Teenage eco-activist Greta Thunberg doesn’t miss a chance to chastise politicians for what she says is a lack of action on climate change. Australia’s violent bushfires gave her a perfect opportunity.
The country’s fire-prone southeast typically experiences wildfires when westerly winds bring in hot and dry weather, but the current blazes are seen as a crisis even by Australian standards.
Nearly 14.8 million acres have been reduced to ash in Australia since September, mostly in its two most populous states: New South Wales and Victoria. Twenty people have died in the fires and at least 28 are missing, while nearly half a million birds, mammals and reptiles are feared dead.
“And yet. All of this still has not resulted in any political action,” Thunberg lamented. “Because we still fail to make the connection between the climate crisis and increased extreme weather events and nature disasters like the #AustraliaFires.”
“That has to change. And it has to change now.”
In another rant in December, the 17-year-old Swedish activist blamed Australian leaders for being slack on climate change.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has come under fire himself for his government's inability to address the crisis, replied to her: “It's not for me to make commentaries on what those outside of Australia think that Australia should do. We'll do in Australia what we think is right for Australia. And that has always been my guiding principle.”
“I'm not here to try to impress people overseas. I'm here to do the right job for Australians and put them first.”
So what caused the fires?
The fires happened as Australia experienced its hottest and driest year ever: 1.52 C above the 1961-90 average of 21.8 C. The Bureau of Meteorology largely blames the so-called Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) for the unprecedented scale of this year’s crisis.
The IOD refers to changes in the difference between sea-surface temperatures in the western and eastern part of the ocean. The IOD experienced an unusually strong positive phase in 2019, which saw cooler-than-normal ocean temperatures off the north-west of Australia and warmer-than-normal temperatures off the east of Africa. In practice, this resulted in a wetter climate (including rainfall and floods) in eastern Africa and drier weather conditions in Australia.
A second factor was a negative SAM, the warming of the atmosphere above Antarctica, which caused drier, warmer westerly winds south of Australia to drift further north.
Is climate change to blame?
While the rising temperature of the Indian Ocean is largely linked to climate change, the Bureau of Meteorology described the stratospheric warming in Antarctica as a “natural, internally-generated phenomena”.
Some scientists predict that global warming will make such extreme events in the Indian Ocean more regular, meaning that Australia should brace for more bushfires. Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecast at the Bureau of Meteorology said: “That long-term warming sees the bar lifted up so that it’s easier to get extreme conditions now than it was 50 or 100 years ago.”
Australia’s controversial battle with climate change
Under the 2015 Paris agreement, Australia committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions – believed to be the key factor behind the rising global temperatures – to between 26 and 28 percent below their 2005 levels.
Half of that cut will come from using “carryover credits” from beating the emissions targets under the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol (a separate treaty) and not from actual reduction of emissions.
Australia’s plan sparked vigorous debate at the COP25 climate conference last month, where Australia reportedly blocked proposals to ban access to those credits.
Scott Morrison, however, said at a press conference on 12 December that the dispute regarded the carryover credits that can be “traded” between nations under the Paris agreement, and not to those that Australia wants to apply to meet its emissions target.
“Australia is in the enviable position, unlike most countries, where we actually have exceeded on our targets,” he said. “It's a bit like saying that if you get ahead of your mortgage, it doesn't count.”
Although Australia, with a population of approximately 25 million people, contributed a higher-than average proportion of greenhouse gasses, it only amounted to about one percent of the global total, according to an NGO. However, due to the country's arid climate and location on the Tropic of Capricorn, it is is more susceptible to drought and brushfire-related weather emergencies.