Happy New Year! This is not a writing post. It is another rant about some of the things I thought about whilst enjoying a beautiful evening in a bushland setting on the Yarra River on new year’s eve. Feel free to turn away, normal writing programming will resume next week.
I had mixed feelings about celebrating new year’s eve when catastrophic bushfires were raging across the country destroying some of Australia’s most precious bushland, decimating wildlife populations and ravaging human communities in their path. Despite the valiant efforts of underfunded volunteer fire fighters, Australia’s east coast has been burning since September 2019. Many of the fires remain out of control and will likely continue that way throughout the summer unless significant rain falls on the fire grounds.
Canberra was rated to have the worst air quality in the world on Wednesday due to smoke, killing one elderly woman on Thursday. Meanwhile Scotty from Marketing (aka PM Scott Morrison) kept up his ‘nothing new to see here’ stance over champagne at Kirribilli house and entertaining the Australian and New Zealand cricket teams. On Thursday he delivered a press conference, and was on the back foot.
Of course Scotty from Marketing’s claims that climate change doesn’t cause bushfires, and Australia has always had droughts are technically correct, but incomplete and misleading. Suggesting the best way to respond to natural disasters is by ‘doing what we’ve always done’ sounds like a commitment to kick back and allow the problem to perpetuate. And saying Australia cutting emissions will make no difference globally is shirking responsibility. I bet he’s thanking his lucky stars that the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide released by the current fires don’t count toward the countries emissions footprint or he’d have to do a lot more creative accounting than he is already to meet our Paris targets..
Climate variability does influence fire and the changes we are experiencing will make fire management more complicated because it alters ecosystems function. Fire is a physiochemical process that can be represented by a simple equation: fuel + oxygen + heat. Remove one from the equation and fire cannot take hold, turn up the volume of the elements and the frequency and intensity of bushfires increases.
Climate change contributes to creating the perfect weather conditions for dangerous bushfires. CO2 concentration impacts the amount and composition of fuel loads because it alters the growth rate of plants, and thus the frequency and intensity of fires when they occur. Increased and more extreme temperatures reduce humidity and moisture content, compounding drought conditions caused by diminished rainfall. Drier conditions bring vegetation closer to its ignition point and ensures it burns hotter and faster once ignited. Extended drought reduces fires intervals and the wild winds caused by changes in air pressure create perfect conditions to drive wildfires to their most dangerous conflations. Wildfires themselves then contribute to perpetuating climate change because they release a lot of greenhouse gas.
We are fast heading toward a new normal of longer, hotter, drier fire seasons and more intense fires. In Gippsland, rainforest that has never burnt are being engulfed. It’s likely that some plant and animal species may not recover because available habitats for some organisms will be diminished and shorter fire intervals may not allow time for even fire adapted plant species to mature. The result could be local extinctions due to an absence of seeds.
Contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth…reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.Darwin, The Origin of Species
We do not survive in isolation from our environment. We are like the frog, who when placed in a pan of tepid water that is slowly bought to boil, does not perceive the danger of its situation, does not attempt to jump out and gets cooked. We are blind to our own growing vulnerability. Despite the scientific evidence, the Australian government has no credible policies to address climate change – either to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution and transition to clean energy, or to invest in disaster management and adaptation to build resilience to cope with the new normal. Thoughts and prayers and patience will not solve this wicked problem and I suspect history will reflect poorly on many of the current world leaders.
In the absence of political leadership we place our hopes in the likes of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg to remind us of our collective failings and inspire action by uniting young and old to tackle contemporary environmental issue. Scott called for patience on Thursday, but it’s time to stop being patient and force the hand of the global political elite who prefer denial and maintenance of their ties with fossil fuel industries to carefully considered policies to a more sustainable way of living. My hope is that this bushfire season will spur more citizens into action. That we demand our governments take climate change seriously, start to think long term about minimising our contribution to emissions and begin to make the structural adjustments we need to build climate resilient communities.
Images: contemplating all that could be lost