This is What Climate Change Looks Like: Wildfires in Australia

Published Feb 4, 2020

Climate scientist and educator Dr. Mel Fitzpatrick dissects Australia's wildfires and explores how climate change has made them more catastrophic.

In this episode
  • Mel breaks down why Australia's recent wildfires have been unprecedented in more ways than one
  • The size of the wildfires gets put into context relative to the US
  • Colleen and Mel talk about combating climate denial and what gives them hope
Timing and cues
  • Opener (0:00-0:30)
  • Intro (0:30-2:32)
  • Interview part 1(2:32-14:13)
  • Break (14:13-15:11)
  • Interview part 2 (15:11-23:15)
  • Sidelining Science Throw (23:15-23:31)
  • Sidelining Science (23:31-27:32)
  • Outro (27:32-28:30)
Related content
Show credits

Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

As life on this planet hurtles forward, Australia is meeting it 16 hours before we do in our recording studio in Boston. In a world facing climate change, being the first has been devastating.

When the flames in Australia first sparked in September 2019, they raged for months before everyone realized that this was unprecedented, even in a country with regular wildfire seasons. By January 2020 the area that had burned was the size of Tennessee, a state that takes around 8 hours to drive through, end to end. For non-US listeners, that’s an area the size of the entire country of Iceland.

After burning for months, the bushfires were so bad that firefighters stopped trying to put them out, deciding instead to just contain the flames and protect villages as best they could. The scale of how many homes and livelihoods were lost makes your heart hurt even before you start talking about the impact it had on the wildlife.

To help me get a handle on what happened, I spoke to Dr. Melanie Fitzpatrick, a former Union of Concerned Scientists colleague. Mel grew up experiencing Australia’s ecological and cultural heritage firsthand and lives in Tasmania, where she conducted this show’s first remote interview. Being a climate scientist, she’s has a lot of experience talking about the consequences of failing to act on climate change. Now, she’s unfortunately living through it.

At the frontlines of climate change in Australia, she wants the rest of the world to know that this is what climate inaction looks like. And since last month’s wildfires are not something we expect to fully recover from in our lifetime, Mel wants the world to see these devastating losses as a lesson... An example of what the future of climate change holds.

Mel shares how this fire came to be so devastating, what role climate denial plays in it, and how, even in the suffocating tragedy of it all, she has found reasons to be hopeful.

Colleen: Mel, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Mel: You're welcome. It's great to talk to you, Colleen.

Colleen: You're about 16 hours ahead of those of us here at least in the Eastern United States. How's the future looking?

Mel: It's a little bit heartbreaking. Australia's on fire right now. So we are living through a pretty devastating time over here.

Colleen: And tell me a little bit of what it looks like, like on the ground there.

Mel: Australia is dealing with unprecedented heat waves and catastrophic fires. And we have the oldest living culture on the planet. It's a country that is very dry and hot and we're used to dealing with these kinds of fires, but this year it's truly different. It really is a new regime. We've supercharged the climate and we're now seeing the consequences. So this is really what happens when you don't act on climate change. And I feel like Australia is really the Canary in the coal mine we’re the harbinger of what will come if we don't deal with this on a global scale. So it's quite distressing to be watching what's going on. And certainly, people here, communities here are struggling to know how to deal with this.

Colleen: So to give a little context to the situation, what is the wildfire season there? How long is it and how does this year compare to previous years?

Mel: So as I said, Australia is used to fire. We have bushfires every season and normally that season starts at the height of summer. Now, the beginning of February is normally the height of summer. The current fires started in September and October last year. So we're seeing the fire season lengthen, which makes it very difficult to prepare. This long-term increase in fire weather, is across large parts of Australia and now the fire season is going for months instead of weeks. So it means we have to approach the fires differently. We have to manage them differently.

Colleen: What sorts of management strategies would you use?

Mel: In the past, we have done fuel reduction burns before the fire season. That's now becoming much more difficult for the authorities to do. They can't find a good weather window because we're often having much drier and hotter conditions. So that's what's led really to the management issues having to change. What we have now is we have proposals for fire management teams from multiple different states to meet together to discuss how they're going to approach fires. And a lot of that learning is also coming from California. California is dealing with quite similar changes to their fire seasons. And we actually cooperate with many different countries around the world to find new ways of dealing with these kinds of catastrophic conditions.

Colleen: How would you compare sort of the scale of what's happening in Australia to what we typically see here?

