Guest authors Giovanna Diplomatico and Giorgia Gulotta have worked at the Italian Embassy in Canberra (AUS) throughout what can be arguably defined as the toughest period for the Australian government in modern history.
Giovanna and Giorgia have co-authored the present report illustrating the governmental challenges after the Australian wildfires of early 2020.
The bushfire phenomenon is a typical annual occurrence of south-east Australia where, during summertime, the climate results often hot and dry. Despite its disruptive action, a proper management of the burns of inhabited areas could lead to a positive impact on the environment by providing fertilizing ash to the terrain, reforestation, evolution of wildlife species, etc.
In light of this, the disaster that hit the Australian ecosystem between November 2019 and February 2020, is still under a heated debate on whether it could have been easily predicted or, at least, better managed.
The numbers of the tragedy
According to media reports, 18 million hectares have burnt, and almost 6,000 buildings and 2,800 houses were destroyed. Billions of animals died, including 25,000 koalas. Kangaroo Island was one of the most affected communities, thousands of farm animals and its unique vegetation have been devastated by the flames. Furthermore, smoke and air pollution have triggered thousands of extra hospitalizations both for cardio-respiratory problems and asthma attacks, causing hundreds of premature deaths.
Canberra measured the worst air quality index of any major cities last January. Sydney was hit by 80 days of hazardous air conditions. Simultaneously, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, bushfires also hit the Australian economy, targeting industries such as farming, tourism and education as well.
The Australian economy has been damaged by an estimate of AU$ 4 billion. The entire government leadership has been heavily criticized for the late response to this emergency, especially for the 33 people killed during the fires. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government allocated funds for billions of dollars and created a new bushfire recovery agency in order to monitor the situation and to react promptly in case of future difficulties. Unfortunately, these measures were adopted when the Australian environment was already almost destroyed by the fires, especially in the New South Wales and Victoria regions.
In the aftermath of this apocalyptic scenario, which has had a huge national and international media echo, it would be beneficial to study what happened during the Black Summer of 2019/20 through statistical analyses collected as a testing ground to develop and improve technologies in both fire prevention and fire-fighting. It is important to understand what went wrong and compare data, even if there are under-estimations of the climate change model predictions, or if it is better to arbitrarily decide to assess what happened as a single specific accident and ignore the multiple agents that factored in.
The politics behind bushfires
Australian Prime Minister S. Morrison has been fighting to keep the climate change off the table and rejects critiques that the country is not doing enough. On the matter, it is not surprising to know that Australia is still highly reliant on coal energy. PM Morrison himself repeatedly declared that it was mandatory for his government to not put at risks the coal sector:
“I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries.”
PM Scott Morrison in Julia Jacobo, “Australia’s prime minister justifies climate policies amid ranging wildfires”, ABC News, December 23rd, 2019, accessed May 10, 2020.
A common argument of those sitting on the other side of the table from climate activists, is the fact that the fire season has been consistently ascribed to the continent’s climate. What has changed is that people have lost the knowledge necessary to counter these arguments. Scott Morrison pointed out on a press conference on January, 4th that:
“As it 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.”
The ‘Hazard reduction’ plan that he mentioned is carried out through “controlled burnings” during the cold season, in order to manage the fuel available during the dry season. This technique has largely been implemented for years by the Indigenous communities in Northern Australia and proved to work better than the protocols put in place in the rest of the country.
Climate change as primary cause
The risk-mitigating plan implemented by PM Morrison was not enough for New South Wales (NSW) Premier Ms. Gladys Berejiklian, who decided to start an independent inquiry to assess the factors that contributed to the blazes and, specifically, its correlation with climate change, while at the same time examining the promptness of the government’s reaction. Ms. Berejiklian declared that “the goal is to learn from this season and the catastrophic conditions we’ve faced and apply these learnings for the future” (in Steven Trask, “NSW government announces bushfire inquiry”, The New Daily, January 30th, 2020, accessed May 8th, 2020).
Based on the first assessment on the role of climate change in the recent Australian bushfires published by the World Weather Attribution consortium,
“climate change definitely increases the risk of the extreme weather that makes the catastrophic bush fires in the past few months more likely by at least 30%”.
in Drew Kann, “The Climate Crisis made Australia’s wildfires at least 30% more likely, study finds”, CNN World March 4th, 2020, accessed April 30th, 2020.
Even though scientists agreed on the fact that climate change is not the only direct factor, it is certain that it is playing an increasingly dangerous role.
The former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner is of the same opinion, improving technologies is not enough but we should tackle the problem at its roots and address the ‘climate crisis’. In an interview he declared that
“it’s a bit like going to a gas fire and putting out all the houses and burning cars around it but not turning off the gas. Well, it’ll keep burning. All the houses, everything: doesn’t matter how much water you put on them, they’ll keep catching fire again” (in Helen Sullivan, “Australia bushfire season ends and researchers look to the next one”, The New York Times April 21st, 2020; accessed May 8th, 2020).
In conclusion, since the rising temperatures resulting from global warming could have deeply affected the severe weather conditions, climate change might be the leading cause of the last unprecedented bushfire season. It is not easy to identify the best way to manage old and new concepts in order to deal with the bushfire phenomenon.
Nonetheless, it is imperative to start a new and cooperative analysis on human actions vis-à-vis climate changes in order to adopt data-backed, rather than politics-driven, protocols to avoiding catastrophic events, like Australia faced during the Black Summer of 2019/20.