Climate News

Bushfires Ravaging Australia a Wake-Up Call for Climate Action

Photo: Rob Russel

Australia has been devastated over the last several weeks by unprecedented bushfires that have burned over 4.9 million hectares of land, an area larger than Denmark. The fires have led to the deaths of at least 25 people and likely over a billion animals, with fears that entire species may have been wiped off the earth. The damage is far from over. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned that the fires may continue to burn for months.

“What we are seeing is what the globe will look like under runaway climate change,” said Oliver Toohey, Climate Campaign Analyst at Climate Action Network Australia. “I hope this is a wake-up call for the global community, chiefly the developed community, to increase ambition and increase climate finance going forward so that countries can adapt and mitigate.”

Virginia Young, Director of Climate and Forests with the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society, whose home in the small coastal village of South Durras is being threatened by the fires, reflected on the devastation:

“I suspect for the first time many people understand what climate change really means,” said Young, speaking to La Ruta del Clima.  “If there’s one clear demonstration from Australia, it’s that 1.1°C is too much. 1.5°C would be really difficult to correct and 2°C would be an utter catastrophe.”

The bushfires are an ominous sign of the pain and suffering the climate crisis will bring in the coming years. The disastrous situation unfolding in Australia is also an indictment of the Morrison administration’s pro-coal agenda and the failure of the international community to lower greenhouse gas emissions to avert this catastrophe. 

The climate crisis is here

The bushfires are linked to an unusually strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole event, with warmer than average waters in the Western Indian Ocean and cooler waters in the Eastern Indian Ocean region. This has led to increased rainfall and flooding in parts of Eastern Africa and droughts in Australia and Southeast Asia.

Australia is also highly vulnerable to the threat of climate change, with its climate expected to get even hotter and drier in the coming years.   It has suffered three years of drought and a record average temperature of 107 degrees. Extreme weather conditions have helped intensify the fires, “supercharging”  the Indian Ocean Dipole.

The coastal beach village of South Durras, where Virginia Young resides, is currently threatened by the wildfires. Photo: Jo Elphick

The connection between climate change and the bushfires shows the catastrophic effect that global warming is already having, with average global temperatures having risen just 1.1°C since pre-industrial times.

A tone-deaf administration

Australia’s government has been under attack domestically and internationally for its anti-climate agenda, as well as its handling of the fires.  Morrison has proven to be an incompetent leader as his government is engulfed by its biggest crisis yet.    

While Morrison has given lip service to meeting Australia’s climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, he has pushed a pro-fossil fuel agenda as Prime Minister. Australia played a major role in derailing December’s UN climate talks in Madrid, helping to block progress on key issues, such as international carbon markets and loss and damage. Morrison has further enraged the public by downplaying the role of climate change in the bushfires.  

“There is increasing anger in the Australian community about our government’s ineptness on climate change and a broader failure to understand just what this is going to mean to the Australian economy,” said Young, as the cost of these fires is set to be in the billions of dollars.

The current administration has also proven to be ill-equipped to handle the bushfires.  Back in April, Morrison refused to meet with nearly two dozen former fire and emergency leaders, who tried to warn Morrison of the dangers of the upcoming fire season and the need for more water-bombers to adequately address the risks. The government was slow to properly compensate volunteer firefighters, who are risking their lives and taking time away from their work and families to protect their communities. And Morrison was criticized for taking a family holiday vacation to Hawaii in the middle of the crisis.

“In particular, people who have been affected by the fires are very angry that, first of all, the government has been downplaying it.  Secondly, they were slow to respond and, thirdly, they have been pretending that they were onto it all along,” said Rod Mitchell, National Chair for Citizens’ Climate Lobby Australia.

A rallying call for climate action

More than 60 percent of Australians believe that global warming is a “serious and pressing problem” and that steps should be taken now to address the issue. But the re-election of  Morrison’s coalition last year, in what was supposed to be the climate change election, shows that many Australians continue to turn a blind eye to the problem.  However, growing frustration over Morrison’s handling of the current crisis and inaction on climate change could mobilize a disillusioned electorate.

I think these fires are going to motivate a concerned climate change public,” said Toohey. ”Hopefully that’s what the silver lining that will come out of this disaster will be.“

Categories: Climate News

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