What Australia's fires really mean
Pretoria - As US President Donald Trump mocked the threat of climate change in his speech at at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, 17 million hectares of Australia lie decimated after three months of raging wildfires. Even the climate change skeptics are realising that the world has reached a tipping point from which there is no return.
Scientists predict that many of the burnt forests in Australia won’t recover, but will instead be replaced by brush or grassland. Much of the stressed vegetation won’t recover, or may take decades to slowly return.
The climate feedback loop of increasingly warmer temperatures which then cause more wildfires, leading to greater warming, is inescapable.
It is easy to be a climate change denialist if you are a politician in the pocket of the mining companies, but the consequences of such narrow self-interest are catastrophic - not only for a nation, but for the planet. It is a tragedy of immeasurable proportions that, according to some estimates, almost a billion animals have been killed in the raging infernos.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison won an election last year on a climate sceptical platform, his country’s mean temperature was the highest since 1910, and rainfall was 40% below the long-term average, and at the lowest level since 1900.
By December, Australia had experienced its hottest day on record with an average high temperature of 41.6ºC.
The cost to Australia of not acting on climate change has already been catastrophic, and now many ecosystems are collapsing.
The recent fires produced half the amount of carbon dioxide that the country would have otherwise produced during a typical year, and there are now far fewer trees to store those escalating levels of carbon emissions.
With warmer ocean temperatures due to climate change, the oceans are also unable to absorb and store as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they once were.
The oceans are like air conditioning for the planet. If they continue to warm at the current rate, it will lead to extreme temperatures, storms, droughts, floods and late rainy seasons.
But the leading cause of global warming still remains the burning of fossil fuels. In Australia, the carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires are still dwarfed by that of the burning of coal, oil and gas.
This is where its conservative politicians have played Russian roulette with the environment, downplaying climate risks and failing to put the brakes on carbon emissions. The political motivation is the fact that 70% of Australia’s exports come from natural resource extraction. But without a strong climate policy, industrial emissions are likely to triple this century.
What is urgently needed are policies to prevent huge regions of carbon-storing forests from being replaced with lower carbon-storing grasslands and shrubs.
Time is running out to try and cap global warming at well below 1.5ºC.
On the world’s current emissions path with warming of 3.5ºC by the end of the century, fires are expected to increase on more than 60% of global land area.
According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report, the areas most at risk are southern Australia, South Africa, Central and South America, and the western US.
South Africa has to interrogate its climate policies just as urgently as Australia does, as climate change is rapidly extending the fire season in southern Africa. Experiencing the hottest years on record, unprecedented droughts, strong unseasonal winds, and more intense wildfires have now become the new normal. The narrative of the future forecast for 2030 or 2050 is now upon us, and no one expected these realities to come to pass so soon.
South Africa experienced devastating fires in Knysna in 2017, and with dry seasons becoming longer, more frequent fires can be expected, particularly in fynbos vegetation areas.
Stanford University has warned that South Africa’s gross domestic product could shrink 66% by 2100 due to climate change, which is destroying the ecosystem.
According to the World Meteorological Organisation, we are likely to see forests in the northern hemisphere burn like never before in the past 10 000 years.
Global Forest Watch Fires said last year there were 400 000 more fires globally than in 2018. Last year, Alaska recorded record-breaking temperatures of 32ºC, and the Arctic experienced unprecedented wildfires.
In Russia, 9 million hectares of forest burnt last year in Siberia, an area larger than Portugal. And in 2018, California experienced the deadliest forest fires in its history.
It is time for leaders to wake up and do something to slow down climate change and global warming. We need implementable policies, and fast.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's group foreign editor.