Australia’s bushfire smoke is lapping the globe, and the law is too lame to catch it



Smoke form Australia’s bushfires could be seen from space. But who should be held to account for the problem?
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Western Sydney University

Smoke from Australia’s bushfires has travelled far beyond its origins. It crossed New Zealand and South America, and within days had drifted halfway around the globe. NASA predicted the smoke would complete a full circuit and arrive back where it started.

As climate change takes hold and global temperatures rise, bushfires are set to increase in severity and frequency. The underlying cause of the fires and resulting smoke haze are often numerous – spanning both natural variability and climate change caused by individuals, governments and corporations.

Legal and policy frameworks – local, national and international – fail to capture these diffused responsibilities. Despite the proliferation of climate-related laws in recent decades, bushfire smoke still largely escapes regulation and containment. In this new era of monster fires, our laws need a major rethink.

Smoke haze blanketing Sydney late last year.
NEIL BENNETT/AAP

A short history of smoke

Smoke is obviously not a new phenomenon – it has polluted Earth’s air since the invention of fire.

In Egypt and Peru, evidence of ancient soot has been found in the lung tissue of mummies, thought to be the result of humans inhaling smoke particles from wood heaters and elsewhere.

The Romans referred to the gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”) and infamis aer (“infamous air”). Ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote to a friend of his relief at escaping the polluted city:

No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city Rome and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition.




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Smoke pollution grew worse during the Industrial Revolution, as coal-burning factories proliferated across Europe and the United States. In London, 12,000 people are believed to have died in the Great Smog of 1952.

In Australia too, air pollution, including from bushfire smoke, is not new. However laws to deal with it have traditionally targeted pollution from industry, transport, power generation, and vehicles. Until now, bushfire smoke has been seen as a natural phenomenon, outside human control.

Indonesian women wear protective masks as they perform a mass prayer for rain to combat the smoke haze and drought season in Indonesia.
AFRIANTO SILALAHI

Where to point the finger?

Australia’s fires are not the first to be felt far from their origin.

Slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia regularly spreads smoke across Southeast Asia. In September last year, winds reportedly carried the smoke north to Malaysia and Singapore, prompting schools to close and triggering a mass public health scare.

In 2018, smoke from wildfires on the west coast of the United States reportedly travelled to the east coast of the continent to states such as Missouri, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.




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As climate change worsens, and so too the frequency and extent of bushfires, it is critical that all efforts are made to prevent smoke from being emitted in the first place, and spreading around the world. However this requires identifying those responsible – a slippery concept when climate change is involved.

The Bureau of Meteorology recently confirmed what many strongly suspected: climate change contributed to Australia’s hottest, driest year on record on 2019, which led to the extreme bushfire season.

Following the latest bushfire outbreak, some declared Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government responsible for failing to take meaningful action on climate change.

Sharnie Moran and daughter Charlotte look on as thick smoke rises from a fire near Coffs Harbour, NSW.
Dan Peled/AAP

The federal and state governments and some quarters of the media in turn blamed others, such as arsonists and conservationists, for the fires – claims which were quickly discredited.

There is also a strong argument to hold corporations responsible for climate change – one analysis in 2017 found that just 100 companies were responsible for more than 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

But whether we blame a particular government or other human actors, the current suite of international laws are insufficient for holding them to account.

The law has failed

The number of global climate change laws has increased 20-fold between 1997 and 2017, from 60 to 1,260.

But despite this proliferation, the world is not on track to limiting planetary warming to less than 1.5℃ this century – a threshold beyond which the worst climate change impacts, including uncontrollable bushfires, will be felt.




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This is because most of the laws and policies consist of “declarations” and soft law – that which is not legally binding, and so is easily ignored. Few deal with issues of restorative justice – until now a criminal law concept which involves repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour.

Experts have argued that the idea could be applied to disasters, drawing all parties to come together to deal with its aftermath and implications for the future.

The United Nations, which last year released the first-ever assessment of global environmental rules, says weak enforcement was “a global trend that is exacerbating environmental threats” including climate change and pollution. It also pointed to the need to properly fund government agencies responsible for enforcing laws.

Beachgoers in Sydney amid smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales.
STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP

Looking ahead

Many climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, are almost invisible. But bushfire smoke rapidly engulfs a city skyline. It travels beyond national borders and is impossible to ignore.

As fire seasons worsen, political leaders will come under increasing pressure to stem the emission and spread of bushfire smoke. Key to this will be stronger climate change laws and enforcement, which recognise that a bushfire in one country can quickly become the world’s problem.The Conversation

Eric Kerr, Lecturer, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Pulling out weeds is the best thing you can do to help nature recover from the fires



Australians are keen to help nature recover after a season of devastating bushfires.
Darren England/AAP

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

Many Australians feel compelled to help our damaged wildlife after this season’s terrible bushfires. Suggested actions have included donating money, leaving water out for thirsty animals, and learning how to help the injured. But there is an equally, if not more, important way to assist: weeding.

