Deadly Fires Engulf Australia – Hidden Warnings for Everyone?

Pictures and videos going viral on social media platforms such as those depicting kangaroos and koalas escaping bushfires, hugging their saviors as well as each other, American soldiers who helped in the disaster relief programmes and evacuation activities in Australia, being greeted by people at the airport, and a picture of a charred baby kangaroo stuck to a barbed-wire fence due to the bushfires, reflect two very strong human emotions – hope and apathy; hope towards shared humanity, towards human-wildlife harmony and moreover, hope towards a sense of collective responsibility, apathy towards the environment, callousness on the part of humans towards the impending doom of climate change and a realisation of our destructive potential which is suggested to be the aggravating factor in the Australian bushfires. It is noticeable that casualties are increasing and statistics represent more than just numbers; each number representing a precious life. In this backdrop, it is imperative to understand the phenomenon of Australian bushfires and how it can be seen as a part of nature’s early warning system.

Australia, which is located in the southern hemisphere, experiences occasional bushfires, which are instances of uncontrolled burning of forests, something which is common in places like North America, the Amazon rainforests and Africa; however, it occurs in Australia in particular places and at a particular time of the year. Most places in the southern hemisphere experience bushfires during the summer months, but this time, the fire that ravaged Australia started around the month of September 2019, and hit the regions of New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria; areas where the government has declared a state of emergency.

As the saying goes – anything extreme can prove to be fatal – the same can be said to be the case with the Australian bushfires, which created an unprecedented crisis in terms of damage to the native flora and fauna, humans and property. As Australia is a hot, dry and prone to drought country, bushfires are now a part of its ecosystem, having become an annual occurrence. Many plant species are contingent upon them as a means of reproduction, such as the Eucalyptus trees, which actually use fire to release their seeds. Rural communities too have made use of them for clearing vegetation.

However, this summer proved to be Australia’s worst in many years, with heatwaves being recorded across the country, and temperatures skyrocketing to about 41-degrees Celsius. As per the country’s Bureau of Meteorology, December 2019 was the driest on record. In fact, Australia’s climate has warmed by over 1° C since 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme temperatures, as per the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s 2018 State of the Climate report. Compounding the problem was the worst drought witnessed in Australia in five decades, which aggravated the subsequent bushfires, and they still haven’t abated as of this writing. Such wildfires can be a result of both natural as well as anthropocentric reasons like dry lightning as well as human actions, both intentional and unintentional. In fact, as per the police records, about 24 people have been charged on account of environmental degradation and legal action has been taken against 138 people with regard to fire offences.

The scale of threat is immense, since as many as 28 people have lost their lives, including several firefighters. Australia is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, and thus, the damage to native flora and fauna like koalas, kangaroos, frogs and certain other species of mammals and birds has been huge and according to estimates, about 1 billion animals including insects, amphibians, and reptiles have already lost their lives to the bushfires. These figures are expected to grow as they are predicted to last for a longer period of time since, in the months of January and February, summer will reach its peak and over 1,00,000 cattle too are predicted to be affected in the near future. More disastrous is the loss of the natural habitat of animals which will take years to regenerate and get back to its previous form. Some endangered species such as dunnarts, the long-footed potoroo, and the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo may soon become a part of the sixth-largest extinction phase that humankind has been witnessing currently, which will be an irrevocable loss.

The damage in terms of property and land reflects the severity of the situation, as 17.9 million acres of land in Australia have burned in one of the country’s worst bushfires on record, with New South Wales alone bearing the brunt of 12.1 million acres and about 2000 homes having been destroyed. Although the occurrence of these fires has been reported from across Australia, several areas are worse hit than others, especially Australia’s South Eastcoast. Blazes have affected wooded areas and national parks like the Blue Mountains while some cities like Sydney and Melbourne too have been affected in terms of damage to property and a thick blanket of smoke has engulfed the urban areas, severely affecting the air quality. Moreover, other parts of the world like New Zealand and some countries in South America have started getting affected due to plumes of smoke moving with the winds and reaching these regions, which only shows how natural disasters like these often have spillover effects in other parts of the world. It is therefore imperative to recognize that effects of climate change are global; only when we accept that it is a global threat we can facilitate a united movement in the face of this plight.

The alarming situation has led to several steps being taken by federal and state stakeholders in Australia, like declaring a state of disaster in Victoria and a state of emergency in Queensland and New South Wales, thereby giving more power to the authorities to exercise the resources to minimize damage, and even allowing forcible relocation of people to safer areas. Around 2000 firefighters alone have been involved in evacuation and relief programmes in New South Wales and different countries around the world to have sent help to Australia such as the United States of America, Canada, and New Zealand. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has even announced an aid of immediate base payment of $1 million to the councils of 42 of the most severely bushfire impacted regions in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland to help in quickly rebuilding vital infrastructure and strengthening community resilience. A further $18 million will be set aside to provide additional support to larger council areas which have experienced the most significant damage.

Understandably, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticised with regard to the bushfires mishap. Australia, with just about 0.5% of the world’s population, is the fourth largest producer of coal after China, India and USA. In fact, coal is its most valuable asset as it accounts for almost all of its exports making Australia one of the largest beneficiaries of fossil fuels which have been proven to be a major threat to the environment due to their polluting nature. Moreover despite being a part of the Paris climate treaty and claiming to uphold its share of responsibility in battling climate change, Australia has repealed a few of its policies dealing with the same, like its carbon tax, and several political parties across the spectrum of ideologies have been backing coal experts.

However, without getting entangled into the web of internal politics of Australia, we can focus on one stark message that emerges – climate change is for real. Although it seems like a far-fetched phenomenon to political leaders due to their short term agendas, one needs to realize that the sooner we take quick and more sustainable steps, the faster we can reduce the disastrous impact of climate change on humankind. We cannot keep living in denial when environmental changes keep happening whether it be the bushfires in Australia, the wildfires in the Amazon rainforests, or extreme weather patterns across the globe. What needs to be kept in mind is that these changes demand immediate attention and proactive action to counter the changes.

Thus, the future course of action that the governments and institutions need to undertake while dealing with this problem must not be targeted towards development at the behest of the environment, but it must be sustainable in its approach, keeping in consideration the quality of life for the current and future generations. Quality of life here includes clear air and a sustainable water balance in terms of flora and fauna on the planet; it shouldn’t be measured in terms of number of shopping malls in the vicinity of one’s house. Secondly, one must realize that climate change and global warming are global phenomena, and these issues call for collective responsibility and cooperation on the part of all nations to reduce the negative effects of climate change and to prevent disasters from turning bad to worse. Global cooperation must be based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which implies that developed countries that have been primarily responsible for carbon emission should contribute to solutions proportionately, and the same must be done by developing countries. Developed countries have been given the responsibility to provide eco-friendly technologies to developing world at subsidized rates, not to subject them to restrictions when it comes to industrial development. However, we find that this has not actually been the case, and thus innovative techniques like multi-level, polycentric governance systems, early warning systems and adaptive management at regional levels must be adopted.

Learning from this catastrophic event, we should carry forward the feeling of shared humanity and imbibe it in our actions towards all living beings and in our engagement with nature, as it is us who have inherited this earth and it is us who will leave it as a legacy, something that posterity should receive with honour rather than disdain.

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