After the fires – what do they mean for Australia?
The devastating summer bushfires have led to intense reflection about their many impacts.
ANU Reporter asked some of our academics for their perspectives on how the fires will affect our present and our future.
Climate change and the bushfires
This summer has shown us what climate change looks like.
Professor Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, ANU College of Science.
This summer has shown us what climate change looks like. We can no longer push climate change aside as an issue for the future, or something that will impact other people. Climate change is with us now and the impacts are devastating and far-reaching.
2019 was a very extreme year in Australia’s climate. It was the hottest and the driest year on record. A number of factors collided to push us to these extremes: ongoing human-caused climate warming, a severe and prolonged drought in eastern Australia, one of the strongest positive Indian Ocean Dipole events ever recorded and a rare sudden stratospheric warming above Antarctica. All of these factors combined to create a perfect storm for the bushfire crisis that unfolded in Australia over the spring and summer. They dried out the landscape so that it was primed to burn, and then delivered the dangerous fire weather where unstoppable fires were able to take hold.
The bushfire crisis of 2019/20 is the type of extreme event that is possible with just a little over 1°C of global warming above preindustrial levels. Looking forward we don’t expect every year to be as extreme as 2019. But as human-caused climate change continues, we will be upping the risk of having fire seasons like the one we have just lived through.
So where to from here for Australia? Climate change is an issue that requires both adaptation and mitigation. There are further changes ahead that we won’t be able to void, so we will need to invest in strategies that give us a better chance at preventing and fighting bushfires. Things like bushfire plans, early warning systems and aerial firefighting capabilities, are all examples of the adaptation measures that are already helping to save lives and reduce property losses in the face of Australia’s bushfires. There is more that can be done to help us adapt to the increasing bushfire risk in Australia, but if we allow that risk to keep increasing then we will hit limits where adaptation is no longer successful. That is why we must always also be looking at climate change mitigation – that is, greenhouse gas emission reductions – that will address the underlying causes of our increasing bushfire risk.
Fortunately, we already have an international framework that has been designed to help the world take the urgent, ambitious and coordinated action that is needed to reduce greenhouse emissions and avoid dangerous climate changes. The Paris Agreement includes the ambition of keeping global warming to below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. The Australian bushfire crisis clearly shows us the value of making sure that we take the action to meet these targets, and what we have to lose if we fail.
Climate change, bushfires and the social impacts
What would policy and action look like if the Earth really mattered?
Professor Sharon Friel from the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance.
The world has warmed to dangerous levels and the attendant disruption to the Earth's system is profound. We experienced this recently in Australia, when a climate-change induced inferno ripped through NSW and Victoria. Temperatures above 40°C, widespread drought conditions and strong winds led to more than 200 fires, which in some instances were so powerful they formed their own weather systems. On New Year’s day, Canberra had the worst air pollution globally due to fire smoke.
It is not just the tragic loss of at least 33 lives during the fires that affects our health, but also the sequelae including heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory failure resulting from the exposure of thousands of Australians to extreme heat, fires and smoke. The mental health aftermath of the bushfires will be significant. Many survivors will struggle with the death of loved ones; loss of belongings; loss of livelihood; lack of shelter; destruction of the local environment; inadequate support by the state; loss of hope for the future; and fear. We know from previous disasters such as Hurricane Katrina that post-traumatic stress disorder is likely to affect many firefighters, survivors and communities ravaged by the Australian fires.
The bushfires and extreme heat affected everyone, but it is among socially disadvantaged people where the greatest social and health impacts are felt. Affluent people can afford to live in insulated buildings with air conditioning and air purifiers. The poor, the elderly, people with disabilities and pre-existing health conditions are the least able to escape the heat, and live in dwellings and environments that amplify its effects. During bushfires, it is the poor who are at increased risk of harm, with no transport to evacuate quickly and generally fewer resources. The widespread damage to farms and crops as well as critical infrastructure could affect price and availability of fresh produce. Should food prices rise it will be lower-income households who are most affected, potentially resulting in food insecurity. Discussions about climate change refugees will play out in Australia.
Having lost homes, livelihoods, and fearful for the future, people will leave their communities and perhaps the country. This will exacerbate inequities, with those who have more financial and social capital having more options available to them. Together, these factors will add to existing disease burdens and premature mortality rates, which are already unequally distributed.
The social and health impacts from the bushfires and extreme heat in Australia provide a tragic lesson on the need to imagine and fight for a different society. It makes us wonder – what would policy and action look like if the Earth really mattered?
Fires and biodiversity
Those animals that have survived are at risk of starvation or being eaten by feral predators such as cats and foxes.
Professor David Lindenmayer, Fenner School of Environment and Society.
The fires in Australia in 2019-2020 are unprecedented in many respects, including the extent of biodiversity loss. It has been estimated that more than one billion individual animals have been killed as a direct result of the wildfires. Many threatened species have had more than 30 per cent of their (often very limited) ranges burned, putting them at increasing risk of extinction. Even after the fires have passed, those animals that have survived are at risk of starvation or being eaten by feral predators such as cats and foxes. Given all these stressors: How do species recover from wildfires?
