The megafires of Australia’s summer “are a harbinger of life and death on a hotter Earth”, a climate summit has said in a forceful declaration for urgent and dramatic climate action.
The Climate Emergency Summit, held in Melbourne this week and of which Guardian Australia was a partner, released a declaration saying the warming world was a clear threat to Australian society and civilisation.
“The climate is already dangerous – in Australia and the Antarctic, in Asia and the Pacific – right around the world. The Earth is unacceptably too hot now,” the declaration said.
“If the climate warms 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the Great Barrier Reef will likely be lost, sea levels could rise metres and massive global carbon stores such as the Amazon and Greenland, will hit tipping points, releasing millions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.”
Signatories to the declaration included Ian Dunlop, Carmen Lawrence, John Hewson, Tim Costello and Kerryn Phelps. It warned that even the Paris agreement emissions reduction targets would put the world on a path to 3.5C warming by 2100, and 4C to 5C warming “when long-term climate-system feedbacks were factored in”.
Does climate change cause bushfires?
The link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk is complex but, according to major science agencies, clear. Climate change does not create bushfires, but it can and does make them worse. A number of factors contribute to bushfire risk, including temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity.
What is the evidence on rising temperatures?
The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO say Australia has warmed by 1C since 1910 and temperatures will increase in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is extremely likely increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases since the mid-20th century is the main reason it is getting hotter. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards research centre says the variability of normal events sits on top of that. Warmer weather increases the number of days each year on which there is high or extreme bushfire risk.
What other effects do carbon emissions have?
Dry fuel load - the amount of forest and scrub available to burn - has been linked to rising emissions. Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide acts as a kind of fertiliser that increases plant growth.
So is climate change making everything dryer?
Dryness is more complicated. Complex computer models have not found a consistent climate change signal linked to rising CO2 in the decline in rain that has produced the current eastern Australian drought. But higher temperatures accelerate evaporation. They also extend the growing season for vegetation in many regions, leading to greater transpiration (the process by which water is drawn from the soil and evaporated from plant leaves and flowers). The result is that soils, vegetation and the air may be drier than they would have been with the same amount of rainfall in the past.
What do recent weather patterns show?
The year coming into the 2019-20 summer has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. Above average temperatures now occur most years and 2019 has been the fifth driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970.
Is arson a factor in this year's extreme bushfires?
Not a significant one. Two pieces of disinformation, that an “arson emergency”, rather than climate change, is behind the bushfires, and that “greenies” are preventing firefighters from reducing fuel loads in the Australian bush have spread across social media. They have found their way into major news outlets, the mouths of government MPs, and across the globe to Donald Trump Jr and prominent right-wing conspiracy theorists.
NSW’s Rural Fire Service has said the major cause of ignition during the crisis has been dry lightning. Victoria police say they do not believe arson had a role in any of the destructive fires this summer. The RFS has also contradicted claims that environmentalists have been holding up hazard reduction work.
“National security analysts warn that 3C may result in “outright social chaos”, and 4C is considered incompatible with the maintenance of human civilisation.
“Climate change must be accepted as an overriding threat to national and human security, with the response being the highest priority at national and global levels.”
The declaration called on governments to commit to rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero, to drawing down carbon concentrations already in the atmosphere, and to integrating adaptation and resilience measures into restructured national and global economies.
The executive director of Micah Australia, Tim Costello, told the Guardian the declaration was a rallying cry to emphasise the critical nature of the climate challenge.
“This summit was people from military, agriculture, from politics, from economics: we’re all frustrated, we want to see action and a breakthrough, we’re all working hard in our areas, but none of us actually know what will be the tipping point, when it will finally be widely realised that this is an emergency and we have to decarbonise,” Costello said.
“Like people understood the emergency of war, there will be a suspension of politics and human rights if we don’t deal with climate.”
He said party politics had failed Australia, and shown itself incapable of dealing with the climate emergency.
And, he argued, climate change as an existential threat had long been a reality for communities across Australia’s region.
“I have seen the poorest communities already losing lives and livelihoods for years from climate change. Now it is our existential challenge after these bushfires, whereas at the Pacific Islands Forum our prime minister was told ‘it is only economic for you, it is existential survival for us’.”
The declaration said Australia’s political leaders were especially culpable, guilty of short-term political expediency, which had left Australians acutely exposed to the impacts of climate change.
“The first duty of a government is to protect the people, their well-being and livelihoods. Instead, Australian governments have left the community largely unprepared for the disasters now unfolding, and for the extensive changes required to maintain a cohesive society as climate change impacts escalate.”
The declaration argued it was in Australia’s self-interest to demand greater global action on climate change, and a continued reliance on fossil fuel resources was unsustainable, both economically and environmentally.
Australia was the world’s fourth largest carbon polluter, exports included, and one of the countries most exposed to climate change, the declaration said.
“It makes no sense to build our economy on fossil fuel resources, practices and technologies which are unsustainable, particularly when Australia has some of the best clean energy resources and opportunities in the world.”