The new reality: this is Australia at 1°C warming
The disaster unfolding in Australia has so far destroyed an area almost three times the size of Belgium and killed a billion animals or more.
While I hear from family and friends in Europe and the US that the bushfires in Australia have gained some attention internationally, the press coverage doesn’t show the catastrophic extent of what’s actually happening here. Disturbingly, it seems that especially in the US, main stream media fails to connect these fires to climate change.
So, to give you all a better picture of what’s been happening here, I quickly compiled this article with facts, figures, links, tweets and imagery, gathered from a wide range of media sources. Be warned, if you’re feeling anxious and depressed about our ecological crisis already, you may want to stop reading here.
(I wrote this on the eve of Jan 5th 2020. As these fires continue to burn — possibly for months — many of the numbers below will most likely be out-of-date soon.)
Bushfires are not unusual in Australia. What makes these current bushfires unprecedented is the scale and intensity. There are hundreds of fires burning out of control around the country right now, but the largest and most dangerous ones are in the country’s south east.
As these fires continue to rage, the area of destruction is growing quickly. Recently updated numbers speak of an area of 8.4 million hectares (20.7 million acres) which is almost three times the size of Belgium (~3 million hectares) or the entire state of South Carolina. (For comparison, the devastating 2018 fires in California burnt 760,000 hectares/1.8 million acres.)
Some comparison images to give you a sense of scale:
Here’s an excellent map by Reuters showing where these fires are burning (showing the south east coast of Australia only).
And don’t miss this scale visualisation, also by Reuters, to give you an even better sense of the sheer size of this.
Due to changing climate patterns, large parts of Australia have not seen proper rain for several years. Areas the size of small countries have turned into tinderboxes. With recent extreme heatwaves and strong winds, small fires quickly spread and have now become so intense and widespread that they are creating their own weather systems, including dry lighting storms and fire tornadoes.
This video shows how impossible it is to contain these fires — and how mindbogglingly ferocious and fast they are:
So far, these bushfires are believed to have spewed as much as two-thirds of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions in just the past three months, with experts warning forests may take more than 100 years to absorb what’s been released so far this season.
Further north in Australia, so-called ‘permanently wet forests’ have begun to burn for the first time. Ever.
Imagine what Australia’s indigenous people must be going through, seeing their land go up in flames due to decades of abuse and mismanagement by colonial intruders.
Last Saturday the town of Penrith near Sydney recorded a temperature of 48.9°C (120.02°F). That day, the top ten highest temperatures recorded globally were all in Australia.
Meanwhile, our country’s capital Canberra choked in haze during their own record temperatures. Air quality index readings above 200 are considered hazardous. Last Wednesday, readings in Canberra peaked at 7,700.
The smoke and ash has even made its way to New Zealand, 2000km (1250 miles) away, and is turning their glaciers brown, potentially accelerating the melting effect already caused by climate change.
If you’re on Twitter, you may have seen imagery and video footage being shared. It’s a depressing live-stream of the apocalyptic realities some of these communities are going through right now.
Residents of costal towns escaped to beaches as the fires closed in on them. Australia’s defence force is now assisting emergency services in helping evacuate people from these towns by boat.
One of the most terrifying videos, burnt into my memory, is this crew of fire fighters racing through an incoming fire front:
There are no words to describe the collective gratitude and respect Australians feel for these (mostly volunteer-based) fire fighters. True heroes.
Over a billion animals dead
Speaking of animals: a conservative estimate from several days ago put the number of animals killed to be at around 480 million. Yes, that’s half a billion dead animals, so far. (Update: new figures speak of over a billion dead animals.)
In just one fire on Kangaroo Island, 25,000 koalas are feared to have died, half of the island’s estimated population, meaning the species as a whole is now much more endangered than it was a few weeks ago.
One animal recovery expert said the fires across Australia had been a “holocaust of destruction” for wildlife. “There’s almost no considerable habitat remaining for many species. That leads to local extinction events.”
Near the town of Mallacoota bird carcasses — perhaps in their thousands — have washed up on beaches (graphic content warning!).
