After its deadliest bushfires ever, Australia is in mourning.
Television reports flicker around the world, depicting walls of flames tearing through suburban towns outside Melbourne in southeastern Australia.
The scenes of destruction are reminiscent of a war zone.
At least 135 people died in the infernos, many of them burned in their homes or overtaken in their cars as they tried to flee. The toll is expected to rise as rescue workers explore the ash-covered devastation.
“This is of a level of horror that few of us anticipated,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Australian television. “There are no words to describe it other than mass murder.”
Rudd was referring to reports that arsonists had ignited several of the blazes and were relighting fires that had been brought under control.
But the disaster could also have another set of culprits. The conditions that led to the blazes are consistent with what we can expect from climate change. Is it time to start asking to what extent the emissions from our cars, factories and power plants are responsible for tragedies like the fires outside of Melbourne?
Southeastern Australia is undergoing its 12th year of drought. On Saturday, Feb 7., the day the fires broke out, the temperature in Melbourne reached 115.5 degrees Fahrenheit (46.4 C), the hottest day since records began in 1885. A week earlier, scientists had noted what is now the third-hottest day on the books. The extreme heat and unusual dryness had weakened trees and dried out the underbrush. The weather on Saturday was dry and windy. All that was missing was a spark.
Since the beginning of the last century, the average temperature on the continent has risen by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 C). According to a study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia's national science agency, rainfall has decreased in southeastern Australia since 1950. Droughts have become more severe and the number of extremely hot days has risen.
By the end of the next decade, according to the study, the number of days with very high risk of forest fires are expected to increase between 4 and 25 percent. By mid century, they are expected to rise 15 to 17 percent. It may not be possible to link this weekend’s deaths to the warming of the earth, but it’s clear that our emissions will make similar disasters more likely. “We can’t confidently attribute these bushfires directly to climate change,” said Andrew Watkins, head of climate analysis at the National Climate Center in Melbourne. “But increases in these types of extreme events and the increase risk of fire is what we could expect from climate change.”
Global warming carries unusual importance in Australian politics. Rudd made it a signature issue during his 2007 electoral campaign — one of his first acts as Prime Minister, just hours after being sworn in, was to sign the Kyoto Protocol. But the country is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal, which it also relies upon for electricity generation. Since attaining office Rudd has been criticized for moving too slowly in tackling greenhouse gasses. And indeed the Green Party has been quick to use news of the fires to argue for a firmer stance on emissions.
There are few parts of Australia that haven’t suffered extreme weather events. In addition to the 12-year drought in the southeast, the country’s breadbasket agricultural area has entered its seventh year of failing rains. In the southwest, precipitation has been low since the 1970s. “We don’t really call it a drought anymore,” said Watkins. “We call it the new climate.” Last week, as the suburbs around Melbourne were drying, the northeastern corner of the country was suffering floods. When the roads to Cairns, a popular destination for tourists visiting the great barrier reef, were completely cut off, supermarkets had to be resupplied by boat.
In Australia, it may not matter whether these events or last week’s fires can be directly attributed to climate change. For now, they serve as a reminder that while reining in greenhouse gases will carry a sizeable price tag, enduring the warming of the world could also come with serious costs.
(Faris wrote this dispatch from California and departs this week for Australia, where he will be providing updates to GlobalPost.)
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