report, the UN’s IPCC reiterated that the global fire-weather season grew almost 20% longer from 1979 to 2013. But only a continent aflame well before the peak of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer could illustrate the reality. That and headlines like “Number of Animals Feared Dead in Australia’s Wildfires Soars to Over 1 Billion.”
The driest inhabited continent experienced its highest temperatures and least amount of rainfall on record in 2019. Over the Christmas and New Year period—the height of the summer holiday season—states of emergency were declared throughout the country’s southeast as strong winds and temperatures above 45C (113F) created conditions ideal for fire.
“We must expect to see more devastating droughts and fires like the ones we have seen in Australia, California, and the Mediterranean in recent years,” says Matthew Jones, a senior research associate at the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences in the U.K. “The impacts on the lives and livelihoods of residents and wildlife make for truly painful viewing, but sadly these scenes are set to become increasingly familiar.”
“Bad” can be motivating, though, and catastrophes can help people viscerally understand the arguments. What the fires may be doing—as hurricanes, heat waves, floods, and droughts have done before them—is demonstrating that humanity is caught in what may be the mother of all dilemmas: We continue to use fossil fuels for 85% of total energy consumption, but that has increased global heating by 1C. All the tools and technology needed to solve the problem are in hand. The fires are another compelling reason to use them.
For now, the near-term economic cost is mounting. The toxic smoke shrouding Canberra has shuttered businesses and government departments and forced the national carrier Qantas Airways Ltd. to cancel flights. So far, almost 9,000 insurance claims have been filed. These already total A$700 million and will inevitably rise. The country can’t quite bill itself as a travel destination. Tourism Australia—the government agency in charge of promoting the industry—has pulled a campaign featuring Kylie Minogue that showcased Sydney’s azure blue skies and picturesque bush country. The direct impact on the economy from the fires will be A$2 billion to A$3.5 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, stemming from factors such as lower tourism spending and lost agricultural production, says Terry Rawnsley, an economist at consulting firm SGS Economics & Planning.
Harder to quantify is the emotional impact on Australians. Everyone has stories of anxiety about health. Rawnsley estimates smoke haze in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra will cost an additional A$200 million to A$800 million as people reduce outdoor activities and get sick. If the fires linger and cause more damage, Australians may even have to recalibrate their identity: Their huge expanse of the world—once unspoilt, then a penal colony, then a resource-rich refuge from the cuts and thrusts of the world—may ultimately become a parable of paradise lost. “It is deeply devastating. My whole country is on fire,” says Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a researcher at the Climate Change Research Centre in Sydney. “My children are going to grow up in a world where this is relatively normal, and that is extremely depressing and disturbing to think about. In terms of events like this, we are the canary in the coal mine.” —With Eric Roston, Emily Cadman, and David Stringer
Read more: How Climate Change Primed Chileans for an Uprising
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