A world on fire: Will we respond?

Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

By Peter Schlosser, Clea Edwards, Steven Beschloss, Nina Berman and Upmanu Lall

The images look like a war zone: deep red skies, families and wildlife fleeing to the sea, warship rescues, children with makeshift face masks, incinerated bodies of animals unable to escape — death and destruction. Australia is still burning, representing a new level of natural catastrophe. Will this be the calamity that propels organized international action, diverting us from what The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman described as “barreling down the road to hell”? If not, what can we say about whether the human species can and will control its fate?

Jason Edwards/Australian Associated Press, via Reuters

There have been devastating and heartbreaking wildfires in other parts of the world. In 2019 alone, wildfires caused severe damage in California, in Brazil, and even in Alaska and Scandinavia. The infernos in Australia tragically exemplify that wildfires are occurring at an increasing frequency and with higher intensity worldwide. The emerging facts on Australia are staggering: more than 20 million acres are decimated, roughly one third of the size of Germany; at least 33 individuals have died, and over 2,500 homes have been lost; and, almost incomprehensibly, an estimated 1.25 billion animals, including one-third of the total population of koalas, have been killed — many of them burnt alive.

The relationship between human activities and life-supporting systems seems to be entering a new phase, giving the impression that we are provoking the wrath of nature. One need not “believe in climate change” to acknowledge that the enormity of the social and ecological tragedy unfolding is unusual (though some media outlets have tried to distract with disinformation of rampant arson). Consider: The smoke from Australia traveled 7,000 miles to South America and high into the stratosphere with unknown long-term effects. Ash blown across the Tasman Sea from the fires more than 2,000 miles away, transformed the color of New Zealand’s glaciers from a sun-reflecting white, to a heat-absorbing gray. Such wretched and persistent air pollution — and the additional CO2 — threatens the long-term well-being of humans and wildlife.

GEOS FP/NASA GSFC

Perhaps one outcome of this horrendous, ongoing tragedy is a growing recognition of our shared humanity and our shared life support systems. Just as humans are not separate from one another, we must recognize that we are not separate from our environment, and our environments are not defined by nation-state borders. The consequences of fires also cross national boundaries, just as viruses and droughts.

To be clear, the nature of these fires and their acceleration are, at least in part, attributable to human-induced climate change. The convergence of drought, high temperatures (in several cases, well outside of the norm), strong winds, as well as energy consumption and land use practices of past and present generations, have interacted to set the stage for the unprecedented fires. These increasingly unstable conditions are stunningly illustrated by fire tornadoes propelling balls of fire miles away and shooting flames higher than the famed Sydney Operahouse.

Controlled burns are one clear response to limit the severity of fires. Data from Western Australia show that areas with prescribed burns tend to have less wildfires. Unfortunately, Australia’s land management policies have become part of the climate denialists’ rhetorical arsenal, as critics blame environmental activism for insufficient brush reduction requirements. Yet, fires have spread mainly “across the crown or top part of the forest,” confirming that the issue is not insufficient brush reduction.

NASA

The fires must trigger action

Through activism, science, and collective action we have averted environmental disaster before, and need to do it again now. In the 1980s, the public grew increasingly alarmed and then outraged when they began to understand a large and growing hole in the earth’s atmosphere. While people couldn’t see it with their own eyes, they were able to grasp and visualize the sky’s gaping wound and a future without ozone protection. They could imagine children burned by the sun’s harshest rays.

In that case, there was a relatively straightforward substitute that industry could implement in place of CFCs: Aerosol hairspray bottles were thrown out, refrigerators were updated and, critically, global state and industry leaders came together to plan the phase out of ozone-depleting chemicals in short order (The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987). There are other significant examples science aligned with policy to address complex systems problems, including the U.S. Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. In both of these cases, policymakers acted even though there was no ready solution.

Despite increasing visibility of climate-related tragedy across the world and impressive and rapid emergence of activism, the recent international climate summit featured inaction and even obstinacy on the part of leaders of some of the world’s worst polluters (namely, the US, China, Russia, India, Brazil, Saudia Arabia, and Australia). The intensifying nationalist mindset characterizing the leaderships of these countries represents a major impediment to finding global solutions. Resentment of Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been palpable, chronicled in social and national media during his visits to displaced communities. Fueling the displeasure: Morrison’s mocking the effects of extracting and burning fossil fuels by bringing a chunk of coal into Parliament.

Nonetheless, there is reason for hope. On Friday, January 10, 2020, thousands of Australians took to the streets in protest of their government’s failed leadership on the climate crisis. Two days later Morrison was motivated to acknowledge that “we must take action on climate change.” He even promised that Australia will reduce emissions “even further” than the targets laid out by the Paris Agreement.

We must hope that the shocking and increasing extremes finally motivate collective action. Will it be the photos of frightened children standing at the water’s edge in a plume of dark smoke? Will it be the stories of a volunteer firefighter and dad-to-be who lost his life when his truck was whipped into a fire storm and flipped? Will it be the screams of millions of animals unable to escape the fires? It is the responsibility of all of us — Australian or not — to take this staggering moment to work for change on a global scale.

This Article was co-written by the following authors:

Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost for Global Futures Laboratory and director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University
Clea Edwards, research scientist, Global Futures Laboratory, Arizona State University
Steven Beschloss, senior director for narrative development, Arizona State University
Nina Berman, director and professor, School of International Letters and Cultures, Arizona State University
Upmanu Lall, Alan & Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering and director of the Columbia Water Center, Columbia University

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