At least 33 people and billions of indigenous flora and fauna have been killed by the many bushfires burning across Australia since November of 2019. Since the start of this fire season, they have destroyed over 2,800 homes and have displaced tens of thousands of Australian citizens. The Australian government remains the target of public frustration as Prime Minister Scott Morrison is still under scrutiny for downplaying the extent to which climate change has played a role in magnifying these fires. And while the US government has sent over veteran firefighters to help stem the blazes, President Trump is unwilling to acknowledge any links between the two environmental phenomena.
Why it matters: Notwithstanding the financial damage as well as the staggering loss of life, the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season provides an ominous metric for the effects that climate change might bring to society. With high temperatures, low relative humidity, and strong winds, these and other environmental factors related to a warming planet combined to create ideal conditions for the rapid spread of wildfires in Australia. Additionally, warming global temperatures have brought changes to the political climate as well, with public outrage ensuing from the reveal of misinformation campaigns bent on distorting the relevant causes of the fires, as well as from the decisions of some politicians to downplay the issue of climate change and its relationship with worsening natural disasters worldwide.
POV 1: Many believe that even given a public spotlight and greater governmental intervention, the increased awareness will, in effect, only marginally curb the trend of global warming. There is certainly a good deal of truth to that claim. Arguably, most people are already aware of the concept of climate change and the scope of the problem. Yet many still do not see it as a significant issue, and more yet will not change their lifestyle or further invest their time in order to abate a warming planet. However, natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, and polar vortexes are unique in that they showcase the physical consequences of rising global temperatures. They are easier to see, easier to understand, and draw much more public attention than do dry facts and figures from a scientific report. The bushfires will therefore likely gain some political traction, especially amongst Australian voters, and the events will certainly stimulate greater resentment within the international community. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s probable that most countries will remain at loggerheads over the obstinate problem of climate change, and very little will be accomplished.
POV 2: While programs within and members of the United Nations are continuing to support efforts to combat the bushfires and aid Australians in need, it remains likely that much of the island nation will not be prepared for the surge in wildfires expected in the coming years. The envisaged increase in area burned by such conflagrations, for instance, suggests that larger populations and greater amounts of critical infrastructure could be put at risk. Likewise, with respect to combatting such fires, Australia’s firefighters regrettably remain a patchwork of professional and trained volunteer units, understaffed and overburdened by the current blazes. And while Scott Morrison has mobilized thousands of reservists from the Australian Defence Force to help with the deadly bushfire crisis, the demand remains for a policy or proposal that would establish a professional, better staffed, and nationwide workforce of emergency responders—one that is better equipped and better prepared for any possible national emergency.
Bottom Line: Thousands of Australian buildings have been destroyed, and tens of thousands of Australians have been forced out of their homes. The public health effects of chronic and acute smoke exposure continue to harm the public, as large plumes of irritant gases have notably lead to eye and respiratory tract irritation in those exposed. The tragedies experienced by those fleeing their homes may also leave lasting mental heath scars across any affected communities. Worse still, the bushfires have even contributed to the issue of climate change, as the burned down Australian forests can no longer absorb any of the carbon released in fires across the country. These fires will, therefore, increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, compound the problem of global warming, and heighten the likelihood of recurring megafires in the future.
What we want to know on Quibbl:
Will Australia and the international community come up with a plan or specialized committee to deal with future wildfires by mid 2020? Make a bet.