Mel: The scale of the fires that we're seeing this year are unprecedented. It's true that we've had aboriginal cultures living here for millennia dealing with fire. But since European colonization, these fires are extraordinary. By comparison, they are about 100 times the area of the fires that were in California in 2019. Now we have major cities that are blanketed in smoke for weeks on end and the area that's been burning to date is about the size of your state of Tennessee, which is kind's hard to get your mind around that size. And the other thing that is happening with these fires, they are emitting carbon dioxide. So when you burn carbon-based wood, you produce heat-trapping emissions. And so far we have emitted about two-thirds of our annual emissions just in these fires over the last few months. They're changing ecosystems and they're turning into what we call mega-fires.

Colleen: I'm wondering how the average person on the ground is feeling about the fires?

Mel: There's a sense of powerlessness and certainly, people are grieving and mourning for what's been lost. Like, we have lost iconic places that have irreplaceable world heritage value. These are places that I grew up loving and they've disappeared. We've lost plants that have been on the earth for thousands of years. And the sheer scale of the number of animals that have been lost is quite tremendous. So I think first and foremost, people are in a grieving process and there's a lot of anger that Australia has not been a moral leader in the world. We have not stepped up to what we should step up to in terms of joining a global effort to reduce emissions. And what I feel is that this is a tipping point for the rest of the world. This is what climate change looks like and this is a result of climate inaction. We're effectively loading the dice to make this kind of fire event more probable. So all it does is up the odds and makes this kind of event happen more often.

So the lesson here is that we really need to tackle this issue now. The financial effects are just as devastating as the physical ones and it's certainly time that our politicians stop ignoring the science.

Colleen: Mel, what does the science suggest in terms of what happens next? What can we do?

Mel: It's always the hardest question, Colleen. The science tells us that the main thing we have to do is we have to tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. So that's the root cause of these fires. There are natural drivers that certainly have enhanced the drying and the warming over our continent, but it's being supercharged by climate change, which has been driven by the blanket of carbon dioxide that you and I are putting into the atmosphere. So what we need to do to solve the problem is to really achieve a sustainable world where we stop using fossil fuel energy and it will require massive changes. We need to get to net-zero emissions, we need to find technologies that can pull carbon dioxide out of the air, but we know what the solutions are. There are great things happening, certainly at the local and state level. All around the world, cities are tackling climate change. Cities are becoming livable and sustainable. What we're missing is action at the international level. So we need to dramatically reduce emissions. We know how to do it, we just need that political will.

Well, last year was the hottest and driest year on record in Australia. We had an annual average temperature that was about three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. And we had rainfall that was 40% below our average. So we've actually, in the last few years, had to introduce a new color map on our weather map. So our meteorologists said, "You know what? The temperatures are becoming so high in Australia that we've run out of colors." So they've added a new color on the map. And this is crazy. This is for temperatures greater than 52 degrees Celsius. That's 122 degrees Fahrenheit. So over the last year, we have broken records over and over. In December, we had a huge heatwave across the central and South-Eastern part of the country and Australia broke its all-time temperature record twice one day after the other. So the record was broken for the maximum temperature across the country. And on that day, the entire country had an average temperature above 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Australia is roughly as tall and wide as the United States is. And you can imagine having a temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit across the whole of the United States.

So we had this very warm, dry weather and that actually creates fire conditions that get triggered by lightning. So you have lightning bolts that start a fire and the fire conditions are so extreme now that, we've had to add, again, another level of fire index on. About 10 years ago, the fire service said, "You know, extreme just isn't high enough anymore. We actually need a fire index called catastrophic." And in December, when we had these very hot temperatures, Sydney was had, for the first time, declared a catastrophic fire danger in a major city. So this is very new. It's unprecedented. We've got fires that are creating their own weather. They are called mega-fires and they can be hundreds of thousands of acres in size. And what they're doing is they're so large and intense that they can actually create their own weather where the wind, it can throw live embers 20 miles ahead of the front. So that's where a lot of the fires are starting, just from these embers.

The fire weather creates a particular cloud called a pyrocumulus cloud and that produces dry lightning. There's also a pyrocumulonimbus cloud and that's what ignites new fires. And these clouds are dramatically large. You might've seen some photos of them. But we're actually learning a lot more about this fire weather and people understand that, you know, we have very flammable trees. We have eucalyptus trees. They have an oil in them which is very flammable. But these heat-stoked clouds are also creating conditions that are almost impossible for humans to fight. Firefighters are no longer trying to put them out. They're actually trying to just contain them and to defend towns around the fires to, stop the worst part of it, but they know that they will continue to burn for weeks and months. It's not a happy story, is it?


Colleen: The thing that's really striking to me about the story in Australia is just the sheer number of animals that have perished.

