For the last few months, my country has been on fire. An estimated 18.6 million hectares have been burnt, nearly 6,000 buildings destroyed, almost one billion animals were killed, and at least 29 people are dead.These bushfires are regarded by the NSW Rural Fire Service as the worst bushfire season in memory for that state.
Australia’s ravaged landscape has drawn the attention and sympathy of people from every corner on earth, with multi-million dollar donations pouring in to help those affected, as well as to support the brave men and women who are on the frontlines fighting the fires. For some, there is no clearer case for the effects of anthropogenic global warming than to simply take a glance at Australia; a country which is literally aflame.
As a result, the fires have sparked worldwide debate surrounding climate change — as well as Australia’s failure to address the issue. Primarily, the conversation has centered around Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has faced a tsunami of backlash after he was found to be on holiday in Hawaii as the fires began to worsen in December. Scott Morison also happens to be religious, and pretty quiet when it comes to his opinions on climate change. Needless to say, ScoMo (as he’s colloquially called) has served as the embodiment and personification of all climate denialism, with many seeing him as the spark which started Australia’s recent burning.
But is this hatred of Scomo warranted?
First, I’d like to offer a rendition of an old philosophical adage; If a tree burns in the forest and nobody is affected by it, did it still burn?
The correct answer is obviously yes, the tree still burnt — however, we may not see as many news articles or Facebook posts about it. This is precisely what happened in 1974.
While NSW firefighters suggest that this recent fire season is unprecedented, their sentiments aren’t supported by a simple google search. While this fire season burned through 46 million acres, the fire season in 1974 was nationally much larger — consuming 117 million hectares.
The only difference in the 1974 fires (aside from burning over 6x more land) was their remote location, which led to far fewer damaged buildings and injured people. While three people died in 1974, nearly thirty died in this recent fire season. In this light, the lack of attention paid to the 1974 fires makes sense.
However, this becomes a tad more confusing when one looks at the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983, in which 47 people died in Victoria alone, with a further 28 deaths in South Australia. This included 17 volunteer fire-fighters who died across both Victoria and New South Wales over the period. Furthermore, if one looks 26 years later, even the horrific Ash Wednesday fires are overshadowed by the Black Saturday fires, in which 173 people were killed.
Of course, I don’t want the conversation to be all about comparing fire sizes, but it must be said that this most recent bushfire season isn’t unprecedented, but rather the complete opposite. In fact, in 1770 the explorer James Cook once called Australia ‘This continent of smoke’ because of the frequent bushfires and aboriginal backburning practices he witnessed during his time here.
And yet, we’re told that this recent fire season is the “worst ever,” likely by firefighters who weren’t involved in fighting the 1983 fires or those in 1974. Climate advocates will tell you that these fires could have been prevented if only ScoMo had taken a stronger stance on anthropogenic global warming, or if he hadn’t have gone to Hawaii. Though if we zoom out of Australia and look at the global picture, we notice there isn’t a worsening trend.
According to this data by NASA, the global area of land burned has actually been steadily decreasing over the past decade, to the tune of a whopping 25 percent decrease in the area burned from 2003 to 2019. And this is despite the fact that the earth has more vegetation thanks to the fertilizer effect of Co2, which creates more potential fuel load for fires to latch onto.
All the while ScoMo continues to be the source of international ridicule and derision, as though he single-handedly lit the flames himself.
Now admittedly, he probably shouldn’t have taken that holiday to Hawaii. Even though he may have planned it for months and his return likely wouldn’t improve the bushfires by even the slightest iota, it was always going to be “bad optics” and would never reflect well upon him once the media coined onto it.
Other criticisms laid at ScoMo include the fact that he allegedly cut funding to the Rural Fire Service (RFS) in the lead-up to the fires, though this claim has ranged from being called ambiguous, to flat-out false by numerous publications.
Then there’s the curious case of the arsonist issue. NSW police have found 24 individuals deliberately lighting bushfires during the current fire season. Queensland police said between 10 September and 8 January there had been 1,068 reported bushfires in the state, of which 114 had been deliberately sparked by humans.
Arson isn’t a new issue in Australia either. According to an article by The Guardian, arson is a recurrent issue in Australia, especially during heightened periods of fire danger. Arsonists have caused some of Australia’s worst fires, including a fire that killed 10 people on Black Saturday in 2009.
Though within that same Guardian article, you can also find two interesting sentences:
“A Rural Fire Service spokesman told Sky News on Wednesday that the majority of the larger fires in the state were caused by lightning, and that arson was a relatively small source of ignition.”
Promptly followed by:
“Exaggerated claims about arson during the current crisis have also been used to undermine the link between climate change and the longer, more severe bushfire seasons currently being experienced in Australia.’
So it seems that the fires can, at the very least, be attributed in part to arsonists, and in another part to lightning. But this leaves one big, gaping hole; where does climate change fit into the equation?
And before you suggest that we’re experiencing an increase in lightning due to climate change, scientists from Edinburgh and Leeds predict the very opposite; that we’ll be seeing a 15 percent decrease in lightning flashes over this century. The scientists' findings were published in Nature Climate Change, in which they stated:
“This research expands our current knowledge of climate change impacts on lightning and suggests that in a warmer world, the incidence of lightning is likely to decrease.”
In conclusion, it seems these fires are neither unprecedented nor worsening when one looks at the bigger picture. Australia’s Prime Minister has been the focal point for ridicule and climate activism and yet, had he reduced emissions to zero on his first day, who can really say how bad the fires would have been? Would they have improved at all?