A world on fire: Australian blazes reach new heights

Rebecca Charno, Leah Doubert, Jacob Gottesman, Maddie Hiller, Amber Kakkar, Emily Levine, Noah Sollinger, and Aidan Spizz

 

Since November, most of Australia has been up in flames.  The fatal fires are concentrated along the southeast coast of the country, in the states of New South Wales and Victoria.  The origin of the fire was in New South Wales, but has since covered about 25.5 million acres. In Australia, summer is from December until February and fires usually rage during this period.  However, the amount of fire and smoke has reached unprecedented levels this year.  

One possible cause of the fires is climate change.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that there may be a link between the fires and the rising temperatures.  There are very few developed countries that are as vulnerable to the dramatic change in climate as Australia.  Meanwhile, Craig Kelly, a member of the Australian House of Representatives, denies any connection between the two.  However, experts are saying that there is clear evidence supporting the relationship between the fires and the increasing climate. Other causes of the fires include lightning and human activity, including arson.

The primary reason for the severity of the fires is the heat and dryness in Australia during the past year.  Temperatures in New South Wales were 36.51ºF higher than the average since 1960, a new record at 107.4ºF. In addition, the amount of rainfall was 40% lower than average going back to 1900.  Both heat and dryness are the results of climate change in the region. 

The weather in Australia has also been a catalyst for the large fires engulfing acres of land.  The unpredictable weather has resulted in quick changes of wind direction, which in turn creates bigger fires in more places.  These fires can be so large that they can create firestorms which produce lightning and stronger winds.

The damage from the fire has been unprecedented.  In addition to more than 2,000 homes that have been destroyed, 27 people have been confirmed dead due to the fires.  It is estimated that more than 1 billion animals have been killed, including more than ⅓ of the nation’s koalas.  

The smoke from the fires has been so bad that it reached New Zealand, which is 1,000 miles away.  The smoke is so extensive that it is now circumnavigating the earth as a result of the wind, and can now be seen over parts of South America.  The pollution from the smoke is affecting many people, even those who are not being directly threatened by the flames, and many are seeking treatment in hospitals for respiratory ailments.  In addition, there has been an increasing demand for smoke filtration masks and the government has begun to ration these to those most vulnerable. 

Australia is currently being governed by a conservative coalition, and the government has had difficulty reaching a compromise over climate change policies.  This is partly because politics are very much impacted by Australia’s powerful coal lobby and the fact that they have a long mining history.

Australia has deployed their military forces to help contain the fires. The government has declared states of emergency in New South Wales and Victoria and many people have been forced to evacuate.  Various military helicopters, airplanes, and naval ships have been sent to assist in the efforts. In addition, they are calling on all of their allies to provide support.

In terms of limiting the fires and keeping the Australian people safe, the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of Australia’s large volunteer fire fighting service.  As of the new year, over 2,700 service members were already on the front lines fighting the fires in both residential neighborhoods and in wilderness areas. These firefighters use a variety of strategies to put out the fires and limit their expansion, including ground tactics and the use of fire fighting planes.  It is seriously dangerous work, as the fires have killed over 20 fire service members in the past three months.

Obviously, these fires have been raging on for months at this point, and that could make life difficult for volunteer fire service members who have been out of work for weeks at a time.  For an extended period, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to offer compensation to these firefighters.

“We are constantly looking at ways to better facilitate the volunteer effort, but to professionalise that at that scale is not a matter that has previously been accepted and it’s not currently under consideration by the government,” said Morrison in an interview with The Guardian in early December. 

Since Morrison made this statement, the situation has gotten far worse across the country, and increased pressure from Australian citizens has forced Morrison to give in and finally pay these hard-working service members.  Under his new policy, all volunteer service members who have worked for more than ten days this fire season are eligible to $300 per day.

The criticism of Morrison does not stop there.  Overall, he has been under scrutiny for his failure to take rapid action to reduce carbon emissions throughout the country.  Australia has recently begun to experience hotter, drier summers, which has obviously made these fires quicker to develop and harder to stop.  Morrison has claimed the country is still on track to “meet and beat” its Paris Climate agreement goals of reducing carbon emissions by 26% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. 

The Australian people have been sure to show their dismay with Morrison’s leadership. On Jan. 10, tens of thousands of citizens flooded the streets of cities including Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane as part of a climate change protest.  Demonstrators presented signs with messages such as “Koalas Not Coal,” “Change the System,” “Not the Climate,” and “Sack ScoMo” in an attempt to influence Morrison to take initiative to rapidly move Australia away from the use of fossil fuels. 

