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.

Now Australian cities are choking on smoke, will we finally talk about climate change?


Blanche Verlie, University of Sydney

I moved to Sydney less than five weeks ago and the city has been shrouded in smoke haze on and off since then. I joke this is my “Sydney hazing” but it’s only now – having worked on climate change for over a decade – that I’m suddenly feeling burnt out. This is not in any way to compare my experience to those who have lost their homes, communities and loved ones to the bushfires.

But the smoke cuts through Australia’s clouds of climate denial that pretend we are neither vulnerable nor responsible.




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We often refer to the “atmosphere” and “climate” of a particular space or community. We can be “on cloud nine”, “under the weather”, or “snowed under”. We know the weather affects people’s moods. My research, and that from a range of disciplines, is increasingly finding that human emotional, social and embodied experiences are intimately related to the weather and climate.

So, might people’s climate concern be changing now Sydney and Canberra have air quality on a par with Delhi?

Psychological smokescreens

Research is mixed on how extreme weather changes people’s perspectives on climate change. After severe storms and floods hit the UK in 2013 and 2014, scientists found those directly affected were more worried about climate change and supported climate change policies beyond direct, flood-related mitigation.

On the other hand, climate-change sceptics polled in the US in 2011 were more likely to recall the summer of 2010-11 as a normal one, despite record-breaking heatwaves across the northern hemisphere.

Some research has suggested climate change can prompt “information aversion”, where we actively or subconsciously avoid distressing facts and construct a safer, more comforting narrative.




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This tendency may be what drives such bracing platitudes as: “Australia is a sunburnt country”; “We’ve always had fires”; “Us Aussies are tough!”

A few face masks aside, the majority of us in Australia’s smoky cities have appeared to continue with business as usual: people just keep going to work. But I hope that, below this surface, the lingering taste of char at the back of our throats is sparking a change in the political atmosphere.

Igniting political change

No one should tell you how to feel about climate change, but I can tell you that you have a right to feel angry and sad. It is normal to feel overwhelmed – a word that once meant being literally inundated by water – in a world with rising seas and increasing floods.

Relatedly, droughts can leave us feeling drained. Awakening and sitting with these feelings is really important, but it’s also crucial not to dwell in despair.




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The social atmosphere is changing, of course: over the last year, around the world, we have seen millions of people take to the streets demanding stronger action on climate change. Our Aussie kids have been leaders in this regard.

Research and polling consistently find the majority of Australians are highly concerned about climate change and would back government policies to rapidly decarbonise the economy.

But research also tells us hardly anyone talks about their climate concern. For example, a recent study from Yale University found only 18% of Americans hear people they know talking about climate change once a month or more. It makes sense: climate change is scary and has become highly politicised, meaning it is hard to know where to start, what to say, or who to talk to.

While this is a coping mechanism to try to protect ourselves emotionally, these norms work to deny the significance of climate change, prevent useful personal and social introspection and stall community action.

So how do we create a change in the political climate? Those of us for whom a smoky city is our only tangible experience, so far, of climate change, need to step up and demand our government not only meet minimum international obligations, but become the renewable energy and climate policy leaders we could be. We also need to talk about climate change more: with our friends, families, peers and communities.




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Discussing the fires last week, one colleague mentioned she was fuming. This struck me as an empathetic echo of the smouldering state of our regional communities. My favourite sign from the school strikes has been “As oceans rise, so do we”. And now, I’d like to add, “As fires rage, so do we”.The Conversation

Blanche Verlie, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Sydney

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

The world’s carbon stores are going up in smoke with vanishing wilderness


James Watson, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Brendan Mackey, Griffith University, and James Allan, The University of Queensland

The Earth’s last intact wilderness areas are shrinking dramatically. In a recently published paper we showed that the world has lost 3.3 million square kilometres of wilderness (around 10% of the total wilderness area) since 1993. Hardest hit were South America, which has experienced a 30% wilderness loss, and Africa, which has lost 14%.

These areas are the final strongholds for endangered biodiversity. They are also essential for sustaining complex ecosystem processes at a regional and planetary scale. Finally, wilderness areas are home to, and provide livelihoods for, indigenous peoples, including many of the world’s most politically and economically marginalised communities.

James Watson and James Allan explain their recent research.

But there’s another important service that many wilderness areas provide: they store vast amounts of carbon. If we’re to meet our international climate commitments, it is essential that we preserve these vital areas.

Many of the world’s biological realms now contain very low levels of wilderness.
http://www.greenfiresciene.com

Climate consequences

Large, intact ecosystems store more terrestrial carbon than disturbed and degraded ones. They are also far more resilient to disturbances such as rapid climate change and fire.

For instance, the boreal forest remains the largest ecosystem undisturbed by humans. It stores roughly a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon.

Yet this globally significant wilderness area is increasingly threatened by forestry, oil and gas exploration, human-lit fires and climate change. These collectively threaten a biome-wide depletion of its carbon stocks, considerably worsening global warming. Our research shows that more than 320,000sqkm of boreal forest has been lost in the past two decades.

Similarly, in Borneo and Sumatra in 1997, human-lit fires razed recently logged forests that housed large carbon stores. This released billions of tonnes of carbon, which some estimate was equivalent to 40% of annual global emissions from fossil fuels. We found that more than 30% of tropical forest wilderness was lost since the early 1990s, with only 270,000sqkm left on the planet.

Deforestation of Sumatra’s lowland rainforest.
Bill Laurance

How do we stop the loss?

All nations need to step up and mobilise conservation investments that can help protect vanishing wilderness areas. These efforts will vary based on the specific circumstances of different nations. But there is a clear priority everywhere to focus on halting current threats – including road expansion, destructive mining, unsustainable forestry and large-scale agriculture – and enforcing existing legal frameworks.

For example, most of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests are under an onslaught of development pressures. Much of sub-Saharan Africa is being opened up by over 50,000km of planned “development corridors” that criss-cross the continent. These will slice deep into remaining wild places.

In the Amazon, plans are being made to construct more than 300 large hydroelectric dams across the basin. Each dam will require networks of new roads for dam and powerline construction and maintenance.

In northern Australia, schemes are afoot to transform the largest savannah on Earth into a food bowl, jeopardising its extensive carbon stores and biodiversity.

We need to enforce existing regulatory frameworks aimed at protecting imperilled species and ecosystems. We also need to develop new conservation policies that provide land stewards with incentives to protect intact ecosystems. These must be implemented at a large scale.

For example, conservation interventions in and around imperilled wilderness landscapes should include creating large protected areas, establishing mega-corridors between those protected areas, and enabling indigenous communities to establish community conservation reserves.

In Sabah, Borneo, scientists from the UK’s Royal Society have been working with local government to establish networks of interlinked reserves stretching from the coast to the interior mountains. This provides a haven for wildlife that migrate seasonally to find new food sources.

Funding could also be used to establish ecosystem projects that recognise the direct and indirect economic values that intact landscapes supply. These include providing a secure source of fresh water, reducing disaster risks and storing vast quantities of carbon.

For example, in Ecuador and Costa Rica, cloud forests are being protected to provide cities below with a year-round source of clean water. In Madagascar, carbon funding is saving one of the most biodiversity-rich tropical forests on the planet, the Makira forest.

We argue for immediate, proactive action to protect the world’s remaining wilderness areas, because the alarming loss of these lands results in significant and irreversible harm for nature and humans. Protecting the world’s last wild places is a cost-effective conservation investment and the only way to ensure that some semblance of intact nature survives for the benefit of future generations.

The Conversation

James Watson, Associate professor, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Brendan Mackey, Director of the Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University, and James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.