Could Australia's bushfire disaster alter the conversation on climate change? | Miles O'Brien Productions

Could Australia’s bushfire disaster alter the conversation on climate change?

Australia has been suffering a summer of extreme weather and dire consequences. Thunderstorms and hail have been pelting eastern sections of the country, while strong winds have produced dust storms. Plus, drought conditions and devastating bushfires remain a major problem. PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports from Australia on why this fire season and its terrible impact are far from over.


Judy Woodruff:

It has been an awful summer in Australia, with extreme weather and terrible consequences. Thunderstorms and hail have been pelting eastern sections of the country, but strong winds have also created dust storms.

Drought conditions and the bushfires remain a major problem. This fire season is hardly over.

Miles O’Brien has been reporting from there for our regular coverage on the Leading Edge of science and for the weather app MyRadar.

Miles O’Brien:

The bunker gear is hung and dry at the Bairnsdale Fire Department in East Gippsland, Australia, for now, the calm after the firestorm 10 days earlier.

Captain Aaron Lee, his 12 year old son, Ryan, in tow, took me to the spot in nearby Sarsfield where they waited and watched the flames approach.

Aaron Lee:

We had a lot of vehicles parked here in the first — as like a first rally point. The fire was put out with the smoke straight out ahead of us.

Miles O’Brien:

So, you’re looking at the fire? We’re like pointed toward the fire?

Aaron Lee:

We’re basically looking at the fire, yes.

Miles O’Brien:

Nearby, the fire is still smoldering in a peat bog. When it roared in, it took 20 homes, but Lee and his brigade, all volunteers who left their own families and homes behind, worked tirelessly, saving countless others, while constantly facing instant decisions on where to take a stand.

Aaron Lee:

You have to protect the assets where possible with what resources you have got. And, sometimes, assets aren’t defendable. We can’t — we have literally have to — we have to go, well, sorry, we can’t defend that because it’s too risky for us.

Miles O’Brien:

At the command post, firefighters still have their hands full coordinating the fight against uncontained wildfires covering a huge swathe of Southeast Australia.

Across the country so far this fire season, more than 24 million acres have burned, killing two dozen, destroying 2,000 homes. The fires have also taken a terrible toll on wildlife, injuring and killing millions of the unique species that live on this island continent.

Brett Mitchell is the incident commander here.

Brett Mitchell:

So, we have been fighting these fires since November.

So, fatigue is a real issue we have to manage. We do have teams coming in from Canada and the United States to give us a bit of relief, which is great. And really appreciate that assistance.

But we can also get new starts as well. So, lightning can start new fires as well. So, we’re not only dealing with these particular fires, but quite often, given we’re in January, we can get over 100 new fires start.

Miles O’Brien:

The unprecedented fires come amid record drought and heat.

Farmer John White is the mayor of the shire of East Gippsland.

John White:

It’s been extraordinary. And people who have known the bush all their life have just described the fire behavior as something they have never seen before.

I think, in terms of area, it has possibly burnt close to 60 percent of our area.

Miles O’Brien:

Mayor White is grateful his fellow countrymen have rallied to help farmers like him in this time of great need.

On Saturday, a convoy of trucks carrying hay rolled into town with a police escort to speed the way. Besides agriculture, this area depends heavily on tourism. But with the fires looming, authorities were forced to evacuate 30,000 people enjoying the Christmas summer holiday.

Businesses on Main Street are hurting, but it’s too soon to invite the tourists back.

John White:

It’s difficult to say we’re in recovery while we still have a fire that could bust out anywhere over the next six weeks and actually cause similar devastation where it’s not burnt now.

Miles O’Brien:

Fire has always been a part of the landscape here in Australia, but this year, it’s different.

Linden Ashcroft:

Yes, the fire season of 2019 in Australia is really a perfect storm of climate events, to be honest with you.

Miles O’Brien:

Linden Ashcroft is a historical climatologist at the University Of Melbourne. She says a stronger-than-normal shifting ocean current called the Indian Ocean Dipole is at play. Like El Nino in the Pacific, the Dipole changes winds and sea surface temperatures.

This year, it has blown warmer water toward Africa, allowing colder water to surface near Australia. The colder air there contains less moisture and fewer clouds, creating drought conditions.

Meanwhile, the air above Antarctica became unusually warm, which triggers windier conditions for Australia. And all of this happens as the climate steadily warms.

Linden Ashcroft:

So, we had tinder-dry forests. We had really strong winds. We had a temperature or a climate that’s a degree warmer than it was 60 years ago. And all of those things combined just made it — just made it exactly right for a devastating bushfire season.

Miles O’Brien:

And it might be exactly right to change the public discourse on climate change here. Australia generates 80 percent of its electricity with coal and gas. It is the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels.

The country’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a long history of skepticism and denial of climate science, but with the fires raging, he is now saying he hopes to evolve climate change policy.

Amanda McKenzie is leading advocate for action on climate change in Australia.

Amanda McKenzie:

I think the fires have changed everything.

We don’t know just how much that that has impacted people yet, but the trauma will go on for some time, and I think it will fundamentally change how Australians look at the issue of climate change, but it also will change how we look at the federal government.

Miles O’Brien:

Here in Southeast Australia, it is impossible to ignore the crisis at their front door. And while there is some evidence opinions may in fact be changing, not everyone recognizes the urgency.

John White:

This has sort of become a generational thing in terms of people picking up on it. And I’m not a skeptic, but it’s — I hope they’re wrong. I really do. I hope they’re wrong, because that would be a disaster for the planet.

Miles O’Brien:

Do you worry about Ryan’s future and what this — as the trends go up, what that might mean for living in Australia?

Aaron Lee:

Yes and no. Yes, there is climate change there, but how much of it is actually having effect on what we’re doing here?

I base my decisions on information. If I got the information, I will make that decision, basically. So, if I am fed the right information, yes, I might be less skeptical.

Miles O’Brien:

There is some evidence that the political inertia on climate change may have met its match with this wildfire season.

On Sunday, the state environment minister for New South Wales, where I stand right now, Matt Kean, in the same party as the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said many members of his party have widespread belief that they’d like to take greater action on climate change.

The prime minister’s response? No one at the federal level even knows that environment minister — Judy.

Judy Woodruff:


And, Miles, tell us about the situation there right now.

Miles O’Brien:

Well, there’s been rain over the weekend, and that’s helped a little bit for the firefighters, allowed them to contain some blazes.

By no means did it put everything out, and by no means does it solve a drought that has lasted three years. And the rain does have — it’s a two-edged sword, Judy. I’m standing here. You can see the soil behind me. It’s pretty much stripped, denuded. And too much rain can lead to mudslides, and flash flooding.

And then also windy conditions, and, of course, rain leads to thunderstorms, thunderstorms lead to lightning, and that’s what started many of these blazes.

So it gives and it takes away, and people here are hunkered down, because it is still early in this fire season — Judy.

Judy Woodruff:

Still sounding like a long road back.

Miles O’Brien, reporting from Australia, from New South Wales, thank you, Miles.

Miles O’Brien:

You’re welcome, Judy.

Banner image credit: PBS NewsHour.

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