The animals that survived will struggle to find food, water, and shelter in a charred landscape.
Millions more animals are traumatised. This magpie — an iconic Australian bird — has started to imitate the siren of fire trucks:
It is believed that some animal species have now been pushed to the brink of extinction. The full extent of death and destruction and how it will effect Australia’s unique ecosystem and biodiversity in these parts of the country will not be known for quite some time.
This is Australia at 1°C warming.
We’re currently on track for 3–4°C warming.
Our government is failing us (and you)
Australia’s current government is a mob of conservative, climate change-denying, fossil fuel-funded populists who have fought hard to not just block global action on climate change, but push for more coal and gas extraction.
While much of the world is turning their back on fossil fuels, the Australian government recently helped approve the planned construction of the so-called Carchmichael coal mine (Adani), which will be the largest coal mine in Australia and one of the largest in the world. It’s likely to also set a precedent for other mines to be opened in the same area. But that’s not all, the government is actively pursuing new oil and gas extraction projects in many locations around the country, including oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight, one of the most stunning marine environments in the world.
Australia recently scored 57th of 57 countries on climate action, largely because it exports huge amounts of coal to other countries. Why? Jobs and money, of course. Even as Australia burns, the government is reaffirming its commitment to coal and waging a war on climate activists. (A great, current opinion piece on the Australian government by the New York Times here.)
How can they be in power, you ask? Well, in large part because the Murdoch press — which controls some of Australia’s biggest news outlets — continues to spread misinformation and lies about the urgency of climate action. (In case you don’t know, Murdoch owns News Corp, the company behind ‘respectable’ news outlets such as Fox News and the UK’s The Sun.) So yeah, we have our own facts-twisting, deceiving version of Fox News here in Australia that hoodwinks many Australians into believing climate change isn’t a big deal and that they have to choose between a job and a future.
(Anyone interested in how pervasive and unashamedly obvious the influence of fossil fuel money is in Australian politics should watch this mini documentary. It really is just mind-boggling.)
It’s climate change, stupid!
Conservative politicians and the Murdoch press continue to normalise what’s happening by telling us that ‘bushfires have always been part of Australia’ and that ‘no single weather event can be directly linked to climate change’. And while that is factually correct, there is not a shred of doubt in the minds of respectable experts — whether they are fire fighters on the ground right now or scientists that studied the changing climate for decades — that the global heating-induced changes have made Australia hotter, droughts longer, rainfall less likely and winds more unpredictable. All of which are reasons why these fires have now reached such devastating, unprecedented scale.
Worse still, many experts, including the government’s own national science research agency and the Department of the Environment and Energy, have warned us that we’re headed towards a catastrophe. Voices our government continuously ignored.
An Australian climate scientist who is involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) writes a gut-wrenching assessment wondering whether ‘the Earth system has now breached a tipping point’: “As a climate scientist, the thing that really terrifies me is that weather conditions considered extreme by today’s standards will seem sedate in the future. What’s unfolding right now is really just a taste of the new normal.”
What to do?
There are numerous Australian charities and NGOs who can use your generous donations, and from what I can tell they are receiving an overwhelming amount of support. In my opinion, the best way international folks can help is to focus on climate change action within their own country:
- Call or write to your local and federal government representative: tell them that you are tired of their stalling and that you want them to take radical, unprecedented action against climate change NOW
- Donate to international and local climate change action groups and wildlife preservation organisations: I’m trying to compile a list of those companies for each country here. Please contribute!
- Attend local protests: Friday for Futures, 350.org, and Extinction Rebellion are holding regular protests. There are probably other, local groups taking to the streets and to government offices. Join them!
- Hold the media to account: call out journalists and news outlets that are not making the connection between extreme weather events and climate change!
- Demand change at your workplace: organise within your company to ask leadership to enact strong climate change and environmental policies. The time for business as usual is over!
- Talk about climate change: don’t shy away from talking to your friends and family about the urgent need to act on climate change. In our attention-deprived world, we need to keep this issue top-of-mind to build up enough momentum for change.