Australia’s bushfires and climate change: A media analysis
Australia is currently experiencing one of its worst bushfire seasons, with swathes of the southern and eastern coastal regions having been ablaze for weeks. As the fires have spread, there has been extensive media coverage both nationally and internationally documenting – and debating – their impacts. This Carbon Brief overview summarises how the fires – and the political response to them – have been covered by the media.
There has also been widespread criticism of Australian leaders’ handling of the situation, particularly in the context of the government’s poor record on climate action. The fires come at the end of the nation’s hottest and driest year on record. To understand the extent of the problem and how media has reacted to it, this article answers six questions:
- What is happening in Australia?
- What role does climate change play in the fires?
- What other factors are involved in the fires?
- How do the fires compare to past events?
- What has the political impact of the fires been?
- What has the media response been?
What is happening in Australia?
This year’s bushfire season is widely regarded as one of the most severe on record. Since September, fires have spread across much of southeastern Australia following a period of extreme drought and record-breaking temperatures. By the beginning of 2020, around six million hectares had been burned, mainly in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. The affected area has been described by various publications as roughly twice the size of Belgium, Maryland or Wales. On 7 January, this area had expanded to more than 10 million hectares or “an area the size of South Korea”, according to Reuters.
Dozens of people have been killed by the fires and thousands of buildings have been destroyed. Bloomberg reported that the infernos have “cut-off communities, destroyed hundreds of homes and shocked the world with images of holiday-makers forced to shelter on beaches”. According to HuffPost, ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate more than one billion birds, reptiles and mammals in New South Wales alone are likely to have died in the rapidly spreading wildfires. ABC News reported that tens of thousands of livestock are also likely to have been killed.
After the fires had already burned for around three months, NBC News noted that, despite thousands of firefighters battling to contain the blazes, “many continued to burn out of control, threatening to wipe out rural townships and causing almost incalculable damage to property and wildlife”. With more than 100 separate fires burning at once, air quality across the region has also been affected. The Financial Times reported that a public-health emergency has been declared.
As the new year began, the Australian capital city of Canberra registered the worst air quality reading in the world. The Canberra Times reported that smoke billowing through the city had raised its air quality index reading to 20 times above the level considered hazardous. The fires in Australia are happening on such a scale that their effects are even being felt beyond its borders. Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, BBC News reports that smoke from Australia had turned the skies an “eerie” yellow.
What role does climate change play in the fires?
Much of the media coverage has discussed the different factors that have driven the extreme fire season, with climate change coming up as a prominent theme. “Wildfires need four ingredients,” explained Prof Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at the Australian National University, in a piece for the Scientific American: “Available fuel, dryness of that fuel, weather conditions that aid the rapid spread of fire and an ignition.” Climate change plays a role because it is “making Australian wildfires larger and more frequent because of its effects on dryness and fire weather”, she noted. A BBC News “very simple guide” made a similar point:
“While fires are a natural part of the Australian weather cycle, scientists have long warned that this hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense.”
According to ABC News, the fires come at the end of Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Data from the Australian government Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) shows that annual average temperature “was 1.52C above the 1961-90 average of 21.8C”, said the article – putting it “well above” the previous hottest year in 2013 of 1.33C above average. USA Today quoted a tweet from Nasa climate scientist Dr Kate Marvel, in which she noted that Australia has warmed by around 1C since records began.
A “warming stripes” tweet from Prof Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading illustrated that trend. As does a second tweet in which Hawkins shows how the December of 2019 would be a “normal” year for Australia in a world that is between 2.5C and 3C warmer than average. Average temperature was not the only record to be broken in 2019, ABC News added. The daily average maximum temperature of 30.69C was more than 2C above the long-term average and “smashed” the previous record of 30.19C set in 2013. And the average national rainfall total of 277mm was “well below” the previous record of 314mm set in 1902, the article said. Climate change is bringing “longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat”, said a piece in the New York Times, which “worsens these conditions and makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn”. It added:
“A changing climate has meant an increase in temperatures in the Indian and Southern Oceans, which in turn has meant drier and hotter weather across Australia this summer.”
The “unprecedented wildfires” have been “supercharged thanks to climate change, the type of trees catching fire and weather”, said a Q&A by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. “What would have been a bad fire season was made worse by the background drying/warming trend,’’ Dr Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecasts at the BOM, told Borenstein. The drier the trees and plants are, the easier it is for fires to start and take hold, Dr Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada, told Borenstein:
“It means more fuel is available to burn, which means higher intensity fires, which makes it more difficult – or impossible – to put out.”
Fire authorities measure the risk according to the Forest Fire Danger Index, a combined measure of temperature, humidity, wind speed and the availability of dry fuel, explained the Guardian. The Australian spring of 2019 was the “worst year on a record going back to 1950 for bushfire risk”, the article added.
In addition, the Guardian noted that a recent study had identified a “clear trend toward more dangerous [fire] conditions during spring and summer in southern Australia”. Another study concluded that “extreme temperatures that helped drive historic 2018 bushfires in north Queensland were four times more likely to have happened because of human-caused climate change”. A piece in the Conversation, published in September, described some of the recent studies that link climate change to Australia’s hottest year on record.
Finally, there has also been coverage of how the fires themselves can contribute to climate change. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that in the three months the fires had burned, they had “spewed as much as two-thirds of the nation’s annual CO2 emissions”. Scientists told the paper it could be up to a century before forests reabsorbed what had been emitted over the course of the season. Articles in the Guardian, Reuters, E&E News (via Scientific American) and Time all picked up on the CO2 emissions from the fires.
What other factors are involved in the fires?
