As Australia continues battling its worst bushfires for a decade, Daniela Chiaretti, explains the devastating impact on native biodiversity and calls for urgent climate leadership.

By Daniela Chiaretti, Valor Econômico

The year 2020 started with an environmental apocalypse. Australia has been experiencing an end times-like scenario since bushfire season arrived early September 2019, which was exacerbated by the driest spring on record and soon took on terrifying proportions.

A video of a fire truck surrounded by flames filmed from inside the vehicle shows scenes that are unprecedented, even for disaster movies. The sound of everything burning nearby and the sight of the enormous blaze provide the preamble for a horrendous death.

The macabre toll of the wildfires now raging in Australia currently includes 25 deaths, dozens of missing persons, thousands of destroyed properties and large-scale damage to the country’s biodiversity. One region alone has lost over 4 million hectares to the flames. Kangaroos, possums and snakes have died.

Estimates suggest that more than 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles have been killed, and thousands of sheep and cows have been sacrificed. And the causes of Australia’s drama can easily be named: climate change and government incompetence.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the 51-year-old leader of the Liberal Party who was re-elected in May last year, received widespread criticism for taking a vacation with his family in Hawaii just before Christmas while the fires raged. When he returned, a state of emergency had been declared in New South Wales for the third time, whose state capital is Sydney with a population of 8 million. In the small town of Mallacoota, Victoria, 4,000 people were forced to spend New Year’s Eve seeking shelter on the beach, inhaling smoke and searching for one other in the daytime darkness while they waited to be rescued by the Australian Navy.

The fate of the koala bear, the marsupial species native to Australia, is particularly tragic. These sweet Yoda-like creatures move too slowly to be able to escape the wildfires. When faced with the flames, their only option is to climb up the eucalyptus trees, which does nothing to save them given the ferocity of the blazes this summer. An article published in November’s issue of National Geographic states that in 2016, the koala population was estimated at 329,000. This vulnerable species is endangered as a result of changes in land use and the degradation of their main food source: eucalyptus leaves. They also suffer as a consequence of droughts, attacks by dogs and chlamydia infections, which lead to blindness and death.

In November, the rescue of a severely injured koala from a fire on the side of a road went viral on social media. A couple saved it, wrapped it up in a towel and took it to a specialist Koala hospital. Named Lewis, his suffering moved the world. Sadly, his burns worsened and he didn’t survive.

More recently, an uncontrolled fire devastated Kangaroo Island, which is believed to have a koala population of 50,000. “For every koala we are seeing alive, there are one hundred dead,” commented the owner of the reserve, Sam Mitchell, in a statement to the press.

Morrison, accused by some as a nationalist leader, rejected the UN’s Global Compact for Migration, claiming it poses a threat to national security, and recognises West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His government’s opposition in the Australian Labor Party ran on a platform focusing on climate change, whereas he instead chose to prioritize support for coal-based energy.

In the face of catastrophe and the fury of the general public, Morrison’s decision to reinforce the efficiency of his environmental policies and claim that the greens prevented hazard reduction burning, an aboriginal practice that prevents large-scale fires, an argument which was quickly dismissed, was widely condemned. He was also confronted by the fire fighters, the national heroes of this tragedy. They complained of having tried and failed on several occasions to speak to the Prime Minister before wildfire season in an attempt to secure more funding.

The reaction of Jair Bolsonaro’s government to Australia’s tragedy served to demonstrate the highly charged political backdrop fuelling these fires. “Here in Brazil it is difficult to understand the silence of Emmanuel Macron [the President of France]. Different reactions when it comes to Brazil. Real concern with the environment or socialist ideology?” read a tweet posted by Brazil’s Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni. There are fires in Australia’s forests every year. Some of the fires this year could have been started intentionally, yet there were no groups of farmers organising a “day of fire” as there were in Brazil. The fires are not focused alongside the country’s roads. Australia is experiencing a previously unforeseen dry season, yet in 2019, the Amazon experienced higher rainfall than usual.

The Indian Niño phenomenon was responsible for the hotter and drier climate down under. In December, temperatures reached 42°C. Extreme climatic events, higher temperatures and strong winds have created the conditions for these terrifying blazes.

An article on the website of the World Economic Forum shows how Australia’s huge bushfires are generating storms with severe winds and lightning that spread existing fires or cause new ones. These are monsters that grow stronger as they burn.

According to a research paper published in December by Carlos Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy, we are close to the point at which the Amazon rainforest is becoming so devastated it could turn it into a savannah. Total deforested areas in the Brazilian Amazon are now approaching 20% of the original forest. Droughts have also become more common — seen in 2005, 2010, and again in the summer of 2015-2016.

We are well past the point at which ideology needs to put to one side, in both Brazil and Australia. Governments must urgently accept scientists’ warnings and make the necessary changes so that society is ready to face the impacts, cut greenhouse gas emissions and stop wasting time.

The fire fighters mentioned in the introduction spent an hour in that hell. You can hear what the driver says to his colleague when he realises the danger they are in: “Jasper, put the blanket up (on the windows).” Thanks to modern technology and a miracle, all those inside the vehicle got to safety. Everything they drove past on their way out didn’t, however.


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