Written by: Ben Lever
I’ve finished my exchange semester at the VU at the end of December, and returned to my home country of Australia for Christmas. The scenes I’ve returned to have been absolutely harrowing – a series of bushfires, starting in Queensland as early as September but escalating in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania over December and the New Year, are devastating the country. It really feels as though the whole country is on fire – at the time of writing, over 6 million hectares have been burned. This is more than the recent Amazon fires and California fires combined. To put it another way, this is almost as big as the Netherlands and Belgium combined.
This is what the climate apocalypse looks like.
The scenes even look a lot like what we associate with the apocalypse. A thick haze of smoke is blanketing many areas. Very close to the fire fronts, this can completely block out the sun, turning midday into night. In other cases the sky turns an eerie orange colour, bathing towns in a reddish glow. Many of these towns are being evacuated – where possible, people are fleeing by road, but in a lot of cases there is only one or two roads in and out of these remote areas, and those roads may be blocked by fire. There have been incredible scenes of hundreds of townspeople gathering on beaches and floating on small boats to escape the flames. The military has started bringing in large ships to evacuate people by sea.
Even in our capital cities, further away, skies are a rusty brown, visibility is reduced, and people’s breathing is being affected by the particulates. Our national capital Canberra has spent the last few days with the worst air quality in the world, easily topping cities like New Delhi – people are buying face masks to protect their lungs, but nearby stores are selling out. People are volunteering to bring masks in from elsewhere in the country, along with supplies of food, drinks and hygiene products for the people who have been forced to evacuate and are gathered in makeshift emergency centres.
Australia has always had bushfires, but these are on a scale that is totally unprecedented. Our resources – human, materiel, infrastructure – are based on the idea that when bushfires arise in one place, we can shift resources from other places to help. For one thing, we share resources with the USA – because the northern hemisphere’s summer is during our winter, we send help over to places like California when they need it, and then when our summer rolls around the Californians come to help us. But this has been getting harder and harder in the last few years – climate change is causing our summer fire seasons to get longer and longer, so the end of the American season is starting to overlap with the start of ours. Within Australia, fire crews from one state often help out with fires in other states – but again, with the sheer number of fires happening in all our states, all simultaneously, people are too busy fighting fires at home to help out elsewhere. With all of this happening at once, resources are stretched thin.
So far, 17 people have died in these fires. (Literally as I was writing this article, it was updated to 18). This loss of life is less than in some previous bushfire seasons, but we need to be clear – this is not because the fires are less serious, it is because our emergency services and our citizens have learned lessons from previous years, and are being much more cautious in deciding when to evacuate areas under threat. And of course, this is just the immediate death toll – the air pollution from the smoke will likely kill dozens of people, some of whom may live hundreds of kilometres from the fires themselves – but we won’t know these numbers until months after the fact. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and thousands of people have been displaced. It is estimated that around 500 million animals have been killed.
This bushfire season has barely begun – firefighters say they’ll be fighting these fires for at least the next eight weeks. Where I live in western Victoria does not have any of these huge fires right now, but there have been many small fires that have been quickly brought under control – it would only take one of these getting out of control to put us in the same situation. And it’s not just this fire season. As long as Australia and other nations keep burning fossil fuels and pumping carbon into the atmosphere, we will be at increased bushfire risk next year, and the year after, and the year after.
In her speech at Davos last year, Greta Thunberg said “Our house is on fire”. This is no metaphor – Australia is quite literally on fire. These are the consequences of 1.0oC of warming – we must do everything in our power to keep warming to 1.5oC. If we continue stumbling heedlessly towards 2oC or 3oC or more, we will be left with nothing but ash.