Mel: Some of the current estimates are that we have lost 1 billion animals. And that's just an extraordinary number to come to terms with. The areas that are burning...some of these places have never seen fire before. And the animals in the face of fire that's producing its own weather really haven't had any chance to leave. So while we've been defending towns and houses, some of the areas that have been burning have been home to marsupials, reptiles. One of the things we're not counting in that billion or all the insects that we've lost.

So this is part of where our mourning is coming from, is that we've certainly, I guess, had to deal with something that might be irreversible. Some of these animals may be facing extinction and certainly, ecologically, the ecosystems in those areas may struggle to come back. They're looking at soil that's been burnt. We're looking now at ash running off into rivers and those things are very hard to deal with on a large scale. Really what I'm seeing is a lesson for the rest of the world. It's like don't let this happen anywhere else. We actually need to pull together to make sure that the climate impacts that other countries are facing that we can actually deal with. Australia is like a case study in what will happen in other places.

Colleen: What are the health impacts that we'll see from these fires?

Mel: Air quality has decreased. So, three of our major cities, Melbourne, Canberra, and Sydney have been dealing with smoke in their air for weeks. Melbourne, actually, in late January had the worst air quality of any city in the world. Lots of people in the community were suffering, certainly, asthma sufferers and the elderly, the young. So that kind of effect is hard to quantify. But if these fires become something we have every few years at this level, then we'll be dealing with long-term consequences of particulate matter in the air. The other impact is, of course, on things like agriculture. Certainly, if you have lost agricultural land, if you've lost cattle, if you've lost sheep, then we're gonna see changes to food prices. So the flow-on effects are really difficult to quantify at the moment. I'd be interested to see some economists look at this problem and just try and quantify for Australia what we're facing.

Colleen: Iis there anything here that you're hopeful about?

Mel: The thing that gives me hope is there are thousands and thousands of young people actually taking a lead and asking for change. Now, that hasn't happened in the couple of decades that I've been working on climate change. So that's something that I think is very hopeful. These young people are seeing that their elders have not done what they need to do and they're asking for change. So that's the first thing. Second thing I see is that there is a lot happening at the local and state level.

So it doesn't take a national government or even an international agreement for there to be action on climate. I live in Tasmania and the city that I live in, Hobart, is already looking at ways to change our lifestyles and make them more sustainable. So I'm certainly hopeful that on the local level we can make changes. And I think one of the positives out of this example in Australia is the world is watching. We’re showing them certainly how a community can come together.

Colleen: Can you talk about the climate science denialism in Australia?

Mel: There's been a decades-long attempt to manufacture doubt about climate science. And this is a familiar tactic, and it's an orchestrated campaign. We're even seeing it during the bushfires. So we've seen exaggerated claims in parts of the media and it's really frustrating as a climate scientist to continue to deal with this disinformation. It doesn't matter how many times you counter it with good information, those little seeds of doubt are still out there.

Colleen: Do you feel like things are shifting with larger numbers of people being outraged about what's happening?

Mel: I think the government here is feeling the pressure from people to divorce themselves, certainly from climate denial. And I think this will be the catalyst, the tipping point, where people won't stand for that any longer. We have the highest per capita emissions of most countries in the world and we're one of the largest exporters of coal and it just can't continue because I think people understand that these fires have changed the landscape. They've changed the playing ground, certainly politically. So yes, I hope there will be a lot of pressure on our government to actually come up with some good climate policy and to involve themselves in the international agreements.

Colleen: Mel, if I could give you the power to run the country, what are the first three things that you would do?

Mel: So I think the quickest way to make an impact is to set up an authority that can enable a transition to zero emissions. So you could call it an energy transition authority. So we have to, on a war footing, actually develop a program to move away from fossil fuels, and that includes not exporting coal. So I see that kind of on a war footing. We have done this before. We have been able to retool. Certainly, during the world wars, everything was thrown into production for that event. So if we can throw a lot of resources into just changing direction, so making sure that the public have a voice, that communities have a voice, and that we actually take the science seriously.

I think we need education. So we need education to counter some of the climate denial that we've seen and we need to rejoin international efforts and actually become one of the leading nations. We've done this before as well. So when we discovered the ozone hole back in the 1980s, we came up with an international agreement to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs and Australia was one of the leading players in that process. So I would like to see this country be an international leader again and show some moral leadership.

Colleen: Well, Mel, thanks for joining me on the podcast. I’m glad that we could end on a little bit of a hopeful note.

Mel: I think we can turn out grief and despondency into something positive to make change where we need it.

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