Australia is facing an unprecedented national crisis. Wildfires are raging across the country, specifically concentrated in New South Wales and Victoria. First responders are risking their lives, the government deployed thousands of military reservists, and firefighters are relying heavily on civilian volunteers, but nothing seems sufficient to control the flames. A number of factors contribute to the massive size and rapid spread of these fires, but all of them derive from one central issue: climate change. Climate change is an issue, which the Australian government, specifically Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has failed to deal with year after year. Now, with the effects of climate change raging across the country, public pressure on Morrison to recognize and combat the harms of climate change is at an all-time high.
It’s not surprising to see such massive social unrest given the scale of the issue. Estimates from Timeindicate the fires themselves would have consumed all of New Hampshire and Vermont if they were in the United States. That alone should be terrifying enough to spur a person into action, and the secondary effects are even worse. Reports claim the clouds of smoke and smog are large enough to cover the entirety of Europe. Even in towns furthest from the fires in Australia, the skies turn red and orange from smoke and embers. Additionally, the cloud of smoke is so large it has drifted across an ocean-spanning a thousand miles to turn the skies in New Zealand orange, the Washington Post reports. All of this is less surprising when facing up the size of the fires themself, which Australians have claimed to be 70 meters high, standing taller than the Sydney Opera house.
The size of the damage scales with the fires, as over 60,000 square miles of land have burned, as reported by CBS. Estimates of the costs of damage have just begun today, but the raw data recorded, as the fires are ongoing, are themselves terrifying. The fires have already destroyed around 2,000 homes have been destroyed, meaning 2,000 families displaced. Additionally, several hundred non-residential buildings were damaged, leaving the total number around 2,500. The fires have also damaged important cultural and historical sites, like the UNESCO world heritage site intended to protect the Gondwana rainforests of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. The heritage area contains the world’s largest subtropical rainforest in the world and has evidence of the earth’s evolutionary and biological processes.
Damage to the heritage site isn’t the only biological cost to the fires. A conservative estimate based on data that assumes only 3 million hectares lost, whereas some now estimate the loss to be between 4-6 million hectares burned, found that a little under half a billion animals have been killed or displaced. Professor Sarah Legge from the National Australian University claims that the fires put dozens of species on the brink of extinction. Even those that survive the fires are forced out of their habitats and made much more vulnerable to predators. The lives lost don’t stop there; official statements from the Australian government confirmed the fires have left at least 24 dead and 28 missings. On top of the lives lost, the smoke from the fires has driven the air quality so far down it now ranges from 10 to 20 times worse than the hazardous air quality limit, likely contributing to lung cancer and respiratory diseases and issues on a national scale.
The fires have reached this incredible level of threat for several reasons. First, the fires feed themselves once they reach a certain size. The smoke contributes to the creation of wind currents that make thunderstorms. The storms then create lightning, which in the dry conditions they occur can cause new fires to appear. Additionally, the fires aren’t just traditional forest fires. Australia’s unique landscape means many of the fires would be better characterized as bush fires, which, on average, spread much faster than a person can run or escape. That’s the reason the government has issued numerous warnings for people to evacuate long before fires get close. Otherwise, they are gambling their lives against a force of nature unheard of on this scale before.
These are just smaller causes that make the fires more threatening than the average forest fire; there are also broader structural factors at work. As evidence of the heating of the earth in accordance with the predicted impacts of climate change, Australia broke the record for hottest days twice in December of last year. Additionally, the capital of Canberra had its hottest day in 80 years. This heat contributes to drying out the soil and plant life, making it easier for the fires to start and spread, but there’s more a specific link between these fires and climate change than just “it’s getting hotter,” even though that doesn’t help.
That specific reason is the Indian Ocean dipole, which is an oscillation in sea-surface temperature between the eastern and western portions of the Indian Ocean. The west gets warmer temperatures and regular flooding and extreme storms, whereas the east, which are the waters that cover western Australia, are cooler, creating fewer storms and an ultimately drier climate. This drier climate also feeds the spread of fires. The difference between the western temperatures and the eastern in the dipole is at one of their most extreme this year, meaning Australia ends up extremely dry, according to the Scientific American. All of this is tied to climate change by a study from 2014 led by Wenju Cai, indicating climate change results in more extreme oscillations of temperatures within the dipole. Essentially, climate change feeds the extreme heat and dryness in Australia that allow for wildfires to grow.
The very fact the root cause of such massive wildfires is climate change proves that it should be at the center of the approach to resolving the issue. But, of course, politics gets in the way. The government has, until recently, failed to link climate change and the fires. Additionally, the government, in the long term, has been unable to deal with the issue of climate change in a satisfactory manner. This failure is because of the undue influence coal lobbyists have with the Australian government. Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter. It is an industry central to the country’s economy, and that makes its influence within the political sphere central as well. Coal lobbyists funded with massive amounts of wealth and large swaths of politicians move into coal lobbying when they retire, giving them an incentive to be less stringent with the companies during their time in office to gain favor with them.
Thus, climate change isn’t the issue that first needs to be addressed. Instead, dealing with the corruption that runs rampant within the Australian government could be a stepping-stone to dealing with the issue of climate change. Therefore the possibility of increased, stronger fires in the long term — placing restrictions on government officials’ ability to enter into or work with lobbying firms after retirement is essential. Once that is in place, the political climate will become much more open to the necessary changes to reduce emissions within the country, which will help to stop the risk of these fires claiming another life for the sake of making a quick buck.