While the link between the current extremes and anthropogenic climate change is – in the words of Prof Nerilie Abram – “scientifically undisputable”, there are also other reasons why the fire season has been so dramatic. Or, in the words of the Daily Express, the “Australia fires have been extra bad in recent months due to a combination of factors”. For example, one factor in Australia’s long-term decline in winter rainfall is the positive trend in the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), explained Abram in her Scientific American article. She said:
“This change is causing the westerly winds that circle the Southern Ocean to shift southward toward Antarctica, causing rain-bearing winter cold fronts to pass south of the Australian continent. The role of anthropogenic climate change in driving this trend in the SAM is also clear in the science.”
However, as this video from Australia’s BOM explains, the SAM has the opposite effect in the southern hemisphere summer. And the recent spell with SAM in its negative phase has brought dry air from Australia’s interior to eastern regions. This pattern results in below average rainfall, the video explains. Another large-scale climate fluctuation has contributed to the extreme conditions, noted Australia’s CBS: The ongoing drought “is due in part to a typical weather pattern called the Indian Ocean Dipole” (IOD), it said. Vox described the IOD as “the cycle of the temperature gradient between the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean”. This year there has been a record positive IOD, said CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli, with warm water in the western part of the Indian Ocean and cooler-than-normal water in the eastern part. He added:
“So we end up with rising air over the western part of the ocean right near Africa. That causes rain. But sinking air, dry air in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean – that causes Indonesia and Australia to dry out.”
The IOD has been in its positive phase for “the past two years”, said the Washington Post. The BOM said it was unusual to have back-to-back years with a positive dipole, the paper added. Here again “climate change is part of the story”, noted Abram: “Anthropogenic warming is causing positive IOD events to become stronger and more frequent.” In this video, Prof Michael Mann – distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State – explained to ABC News how natural fluctuations can add to the climate change signal. Both the IOD and SAM have recently shifted “towards neutral”, reported the Guardian. However, the damage they have caused would likely remain for several months, Dr Watkins told the paper:
“The damage from the positive IOD and the negative SAM has been done – the landscape is extremely dry. This means that fire danger will remain high for some time…And it certainly does not mean the end of the drought – that will take some time; many months, especially for those rivers to rise again and for the soils to even reach average wetness.”
Another contributing factor has been a “rare phenomenon called sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) that took place in Antarctica”, noted the Times. Back in September, “winds circling the South Pole about 30km high in the stratosphere went into reverse causing the temperature of the stratosphere to rocket by 40C”, the article explained. This “added to the hot dry conditions by shifting the westerly winds, which usually lurk over the Southern Ocean, up onto the continent”, said ABC News.
SSW events, which also occur in the northern hemisphere, are “rare in the southern hemisphere with only one major event ever identified, in 2002”, noted another ABC News piece. Strong winds have also played a substantial role. The Daily Telegraph said the extreme conditions “have been accompanied by brisk winds which fan the flames and push the smoke across Australia’s major cities”. The most dangerous fire days occur when hot, dry air blows from the desert centre of the continent toward the populous coasts, explained the New York Times:
“A weather front – where air masses at different densities meet – can cause the direction of the wind to change rapidly. Ultimately, that means bigger fires spreading in multiple directions.”
These various factors have combined to push bushfires into new areas, said Greg Mullins, former commissioner for Fire and Rescue for New South Wales. In an interview on National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Weekend Edition Saturday” in the US, Mullins said:
“As fire chiefs, we’ve been watching the wildfire situation, our cyclones, our hurricanes, our storms, our floods get worse and worse as extreme weather just gets more and more extreme. So we have areas burning in Australia that have never burned before. We have trees in Tasmania – Huon pine – so they’re 3,000 years old. They have no fire scars on them. We have tropical rainforests burning.”
Despite the focus on the weather and climate change, in a press conference on 4 January, prime minister Scott Morrison said the “most constant issue that has been raised” with him during visits to fire damaged areas was “managing fuel loads in national parks”. He added:
“As is often the case, those who, on one hand, say they are seeking those actions on climate change, which we’re delivering, can, on the same hand, also be those who don’t share the same urgency of dealing with hazard reduction.”
Hazard reduction is “the management of fuel and can be carried out through prescribed burning, also known as controlled burning, and removing trees and vegetation, both dead and alive”, explained the Guardian.
But the “claim of a conspiracy by environmentalists to block hazard reduction activities has been roundly rejected by bushfire experts”, the article added. The Guardian ran a factcheck on this issue back in November, in which Prof Ross Bradstock, the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, said: “These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires. They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”
In this video clip, the Australian news and current affairs programme The Project explained how hazard reduction is carried out. (Amidst all the coverage of the Australian fires, BuzzFeed News has been keeping track of “all the bullshit spreading online”. This “false and unverified information” includes that the fires were being started by environmentalists to promote awareness about climate change, and allegations the fires are an effort to clear a corridor for a high-speed rail track.)
Morrison also defended the Australia’s climate policy and coal industry in response to a tweet from Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, reported Deutsche Welle. “We’ll do in Australia what we think is right for Australia…I’m not here to try to impress people overseas.” Much of the media coverage has also picked up on the role of arsonists in the fires. Picking up on a story in the Australian, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that “hundreds of Australians have been arrested for allegedly deliberately lighting Australian bushfires in only a matter of months”. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that New South Wales police has “taken legal action against 183 people so far this bushfire season, including charging 24 people with deliberately lighting bushfires”. It added:
“Since November, police have also taken legal action against 53 people for failing to comply with a total fire ban and against 47 people for discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land.”
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