If you follow the news, whether on social media, in newspapers, or otherwise, chances are you have heard of the bush fires that have ravaged 24.7 million acres of Australia. Amid this crisis, the truth seems obscured by the smoky haze of rumors. But what is the truth about the disaster, and what is the government doing to resolve the conflict?
Let’s Start at the Beginning.
How did these fires start? Like areas of the US can have a rainy season or a dry season, Australia has a “fire season”- a season during the arid Australian summer in which the Australian bush is extremely vulnerable to fires. Lightning striking in drought ridden areas begins fires that blaze from anywhere between a few days to a few months. However, according to the BBC, some 31,000 fires are started by arson or are suspected of arson every year. These crimes have been linked to mental instability, revenge, or other dubious motives.
Is Climate Change to Blame?
While the increasing global temperatures did not literally start fires, the stress on Earth’s climate has certainly made such fires more common and dramatic. Increased global temperatures have made summers longer and hotter, thus increasing the risk and severity of the fires.
Australia's temperature has increased about one degree celsius. And while that change may not appear significant, that increase means that extremely severe events will occur more frequently(“Is Climate Change…”). And, as noted by Professor Glenda Wardle, an ecologist from the University of Sydney, “it's not every weather event that is the direct result of climate change. But when you see trends... it becomes undeniably linked to global climate change"(“Is Climate Change…”).
What is the impact of the fires?
As of early January, the fires have cost 26 human lives. In addition to this tragedy, entire species have been threatened as a result. Not only have the poster children of Australia's wildlife like koala bears been killed (up to 25,000 koala bears is the current estimation), but hundreds of thousands of insect species are severely threatened. While grasshoppers and velvet worms don’t garner as much sympathy for their looks, the 250,000 insect species on the continent are vital to Australia's ecosystems. As a “megadiverse” country, the death of so many species is especially concerning biodiversity experts.
What is the Government’s response?
Many citizens of Australia have criticized the Prime Minister for his lack of commitment to the protection of rural communities and lack of support to the people. PM Scott Morrison has been called out for taking a holiday to Hawaii during the crisis, as well as down playing the effects of climate change (Savage). However, his administration has also pledged compensation to volunteer firefighters who have missed work due to the fires, and asserted that Australia will meet its climate commitments to reduce its emissions by 26-28% by 2030. Whether or not the world’s third largest exporter of carbon dioxide containing fuel (Bloomberg) will keep its word, only time will tell.
What can be done?
With many oceans and continents in between Norwell and Australia, it is all too easy to feel removed from the crisis. Often the most empowering thing to do when faced with issues of this magnitude is to take action, however small. Anything that we citizens can do to lessen our own carbon emissions will help reduce the overall release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Check out this list for more helpful ways to reduce your waste and carbon emissions. For readers who have any interest in donating to relief efforts in Australia, visit this New York Times article for more information.