Last updated November 22, 2019 at 1:08 pm
While politicians point their fingers, the experts weigh in on the role climate change has played in the bushfires.
Why This Matters: Listen to the experts, not the people who shout the loudest.
Politicians have blamed everything from arson to ‘greenies’ and their influence on environmental regulations for exacerbating the fires, whereas the scientific community suspects climate change has played a significant role.
At an AusSMC briefing last week, experts discussed how exceptional this fire season is, how effective our current fire management strategies have been, and how certain we can be that climate change has made bushfires more likely to occur and more severe when they do.
We’re now in uncharted territory
“We are now in uncharted territory,” says Ross Bradstock, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong.
“Pretty much we’ve gone over the one million hectare mark, and at least for the forest and woodlands in the eastern half of the state, this is unprecedented.”
The most concerning thing, according to the experts, is that summer hasn’t even started yet, and the changing climate has provided new, elevated risks.
One fire management strategy is the use of prescribed burns – lighting fires in the cooler months to burn off fuels before fire season starts.
However, the fire season was declared earlier than usual this year, meaning that the optimum time for prescribed burning has shifted. That makes fire management and prevention more difficult.
“Generally speaking, there hasn’t been a lot of hazard-reduction work in places like NSW this spring because the fire season was declared early,” says Bradstock.
And, while some politicians have argued that ecologists are preventing prescribed burns due to wildlife concerns, Professor of Pyrogeography at the University of Tasmania, David Bowman says this has not impeded fuel management.
Instead, he said, fuel management has been impeded by “a constellation of practical constraints”, including cost, concerns about the health effects of smoke pollution, risk management and who is legally liable for management on land.
To make matters worse, the experts say fire is behaving differently as the climate changes. For example, managers can no longer be confident that fires will go out on their own, and have to plan for fires that continue to burn vigorously through the night.
Climate change has lengthened the fire season
So are these bushfires the result of climate change? The experts says that’s not an easy question to answer, particularly at this early stage.
According to Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick at the University of New South Wales, “we can’t necessarily say one specific fire – or all of the ingredients overall that go into fire weather – are due to climate change, but we can certainly tease out that climate change has this signal in some of those ingredients.”
For example, Perkins-Kirkpatrick says the fire season has lengthened due to climate change, particularly over eastern Australia, and this is likely to continue until at least 2050.
And while an official attribution report for the current fires will take at least a year to complete, Perkins-Kirkpatrick co-authored a soon-to-be-published study on the 2018 Queensland fires, which she says were exacerbated by dry conditions and high temperatures.
“Those temperatures that helped drive those bushfires were around four times more likely due to climate change,” she says.
Climate change means we need to re-think how fires behave
Why is all this talk of climate change so important? Professor Bowman said the changing climate means many lessons we’ve learnt in the past about how fires behave are no “really no longer fit for purpose”.
“To be very clear, it’s absolutely possible to manage fuels, it’s possible to create fire-safe environments,” he says.
“But that is an enormous research and practical challenge given a rapidly changing climate. We’re having to learn new things now, we’re having to develop new skills.”
And while this sounds like a thoroughly gloomy outlook, Bowman says he remains hopeful for the future.
“I really want to reiterate, particularly focusing on the concerns of the younger generation, that this can be a positive and exciting time, that we can do lots of things to make our future better,” he says.
“There’s opportunity in this to make the world a better place.”
You can watch the full AusSMC briefing here.