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Large areas of Australia are being consumed by wildfires that have destroyed thousands of homes, killed 24 people and potentially as many as 480 million animals. At least 15 million acres have burned, more than in recent fires in California and Brazil combined.
While the fires are affecting the entire country, the most significant damage is in the southeastern state of New South Wales. Residents of some rural towns have been forced to flee to nearby beaches to escape advancing flames. So much smoke has entered the air, it’s creating its own weather systems and turning glaciers in New Zealand brown.
Dangerous wildfires are not new to Australia. In 2009, 173 people were killed as extreme conditions fueled hundreds of bush fires on a day now known locally as “Black Saturday.” Similar circumstances have fed the current fires. In recent weeks, Australia has seen unprecedented heat — including the country’s hottest day ever — along with powerful winds. These conditions have arisen as Australia faces its worst drought in decades.
Why there’s debate
The most commonly cited explanation for the severity of the fires is climate change. Due to the already extreme conditions found throughout its enormous landmass, Australia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. The effects aren’t limited to fires: Unprecedented floods forced mass evacuations in early 2019, and rising ocean temperatures have devastated the Great Barrier Reef.
Some of the factors fueling the fires are beyond Australia’s control. No one country is solely responsible for climate change. For its size, Australia has a relatively small population, which limits the manpower and financial resources it has to combat the fires. Unlike California and Brazil, where most fires are sparked by human activities, Australia's fires are believed to be started primarily by natural occurrences like lightning.
At the same time, the Australian government has been criticized for not taking the fires and the climate effects that fuel them seriously. Due to the country’s massive coal industry, Australians are among the worst polluters per capita in the world. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticized for saying that the fires do not justify a reduction in coal production.
Morrison has committed $1.4 billion in funds to help communities recover from the fires. Temperatures dropped slightly on Monday, offering firefighters a chance to make progress in their efforts to contain the blazes. The worst isn’t necessarily over, however. It is the middle of summer in Australia, which means fire season is still in full swing. “The fires are still burning. And they’ll be burning for months to come,” Morrison said.
Australia is experiencing the predictable results of climate change
“Take record heat, combine it with unprecedented drought in already dry regions and you get unprecedented bushfires like the ones engulfing the Blue Mountains and spreading across the continent. It’s not complicated. The warming of our planet — and the changes in climate associated with it — are due to the fossil fuels we’re burning.” — Michael Mann, Guardian
Australia is a window into the how climate change will affect other parts of the planet
“Australia serves as a microcosm of all the complicated ways that climate variables interact. Its weather this year also shows what other parts of the world may face as temperatures continue to rise.” — Umair Irfan, Vox
Australia feels the impacts of climate change more acutely than anywhere else
“Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.” — Richard Flanagan, New York Times
The fire threat has been underplayed because it historically doesn’t affect major coastal cities
“The most remarkable thing about this bushfire season is that people can see it, taste it and feel it. While fires have long been a product of the country’s hot, dry climate, they remained a remote idea for most Australians — something you caught for a few minutes on the evening news.” — Daniel Moss and Tim Culpan, Bloomberg
Australia has put economic growth over limiting carbon emissions
“For the past few decades, the arid and affluent country of 25 million has padded out its economy — otherwise dominated by sandy beaches and a bustling service sector — by selling coal to the world. … But now Australia is buckling under the conditions that its fossil fuels have helped bring about.” — Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic
Modern agriculture broke a balanced natural burn cycle
“Before colonization, fire was managed with cultural burning, sometimes called fire-stick farming, which prevented vegetation build-up, germinated seed pods and regenerated the trees and grasses that need fire to grow new shoots. … That changed after 1788. When the country was forcibly settled, large swaths of managed land were cleared to make way for livestock unsuited to an Australian environment.” — Jessica Friedmann, Globe and Mail
The country’s extreme environments are particularly vulnerable
“The magnetic physical beauty of Australia is based, literally, on its fragility. The continent lives very close to the fine line between supportable life and extinction. When you drive into the outback, as I have done, and into the endless flatness of red desert, and eventually come to a small road town, it’s evident that this outpost of life can have no physical roots: It sits directly and rudely on the earth’s crust.” — Clive Irving, Daily Beast
People have come to accept extreme natural events as just another part of life
“The duration of this climate horror has allowed us to normalize it even while it continues to unfold — continues to torture, and brutalize, and terrify.” — David Wallace-Wells, New York
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Kate Geraghty/The SMH/Fairfax Media via Getty Images