In January 2019, Greta Thunberg spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, urging us to panic: “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
A year on, and Greta’s speech has taken on a whole new significance. Australia is on fire.
What is happening and why?
At the time of writing, the death toll stands at 25, with more than 17.9 million acres of land destroyed. Until the fires stop, there is no way of surveying the true extent of the damage, but it is estimated that half a billion animals have been directly affected, with millions killed.
For context, the Amazon fires in August 2019 burned 2.2 million acres of land and the California fires in 2018 burned 2 million acres of land.
Australia is no stranger to bushfires (the deadliest being ‘Black Saturday’ in 2009, when 173 people lost their lives), but as weather conditions grow more extreme, the fires have been starting earlier in the season and burning with unprecedented fury.
Unlike past bushfires, these particular fires, informally dubbed the ‘Forever Fires’, are mostly concentrated in woodlands and forests near populated areas (as opposed to the grasslands and savannahs). Owen Price of Wollogong University described fires like these as “much more intense, they produce more smoke and burn much more material, so there is a higher production of greenhouse gases and the territories take longer to recover.” Some areas affected, like Kanangra National Park, have never been burned in living memory.
2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year yet, with temperatures at record-breaking heights and rainfall at record-breaking lows. These conditions, combined with strong winds, have made these fires particularly difficult for firefighters to tackle - and the Australian summer has only just begun.
Experts have attributed the worsening scope and impact of natural disasters to climate change - and attested that the disasters themselves are speeding up the process. Fires like these generate such heat that they are creating their own climate ecosystem, unleashing storms and hurricanes. For this reason, Steve Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University has named this new era ‘The Pyrocene’.
What can we do?
Mounting evidence shows that this flow of negative news does little to drive people to make positive changes in their lives - indeed the opposite is true. Recent research published by Global Environmental Change found that people feel powerless in the face of the climate crisis, and therefore less likely to take action.
However, it is possible for individuals to have a real and lasting impact on the climate crisis. Right now, it is possible to help those affected by the bushfires in Australia, by donating to the New South Wales Fire Service, the Australian Red Cross or the Salvation Army (links below).
In the longer term, we can plant trees, reduce our waste and our energy usage, use less (or no) plastic and continue to fight for systemic change.
Let’s make 2020 the year we all take the steps necessary to save our planet.
List of places to donate
- NSW Fire Service
- Australian Red Cross
- Australian Salvation Army