An army of volunteers is needed to help land owners with judicious weed removal. This will help burnt habitats recover more quickly, providing expanded, healthy habitat for native fauna.

Other emergency responses, such as culling feral animals and dropping emergency food from aeroplanes, are obviously jobs for specialists. But volunteer weeding does not require any prior expertise – just a willingness to get your hands dirty and take your lead from those in the know.

Volunteer weeding will help burnt habitats recover more quickly.
Silje Polland/Flickr

Why is weeding so critical?

The recent bushfires burned many areas in national parks and reserves which were infested with weeds. Some weeds are killed in a blaze, but fire also stimulates their seed banks to germinate.

Weed seedlings will spring up en masse and establish dense stands that out-compete native plants by blocking access to sunlight. Native seedlings will die without setting seed, wasting this chance for them to recover and to provide habitat for a diverse range of native species.




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This mass weed germination is also an opportunity to improve the outlook for biodiversity. With a coordinated volunteer effort, these weeds can be taken out before they seed – leaving only a residual seed bank with no adult weeds to create more seed and creating space for native plants to flourish.

With follow-up weeding, we can leave our national parks and reserves – and even bushland on farms – in a better state than they were before the fires.

Bush regeneration groups are well placed to restore forests after fire, but need volunteers.
Flickr

Weeding works

In January 1994, fire burned most of Lane Cove National Park in Sydney. Within a few months of the fire, volunteer bush regeneration groups were set up to help tackle regenerating weeds.

Their efforts eradicated weeds from areas where the problem previously seemed intractable and prevented further weed expansion. Key to success in this case was the provision of funding for coordination, an engaged community which produced passionate volunteers and enough resources to train them.




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Following recent fires in the Victorian high country, volunteers will be critical to controlling weeds, particularly broom (Scotch broom and related species), which occurs throughout fire-affected areas .

Fire typically kills these woody shrubs but also stimulates seed germination. Without intervention, broom will form dense stands which out-compete native plant species .

However, swift action now can prevent this. Mass germination reduces the broom’s seedbank to as low as 8% of pre-fire levels, and around half of the remaining seeds die each year. Further, broom usually takes three years to flower and replenish its seedbank. So with no new seeds being produced and the seedbank low and shrinking, this three-year window offers an important opportunity to restore previously infested areas.

Scotch broom, a native shrub of Western Europe, has infested vast swathes of Australia.
Gunter Maywald-CSIRO/Wikimedia

Parks Victoria took up this opportunity after the 2003 fires in the Alpine National Park. They rallied agencies, natural resource management groups and local landholders to sweep up broom . Herbicide trials at that time revealed that to get the best outcome for their money, it was critical to spray broom seedlings early, within the first year and a half.

Broom management also needs to use a range of approaches, including using volunteers to spread a biological control agent.

Plenty of work to do

Parks Victoria continue to engage community groups in park management and will coordinate fire response actions when parks are safe to enter. Similar programs can be found in New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the ACT.

A wide range of weeds expand after fire and warrant a rapid response. They include lantana, bitou bush, and
blackberry.




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Managing weeds after fire is currently a high priority at many sites. At the edges of the World Heritage Gondwana rainforests of southwest Queensland and northern and central NSW, there is a window to more effectively control lantana. In many forested areas in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, fire has created an opportunity to address important weed problems.

State government agencies have the mapping capacity to locate these places. Hopefully they can make these resources easy for the public to access soon, so community groups can self-organise and connect with park managers.

A koala badly injured during the Canberra bushfires before it was returned to the wild.
ALAN PORRIT/AAP

All this needs money

Emergency funding is now essential to enable community-based weed control programs at the scale needed to have a substantial impact. Specifically, funding is needed for group coordinators, trainers and equipment.

While emergency work is needed to control regenerating weeds in the next 6-18 months, ongoing work is needed after that to consolidate success and prevent reinfestations from the small, but still present, seed bank.

Ongoing government funding is needed to enable this work, and prepare for a similar response to the next mega-fires.

Want to act immediately?

You can volunteer to do your bit for fire recovery right now. In addition to state-agency volunteer websites, there are many existing park care, bush care and “friends of” groups coordinated by local governments. They’re waiting for you to join so they can start planning the restoration task in fire-affected areas.

Contact them directly or register your interest with the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators who can link you with the appropriate organisations.




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If we do nothing now, the quality of our national parks will decline as weeds take over and native species are lost. But if you channel your fire-response energy and commitment to help manage weeds, our national parks could come out in front from this climate-change induced calamity.

