Climate Change Affects Australia’s Epic Wildfires — No Matter What Prime Minister Says

Weather disasters no longer occur in a vacuum, and it didn't take long before the debate over the role of climate change in the fires surfaced

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Rob Griffith / AP

Firefighters control flames during hazard reduction in Bilpin, 46 miles from Sydney, Oct. 23, 2013.

Correction appended: Oct. 24, 2013, 2:05 a.m. E.T.

Wildfires are nothing new in Australia, a sunburned country with plenty of vegetation to burn to a crisp when temperatures skyrocket during the southern-hemisphere summer. Deadly wildfires are immortalized in Australian history, including Black Saturday in 2009, when a frighteningly fast wildfire in southern Australia killed 173 people in a single day.

The blazes that burned in southeastern Australia this past week may not go down in history — just one death has so far been reported, which is a testament to the bravery of the country’s firefighters and the experience that most Australians have in dealing with fires. But the wildfires did manage to burn more than 121,000 hectares, and the smoke blackened the skies of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, while damage is set to exceed $100 million. The fires also came unusually early — October is still the springtime in Australia, though the state of New South Wales in southeastern Australia experienced its hottest September on record, on the heels of the country’s warmest 12-month period on record as well. Springtime or no, the region was primed to burn.

Weather disasters no longer occur in a vacuum, however, and it didn’t take long before the debate over the role of climate change in the fires surfaced. Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, didn’t waste time linking the wildfires and man-made global warming:

The World Meteorological Organization has not established a direct link between this wildfire and climate change — yet. But what is absolutely clear is the science is telling us that there are increasing heat waves in Asia, Europe and Australia; that there these will continue; that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency.

Had Figueres made her comments just a couple of months before, before then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was replaced in an election by the conservative Tony Abbott, she might have been received warmly. Rudd, who headed Australia’s progressive Labor Party, has called climate change the “greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time,” and his predecessor Julia Gillard (whom Rudd unseated in a Labor leadership contest before the Australian elections) actually instituted a carbon tax.

But Abbott was elected in part because of his opposition to that tax — and he has rejected any idea that climate change could be playing a role in the wildfires:

Fire is a part of the Australian experience. It has been since humans were on this continent … Climate change is real as I have often said and we should take strong action against it, but these fires are certainly not a function of climate change. They are a function of life in Australia.

Abbott is partly right — wildfires are part of the landscape in Australia, and scientists haven’t yet said whether man-made warming played a specific, detectable role in these fires. Such climate-attribution studies can take years. Records in Australia on wildfires aren’t very deep, which makes it difficult to make judgments about what’s normal and what’s not. But scientists have studied how warming might make wildfires in Australia more common and more destructive. A study published last year in the International Journal of Climatology looked at fire-danger data from 38 sites around Australia between 1973 and 2010, and found that 16 of them showed a significant increase in fire weather. (None of the sites showed a decrease.) The study also found distinct increases in fire risk during the spring and autumn, meaning the fire season was getting longer.

Another study, published in 2007, found that Australia was experiencing increases of 10% to 40% on fire-prone days between 1980 to 2000 and 2001 to 2007. A third study, published in 2012 in the journal Ecosphere, predicted that climate change will cause dry parts in the middle latitudes and Australia to experience more fires in the future.

It’s really not that complicated — of much of Australia, climate change is likely to mean hotter, drier weather, and hotter, drier weather is perfect for starting and sustaining wildfires. That doesn’t mean that reducing carbon emissions is the only or even the best way to reduce wildfire risk, especially in the short term. Smarter vegetation management that cuts down on the amount of fuel wildfires have to burn would have a quicker impact, as would limiting dangerous activities within the “red zone” — the most recent fires in New South Wales were accidentally started by a military exercise.

But here’s the reality: Australia is a country that has always lived on the edge of an inhospitable climate, which means it is poised to suffer more than most from unchecked warming in the future. That’s something the new Prime Minister would be wise to remember.

An earlier version of this article misstated that New South Wales is in southwestern Australia. It is in southeastern Australia.

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. She is Christiana Figueres, not Christina.

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a former Prime Minister of Australia. She is Julia Gillard, not Gilliard.