Australia’s fires: The future we are writing for ourselves

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Opinion

January 14, 2020 - 10:17 AM

If a Hollywood producer ordered up these images, they might be dismissed as too dramatic: orange skies; ash-filled rain; fire tornadoes; flames jumping as high as 230 feet; people huddling for shelter on the beach. Australia’s wildfires are a disaster on a scale hard to fathom, charring an area roughly the size of West Virginia. California’s massive 2018 blazes hit a sixth as much land as Australia’s have so far this fire season. Government officials report that a third of the koalas in New South Wales might be gone. The nation’s eucalyptus forests may be damaged for good.

This is the future humanity is writing for itself, right now, every day world governments waste failing to respond to climate change. Yes, not every natural disaster has a climate-change link. And, yes, there are forces at work around Australia that preexisted climate change. But the context in which every natural variation in temperature or precipitation now plays out is hotter, making dangerous conditions and deadly results more likely.

Specifically, southern Australia’s temperatures have risen about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. Conditions over the past 20 years have been hotter and drier than in the 20 years before that, and the 20 years before that, and the 20 years before that, and so forth. December saw the nation’s hottest day on record, an average of more than 107 degrees — a threshold surpassed just the next day. Heat and drought have toasted the land, turning Australia’s countryside into a tinderbox.

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