Summer of Hell

By: Andy Walsh

It has been a summer of hell for much of southeast Australia, with the ongoing bushfire crisis ravaging forests, farmland and towns. Thus far, more than 180,000 square kilometres – that is almost the size of Guatemala and Panama put together – have been burned. More than 30 people have died, billions of animals are thought to have perished, and more than 2000 homes have been lost. It is a natural disaster on a scale unseen in modern Australia before this, and the land touched by these fires could take decades to recover.

Fire on the hills to the north of Lithgow (New South Wales). Picture by Lithgowlights, Wikimedia Commons.

What are the causes of the bushfires?

Much in the international media has been made of the causes of these bushfires, which have been burning since last September and feared to continue burning for at least several months to come. There is no denying that arson has been a factor. Police in New South Wales (NSW) have charged more than two dozen people with deliberately lighting bushfires, a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison under Australian law, or 25 years if the fire harms another life.

Even prominent Australian businessperson Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest (who has since donated A$70 million to recovery efforts) and politicians have stated on record that arson has been a prominent cause. A British Foreign Office minister said 75% of fires in Australia were deliberately lit – a widely misleading and repeated statistic. Nevertheless, these bold statements from prominent public figures have clouded the real reasons behind the majority of the fires – environmental causes.

Prolonged drought, severe heat, and lightning strikes have all contributed to the fires starting. The Australian weather bureau said 2019 was Australia’s warmest and driest year on record. The evidence points to a warming climate – but climate change is a contentious topic in Australia. Climate Council is an Australian independent non-profit organization formed to provide independent, authoritative climate change information to the Australian public.It leaves no doubt as to its position on a changing climate and this catastrophic fire season.

“Firstly, let’s get one thing clear: Climate change is influencing bushfire seasons in Australia.” “The nature of bushfires in Australia is changing: climate change is driving an increase in extreme fire weather, and making fire seasons longer, across Australia.” Climate change sceptics may deny the link but the Australian Government at least acknowledges the impact of climatic change. The opposition party, however, says the Government is “refusing to act” on the issue.

What can be done to combat climate change?

Australia, as with 187 other countries, is party to the Paris Agreement, signed in 2016 to limit the levels of carbon emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere. The Australian Government at the time committed to reduce the country’s emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, but last year the United Nations (UN) found Australia was not on track to meet its target. Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a speech to the UN in September last year this was not the case. “Australia is taking real action on climate change and getting results,” he said.

“We are successfully balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical policies to secure our environmental and economic future. Australia’s internal and global critics on climate change willingly overlook or ignore our achievements, as the facts simply do not fit the narrative they wish to project about our contribution. Australia is responsible for just 1.3% of global emissions. Australia is doing our bit on climate change and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.”

Australia is one of the biggest producers of coal – which has much higher carbon emissions than other fuel sources – and cutting its production is crucial to limiting rising global temperatures. However, the Australian Government is reluctant to do so because of its role in the country’s economy. Climate Council is one of many organizations urging the Government to rapidly phase out the burning of coal, oil and gas to prevent unprecedented fire seasons becoming normal.

Hidden emergencies

Mass stories of grief and hardship from those losing family members or their houses have been dominating the international media landscape since the bushfire crisis began, but these stories have also masked hidden emergencies. In November 19-year-old Courtney Partridge McLennan from Glen Innes, NSW, was found dead in her bedroom following what was believed to be an asthma attack.

Her parents attribute this to the breathing in of smoke from fires burning just outside of town. Other people have also suffered, and Asthma Australia, the country’s peak consumer asthma body, has been stressing the dangers of bushfire smoke exposure to the public, governments and media throughout the crisis. The thick, black smoke has engulfed towns and even entire cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, both with populations hovering around four million people. Health authorities say this could cause ongoing respiratory problems for some people for years to come.

In early February, the NSW government established an enquiry “into the health impacts of exposure to poor air quality resulting from bushfires and drought”.

Many Indigenous Australians are also reeling at the loss of traditional land because of the bushfires. Aunty Gloria, a Walbunja elder, chose to stay in a tent on her ancestral land near Mogo, NSW, rather than relocate to an emergency shelter following the loss of her house in January. When her story was heard, an anonymous donor gave her a caravan to live in on her land instead. Further north along the coast, a midden holding the stories of thousands of years of indigenous occupation was feared lost to the fires.

Koala on a tree after fires. Photo found on Pxfuel.

As well as people, the extent to which animals have been affected by the bushfires has been well documented. Pictures of koalas with singed fur clambering to firefighters for a drink of water have been splashed across international and social media, as have photos of countless dead kangaroos lining roads having been caught in the fires. These images have justly brought in significant donations – WIRES, a wildlife rescue group, has raised more than A$10 million alone, and it is just one of many charities helping the recovery of wildlife.

But the long-term effects of this devastation could be worse than first thought, with some animal species at risk of extinction because of habitat loss. The Kangaroo Island dunnart (a small marsupial), long-footed potaroo (mammal), and the glossy black cockatoo have all been pushed to the brink, and will struggle to repopulate. It will be a profound loss for the Australian environment should these and up to 50 other species listed as critically endangered in the worst affected regions disappear in decades to come.

At a financial level, the bushfire crisis has brought out both the best and worst in people. Whilst billions of dollars have been raised from individuals, companies, sporting events, music concerts, and other organizations, some opportunists have also used the crisis to set up fake donation pages to play on the generosity of unknowing sympathizers. Less than a day after father and son Robert and Patrick Salway died in the fires at Cobargo, NSW, in December, a Go Get Funding page was set up with the aim of raising money for a funeral. Almost A$4000 was raised before devastated relatives learned of the scam and it was shut down.

This is not an outlier – several other pages have been set up in the name of victims who perished in the fires, only for family and friends to raise the alarm that the pages were fake. It seems unfathomable that people could prey on the vulnerable like this when the result compounds the tragedy.

What is next?

Whilst these bushfires have ripped through large chunks of Australia recently, other parts have been lashed with rain and hailstorms that have caused severe damage to houses and other property. It has been almost Biblical. So…can this devastating impact on the environment being

reversed? Rod Downie of WWF UK says if carbon emissions continue to rise at current rates, we have about a decade before 1.5°C of global warming is inevitable and the impacts are irreversible. “We are the last generation that can stop devastating climate change.” “The world needs to be ‘net zero’ (greenhouse gas emissions) by 2050. This requires transformational change in energy, transport and food systems and the way we manage our land and oceans, combined with technology solutions to capture and store carbon.” These solutions will take time – we are just not sure how much time we have left.