By all means, rescue an injured koala. But by pulling out weeds, you could also help rescue a whole ecosystem.


Dr Tein McDonald, president of the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Earth’s population heads to 10 billion, does anything Australians do on climate change matter?



The United Nations predicts the world will be home to nearly 10 billion people by 2050 – making global greenhouse emission cuts ever more urgent.
NASA/Joshua Stevens

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

As unprecedented bushfires continue to ravage the country, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government have been rightly criticised for their reluctance to talk about the underlying drivers of this crisis. Yet it’s not hard to see why they might be dumbstruck.

The human race has never had to grapple with a problem as large, complex or urgent as climate change. It’s not that there aren’t solutions available. There are already some hopeful signs of an energy transition in Australia. As Professor Ross Garnaut has explained, it would be in Australia’s economic interests to become a low-carbon energy superpower.

To successfully tackle climate change will require some painful transitions domestically, and unprecedented levels of international coordination and cooperation. But that isn’t happening. Global action to cut emissions is falling far short of what’s needed – and meanwhile, though it’s controversial to mention, the world’s population quietly climbs ever higher.

Our growing population challenge

The United Nations’ World Population Prospects 2019 report forecast that by 2027, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country.

By 2050, the UN predicts that the world’s population will be nearly 10 billion, up from 7.7 billion now. Nine countries are expected to be home to more than half of that growth: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Egypt and the United States. The population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050 (a 99% increase), while Australia and New Zealand are expected to grow more slowly (28% increase).

The world’s population growth rate in recent years.
World Population Prospects 2019, United Nations, CC BY

Given how difficult climate politics have been here in Australia, why would we expect it to be any more politically feasible in say, India, which claims the right to develop as we did? However self-serving Australian coal supporters’ arguments about lifting Indians out of poverty are, the underlying questions of national autonomy and the ‘right’ to develop are not easily refuted.

Even talking about demography is asking for trouble – especially if it becomes caught up with questions of race, identity and the most fundamental of human rights, the right to reproduce.

While reducing population growth is plainly important in the long-term, it isn’t a quick fix for all our environmental problems. In the meantime, research has shown that supporting education for girls in poor countries is one of the single most important things we can do now to address this issue.

How Australia can show leadership

I think we need to understand that global emissions don’t have an accent, they come from many countries and we need to look at a global solution… – Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Insiders, ABC, 12 January 2020

This is the central defence of business as usual: there’s no point in Australia making huge sacrifices and ‘wrecking’ (or transforming, depending on your perspective) the economy if no one else is doing so. We contribute less than 2% to global greenhouse emissions, so – some claim – we can’t make any real difference.

As outlined in my 2019 book, Environmental Populism: The Politics of Survival in the Anthropocene, nations such as Australia can play a useful role by showing what an enlightened country, with the capacity and incentive to act, might do. If we don’t have the means and the compelling environmental reasons to make tough but meaningful policy choices, who does?

But even in the unlikely event that Australians collectively retrofitted the entire economy along sustainable lines, there would still be a lot of the world that wouldn’t, or couldn’t even if they wanted to. The development imperative really is non-negotiable in India, China and the more impoverished states of sub-Saharan Africa.

Will China lead the way?

From the privileged perspective of wealthy Australians, the ‘good’ news is that the ecological footprint of the average Ethiopian is seven times smaller than ours. India’s average is even less, despite all the recent development. However, people in India and Ethiopia may not think that’s a good thing.

One of the paradoxical impacts of globalisation is that everyone is increasingly conscious of their relative place in the international scheme of things. The legitimacy of governments – especially unelected authoritarian regimes like China’s – increasingly revolves around their capacity to deliver jobs and rising living standards. Where governments can’t deliver, the population vote with their feet.

As naturalist Sir David Attenborough warned last week, Australia’s current fires are another sign that “the moment of crisis has come”. He called on China for the global leadership we’ve been missing:

If the Chinese come and say: ‘Not because we are worried about the world but for our own reasons, we are going to take major steps to curb our carbon output […]’, everybody else would fall into line, one thinks. That would be the big change that one could hope would happen.

China has arguably already made the biggest contribution to our collective welfare with its highly contentious, now abandoned one-child policy. China’s population would have been around 400 million people larger without it, pushing us closer to the crisis Sir David fears.

To be clear, I’m not advocating compulsory population control, here or anywhere. But we do need to consider a future with billions more people, many of them aspiring to live as Australians do now.

Looking ahead, will Australians try to keep living as we do today? Or will we decide to set a new example of living well, without such a heavy ecological footprint? Resolving all these conundrums won’t be easy; perhaps not even possible. That’s another discomfiting reality that we may have to get used to.The Conversation

Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.