Fires, Climate Change, and More07 Jan 2020
s the immense tragedy in Australia continues apace, helpless onlookers are grappling for emotionally and intellectually satisfying explanations. How could such a conflagration begin, grow, and seemingly thwart all efforts to extinguish?
As human lives are threatened, property burns, and animal losses rise to nearly incalculable tolls, pinning all the blame on climate change is appealing. After all, climate change can seem like an insurmountable challenge to get ahold of, and the wildfires burning out of control appear to match that level of abstract enormity. But with such an enormous and costly problem, more nuance and evaluation are called for rather than allowing the scale to blur it all together.
To find solutions, we must pinpoint specific factors and identify areas for reform.
Climatic influence is surely at the root of the ongoing issue. Higher temperatures, drought, and agricultural conditions are the result of global patterns and not simply weather or seasonal changes. Yet the ubiquitous reporting that climate change is the cause of the fires does a disservice to those seeking understanding and solutions to the problems. Moreover, ‘climate change’ does not start fires, but serves as a background condition.
If climate change is the only reason, or if we fail to dig deeper, we are left with no practical solution for avoiding or mitigating such disasters in the future. Policies to limit greenhouse gasses and other climate-related actions are aimed at limiting temperatures (and by consequence, droughts and related issues) on a decades–if not centuries–long time scale. These would not help prevent fires next year.
A wider view of the facts surrounding the ongoing Australian disasters allows us to see different factors. Accepting that climate change is an underlying factor for the conditions that allowed the blazes to prosper, we still lack an explanation for the cause of the fires.
Many outlets are now reporting upwards of 180 arrests and legal actions against individuals responsible for starting over 100 independent fires this fire season. These include crimes ranging from intentional fires and arson to recklessness and irresponsible cigarette disposal. Estimates are that some 85% of the fires are directly attributable to human activity. Other than human activity, environmental and weather phenomena explain remaining percentages, with causes like lightening sparking blazes.
Humans sparking the fires is important to know – and policies and laws can be calibrated to mitigate this as a solution going forward. But underlying this remains the question why the fires are so brutal this year. Can climate change explain the remaining variables?
Yes – and no.
If we accept the premise that climate change is responsible for drying out the grass, brush, trees, and more, it can explain why the material on site is flammable. But it still fails to explain the entire problem, and does not entirely help to arrive at a solution. The amount of flammable material is a factor in need of further examination.
Fighting fire with fire is a longstanding practice in forests, fields, and fire-prone areas. Controlled or prescribed burns are used to both reduce the amount of flammable material in a given area and to deter fire by pre-scorching an area and removing its flammable potential for the next fire. Other forest and fire management practices seek to simply reduce the amount of material by mowing, stripping, or removing the would-be kindling from an area. This may reduce the potential for a controlled burn getting out of control, and can reduce emissions from the good fires.
But this type of management can have shortfalls, like undergrowth being missed or cropping up in hard-to-reach areas. And it also only achieves one of the objectives that prescribed burns achieve: it does reduce the flammable material, but it does not make the remaining material immune as with pre-scorching.
Early this year, experts were already voicing concern about Australia’s looming vulnerability. In the previous three seasons, the area being pre-burned was reduced from 185,000 hectares to 65,000 hectares. More reliance on non-burn management lead to fuel loads actually increasing, possibly preparing the way for such immense fires we currently see. Other explanations point to unseasonable heat and dryness as reasons that only 30% of prescribed burning was accomplished in 2018. No matter the reason, and setting aside normative evaluations, different management techniques and levels of completion of those methods is a major factor at play.
Climate change can now be framed properly. It is not the sole cause of the disaster, but a factor that made other human actions more costly. Drought and heat dried out the ‘fuel load’ of brush being stockpiled, making it more flammable. But that high volume of material is a consequence of different management policies.
Many other factors come into play to explain how and why the ongoing tragedy is so intense. As meteorologists report, the fires are so intense that they perpetuate themselves by fueling weather cycles creating lightening and more heat, which dries out more and more areas.
With a challenge as enormous in scope, sensitive in impact, and costly in damage, looking deeply at all factors is essential for finding solutions. Far greater investigation and research will be called for when the fires finally subside. But as we continue to witness this tragedy, we must remain committed to viewing the whole scenario so we can identify the best areas to address going forward.
Today, Australia deserves our prayers, donations, attention, and assistance. Tomorrow, it deserves our hearts and minds with sharp focus on fire management policy, legal action against arsonists, and infrastructure in place to deter and mitigate disaster in years to come.
Written by Benjamin R. Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.