Australia is burning.
From Western Australia to Tasmania, Victoria to New South Wales, South Australia to Queensland, my country – my home – is ablaze. Flames are eating landscapes and habitats, smoke fills eyes and nostrils in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney, and death accompanies the destruction everywhere.
Here is the picture in a nutshell. So far, remembering that this is still the beginning of our fire season, and that fires in many instances continue to rage while new ones flare up, the damage is astonishing.
• Over 1 and a half billion animals dead – not including creatures such as lizards, not including insects
• 26 humans dead because of the fires; with smoke-related mortality and morbidity rates likely to steeply rise in the coming weeks
• Over 15 million acres burned out
• Two-thirds of Australian’s annual emissions budget already expended
We’ve always had fires, but this is unique in its scope and ferocity.
We’ve always been the driest and hottest continent, but none so more than now. 2019 was the hottest year on record, during which we experienced the driest day nationally (no rain anywhere in the country) and the hottest day country-wide (40C as the national median temperature).
Here are a few first impressions of the ongoing catastrophe.
This is big. To gain a sense of how big, consider the following comparisons:
- 2018 California fires = 2 million acres
- 2019 Amazon fires = 2.2 million acres
- 2019 Siberian fires = 6.7 million acres
- 2020 Australian fires = 15 million acres (and growing)
Consider that the fire smoke has created breathing problems in New Zealand some 2,000 kilometres away and has now reached Chile and the coast of South America. The smoke plume is predicted to circumscribe the globe.
So far, the areas burning have been bigger in size than the entire country of Belgium, and the state of West Virginia. The smoke plume itself is larger than the US, Canada or China.
The main culprits have been clearly exposed in the last few weeks. They include:
Our political ‘leaders’.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in Hawaii on family vacation when fire fighters were dying back in Australia; the NSW Emergency Services Minister, David Elliot, was in London. The major parties continue to back the fossil fuel industries. The PM consistently refused to meet with the ‘Emergency Leaders for Climate Action’, comprised of a group of former fire chiefs, who have been raising alarm at the fire potentials since April 2019. He now claims credit for calling in 3000 members of the Australian Defence Force and reservists to assist with evacuations and logistical support for fire fighters – a case of shutting the gate once the horse has bolted.
The Murdoch press.
From climate denial to climate distraction, the Murdoch-owned media have played a key role in defending the fossil fuel industries, and then blaming the fires on ‘greenies’ (who ostensibly have prevented backburning, but who in reality have supported it) and then latterly pointing to ‘arsonists’ as the main cause of the fires not climate change. They have supported the PM throughout his failures of leadership.
The fossil fuel industries.
The Adani mine is still on the agenda, government talks with India about coal are still in train (albeit delayed), and Australia today is now the world’s largest exporter of both coal and natural gas. Supported by sections of the international finance community, there is little sign of a slow-down in these industries, in a country ranked 57 out of 57 on climate change action.
What are these bodies culpable of? Ecocide – the preventable destruction and degradation of environments, with effects at the planetary level. We have been forewarned of the consequences of global warming both generally (via the IPCC reports) and specifically (through the particular dire predictions of fire and emergency service professionals). There are no excuses for inaction and those perpetrating the harms need to be held to account.
The victims have included humans, ecosystems, and non-human animals and plants. Scorched earth and toxic air have killed many and maimed more. And the end is not in sight. Not only do the fires continue, but without habitat to sustain them, many kangaroos, koalas and other creatures will perish in the days to come. Species extinction is skyrocketing. Extinction, by definition, refers to ‘never seen again’.
In Canberra, operations have been cancelled due to the smoke pollution seeping into hospital corridors. Sydney’s drinking water catchments are under threat from ash fall-out. We still do not fully comprehend the compounding health effects of land, water and air pollution of this nature and on this scale.
Residences have burnt to the ground, but so too have orchards and vineyards, tourist outlooks and ‘get away’ destinations. Dark tourism may well find a new home – but mainstream industries of all kinds will take years to recover, if at all.
Meanwhile, through it all, are the thousands of Country Fire Service, Rural Fire Service and Country Fire Association (the name varies according to state) volunteers still fighting, still ‘volunteers’. They are exhausted. Many are suffering extreme fatigue as months of activity and the terrors of scale take their toll. Their employers are in a quandary. Government assistance is a pittance. The trauma has many dimensions and has lasting consequences.
New words and concepts punctuate our conversations. We now speak of ‘mega-fires’ in which separate fires suck each into the other to become even larger. We now speak of fires making their own weather – the pyrocumulonibus clouds themselves generate dry lightning and fire tornadoes, thereby igniting even more fires. New ways to describe hell on earth.
What the science does not tells us is how ‘not normal’ the ‘new normal’ actually is. What the facts and stats do not convey is the emotional shock and the spiritual shake-up of seeing your home burn. This is not ‘natural’. This is a crime.
Rob White is Distinguished Professor of Criminology in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania. email@example.com. This piece was originally submitted to the British Society of Criminology's Green Criminology Research Network symposium at Northumbria University on the 16th January 2020. It is reproduced here with Rob's permission.