A closer look at Australia’s wildfires

31st Jan 2020
A closer look at Australia’s wildfires

Amphibious Beach Team Commander, Lt Declan Michell briefs evacuees prior to them boarding HMAS Choules in Victoria, Australia on January 3.

(Credit: Helen Frank: Australian Dept of Defence/Anadolu Agency)

Australia’s raging wildfires are at the forefront of the news cycle. They’ve devastated the nation’s natural landscape, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and killed record numbers of wildlife. Social media posts showing burned koalas and the blackened bodies of kangaroos are garnering a global outcry.

An estimated 500 million animals have perished, more than two-dozen people have died, and thousands of houses have been destroyed among the 17.9 million acres that have burned – the size of Belgium and Denmark combined. Firefighters have been sent from the US to assist in tackling the fires, many from California, which has dealt with record-breaking wildfires itself in recent months.

Fires are a normal part of forest management, and Australia has an annual fire season, but certain weather phenomena, including the positive-phase Indian Ocean Dipole, combined with drought and climate change, have all come together to create the perfect storm of disaster.
Criticism of federal response to the fires caused Prime Minister Scott Morrison to launch an investigation into the handling of the forest fires.

Morrison acknowledged climate change’s role in the fires, but also spoke of how, “job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia.”

Vox published a scathing article in response to the Australian Government’s climate policy, citing their attempted derailment, along with Brazil and Saudi Arabia, of the COP 25 climate talks in Madrid, as well as the country’s abysmal score on the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index.

Even with Morrison’s scare tactics about climate action spelling economic ruin, the private sector is taking initiative by investing in renewable energy.

Protests have broken out in cities across the country calling for better climate policy. Some even called for the resignation of the Prime Minister for his support of coal as well as what some consider his subpar response to the bushfires.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, at 37.8 per cent of total coal exports according to World’s Top Exports. CNN reported that “Friday’s protests pushed for five main demands: funding for firefighters, relief and aid for affected communities, land and water sovereignty for indigenous communities, an immediate transition toward renewable energy and a ‘just transition’ for workers in the fossil fuel industry.”

Officials are analysing whether the adoption of Aboriginal controlled burn techniques could make a difference in the future. These techniques come from a deep understanding of, and connection to, the land. They tend to consist of small, frequent fires, while modern tactics call for medium-intensity fires, which are supposed to be more cost-effective.

Some wonder if cost savings in forest management are relevant when the amount of damage that the current fires have imposed will far exceed any costs saved. Experts have commented on the lack of precise knowledge of the land and reading fire conditions that lend to the ability to adopt Aboriginal techniques.

Justin Leonard, a lead researcher on bushfire, and urban design, suggests that Australians take a page out of the Aboriginal people’s book – take custodianship over the land and seek to deeply care for and understand it.

Misinformation around the bushfires has also been rampant. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has pushed a narrative that this year’s fires are no worse than those of previous years and has disproportionately blamed arsonists for starting them. Australia’s heavy reliance on coal amplifies the voices of climate deniers, who tend to see environmental regulation as a hindrance to economic growth.

The record-breaking wildfires in Australia may be garnering worldwide attention, but it is unclear whether major changes to forest management and policy will be made in the future. Climate change has exacerbated the problem of annual bushfires, but Australia’s Government does not seem eager to overhaul its position on climate or subscribe to stricter targets that limit fossil fuel emissions.

Young people will protest, firefighters will do their heroic duty, and researchers will expose the data that should create change. These forces, coupled with the national trauma caused by the bushfires, may just be enough to spark meaningful change.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall
Environmental Columnist. sarahsakeena.home.blog

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