However not just Australia is participating in the anti-climate change pledge. During the presidential debates of 2016 the subject was discussed for a total of five minutes and twenty-seven seconds in the last round.  ABC’s World News Tonight spent more time covering the latest royal birth in a month than they did climate change in all of 2018. While this may seem like news stations have flawed priorities, everytime climate change is discussed, news ratings drop– no one wants to hear about an issue that does not directly affect them.

Yes, sometimes climate change and natural disasters seem hopeless if the issue does not directly affect someone, but that is not the case.  Many think that by posting on social media while not doing anything in real life, the disaster will automatically be solved. With the posting on social media of this natural disaster, celebrity attention has been drawn.  Celebrities like Selena Gomez and Elton John have contributed money to help extinguish and rebuild after the fire. According to a survey conducted by The Schreiber Times, 68% of Schreiber students have heard about the fires through social media.

The Adelaide Advertiser compiled clippings from Lake Conjola displaying “our nation, long viewed as one of the most idyllic places on the planet, is now being seen as hell on earth”.

While halfway around the world, this may not seem like the biggest deal but the smoke has spread all the way to South America, hospitalizing those with breathing problems.  This is the beginning of the end as The New York Times said “Australia is committing climate suicide”. 

On the other hand, NASA issued an aerial photo of Australia displaying the range of the fires. This publication from a credible source made many people, who were previously unaware, shocked at the severity and endangerment of the continent. 

Additionally, several Australian new sources sent reporters to the scene of the fires in order to film. In those videos displayed on local and global television and social media featured firefighters bracing the treacherous fires and volunteers rescuing koalas and kangaroos. This coverage has not only increased awareness but also sympathy and donations to the cause. 

Despite the dire situation within the country, several foreign nations have stepped in to offer aid and firefighters to help solve this crisis. Over 100 American and Canadian firefighters have joined Australia’s own volunteer forces since the fires have ramped up in intensity in the past month. In addition, several eastern countries such as New Zealand, Singapore, and Papua, New Guinea have offered both financial and military aid.  

People have also been urging others to knit and crochet wool pouches to help the harmed animals, and aid has been flooding in from celebrities and organizations around the globe. 

Most notably, Leonardo Dicaprio’s Earth Alliance donated $3 million. Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, who are both from Australia, have donated $500,000 to the Rural Fire Services, and fellow Australian Chris Hemsworth has also pledged to donate money to the cause. Various other celebrities, including Kylie Jenner, Elton John, Ellen DeGeneres, and Selena Gomez have pledged to contribute to organizations focused on putting out the fires and helping the people and animals who have been harmed. 

From halfway across the world in the United States, it may seem impossible to help those affected by the fires in Australia, especially for people who do not have the means to donate thousands of dollars to the cause. However, there are many less demanding efforts that can be made from anywhere in the world that can still greatly assist in reducing the effects of climate change on our environment. People looking to help out from America can start with small steps, such as buying a reusable water bottle instead of using plastic ones every day, and carpooling or walking to their destinations when possible. Those looking to make an even more dramatic impact can also consider going vegetarian or vegan, or investing in a hybrid or electric car to reduce their gasoline usage. 

In addition to making lifestyle changes to help slow down the damage caused by climate change, it is important to continue spreading awareness about the issue. If people are not informed about what is happening in Australia, they will not be able to adjust their environmental impact, or donate money to the cause. According to a survey conducted by The Schreiber Times, around 40% of Schreiber students have made an effort to make lifestyle changes in order to help fight climate change. While this is a significant percentage, this number could be even higher if more students were educated on the issues occurring in Australia and ways to help slow the effects of climate change. 

In addition to word of mouth, social media influencers and celebrities can act as a catalyst for change.  Youtuber David Dobrik used the profits from one of his merchandise products, the clothing line NOAH NYC has already sold out its “Australia Benefit Long Sleeved Tee, and 9 NBA players collectively donated $750,000 to wildfire relief.  Also, Activision, the creators and owners of Call of Duty, added a new package to their repertoire called the Outback Relief Pack. This program is offered until January 31st, but is donating $20 per download to the cause.  

While it may seem a world away, the issue truly impacts everyone.  Being comfortable with the slow destruction of countries, continents, and ecosystems cannot and should not be the new norm.  Donate, participate, and spread the word. We cannot rely on activists and politicians because they cannot implement worldwide change alone.  At the dawn of the new decade, environmental negligence should be a problem of the past.