Long-term research at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU following past fires in south-eastern Australia provides important insights into fire and biodiversity. This research has been running since 1983 and has taken place in Victoria, coastal NSW and inland NSW and some of the findings from that work are highly unexpected. First, despite the enormous intensity and severity of some fires, individual animals can survive them. For example, a population of 15 Mountain Brushtail Possums had been fitted with radio-transmitters in the wet forests of Victoria in 2008 and we found that every single individual survived the Black Saturday fires in February 2009.
This includes in areas where the fires were estimated to be among the high-intensity conflagrations ever recorded. Individuals of other species such as the native Bush Rat and Agile Antechinus (a small [20g] carnivorous marsupial) also survived within burned areas. Genetic studies showed that breeding by these persisting animals was largely responsible for restoring populations to pre-fire levels within a decade. In other cases, new species colonised areas within days of the 2009 fire. An example is the aptly named Flame Robin, a spectacular native bird species that boomed in numbers across many of our long-term sites that had been burned but where it had previously been absent or rare. Yet other species have not fared so well. Eleven years after the 2009 bushfires, populations of iconic species such as the Greater Glider have not recovered and are still declining, with the amount of fire and logging in forest landscapes strongly associated with its demise. It may be as much as 180 years before this species recovers (if it can recover at all).
A key insight derived from long-term studies of biodiversity responses to fire is that it is the sequence of fires in an area that has major impacts on species. That is, animals respond to not just the most recent fire, but also how many fires have occurred previously, and how severe those fires were. For example, at Booderee National Park where ANU researchers have worked since 2002, the number of bird species at a monitoring site is reduced by more than nine per cent for every additional fire that occurs in that area. This highlights the fact that to truly understand the effects of fire, we must take a long-term view and complete long-term research and monitoring.
Our team of researchers at the Fenner School fully intends to do just that and continue to make discoveries about how Australia’s unique biodiversity fares in response to the wildfires that are increasingly common and widespread on the continent.
In the end, his children and their children won’t thank him for selling out their future.
Former leader of the Liberal Party, John Hewson, and ANU Professor and Chair of the Tax and Transfer Institute Crawford School.
While the tragedy of the bushfires has brought out the best of Australians and our strength of community, it has brought out the worst of our politicians and political processes.
Clearly, the Morrison Government was poorly prepared. Rather than face the magnitude and urgency of the challenge, both of the current fire season, and into the future, it has run almost any argument to cover its failings – we’ve always had bushfires; child arsonists; inadequate hazard reduction due to “Greenies”; it’s essentially a state issue; and, claiming a “world-class” emissions reduction strategy to “meet and beat” our Paris commitments “in a canter”, despite the Government’s own projections showing a 50 per cent fail, without any accounting tricks.
Morrison, himself, has been seen as incapable of essential leadership – he has certainly tarnished his “miracle” election win. The polls are now suggesting that his claimed supporters, the “quiet Australians”, from within and beyond the bushfire zones, have been deserting him in droves.
He claims to have seen the significance of the fires back in September, but did little, and still slipped off to Hawaii on holiday, having his staff lie about it. He has then attempted to distract media/public attention from his failings, policy inadequacies, and to hopefully “catch up”, by focusing on the “recovery” with his $2 billion fund, dribbling it out with daily announcements of spending on a host of “sensitive” aspects of the issue. However, the announced support still hasn’t yet been delivered.
As the pressure has mounted against the inadequacies of his climate action, Morrison has either “shot the messenger” (for example, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean), or doubled down, a la Trump, exaggerating and misrepresenting the substance of his action, while having others (example Craig Kelly) obfuscate on climate and causes.
The Opposition has been seen, but mostly silent, unfortunately still dealing with the trauma of their unexpected election loss but, disturbingly and inexplicably, backing off the substance of their climate policies.
Climate is still seen as the dominant longer-term structural issue and the need for a recovery strategy post COVID-19 is seen as a unique opportunity to accelerate our national transition to a low-carbon Australia by mid-century. It would be reasonable to expect Morrison to heed the challenge.
Moreover, the economic, social and environmental costs of “inaction” dwarf any disruption and difficulties in the transition to a low-carbon Australia by mid-century. Indeed, the benefits of us playing a leadership role, both here and internationally, in terms of new “jobs and growth”, and the potential to export power and technology, are considerable.
However Morrison personally, doesn’t believe, doesn’t get it and, as coal-carrying Scotty from Marketing, is incapable of leading. Morrison is also constrained, by his staff and ministers with links to fossil fuels, and by his political funding from the fossil fuel industries.
He will remain a kangaroo in the headlights – simply unable to prepare for the more extreme fires and droughts to come, as we get even dryer and hotter, nor manage them more effectively, nor to address the overarching cause in climate change.
In the end, his children and their children won’t thank him for selling out their future.
Health Impacts of Bushfires
We realized that there were many inconsistencies in the way air quality data and related health advice were communicated to the public.
Sotiris Vardoulakis, Professor of Global Environmental Health, at the ANU College of Health and Medicine.
The catastrophic bushfires in Australia have burned a total area of nearly the size of Ireland, resulting in the direct loss of human and animal life, and the destruction of thousands of properties and habitats. At least 33 people have been killed by the fires mainly in NSW and Victoria, with millions more being exposed to hazardous bushfire smoke that has lingered for weeks over large populations centres. Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, cities with typically good air quality, experienced record-breaking pollution with fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels exceeding World Health Organization guidelines by over ten times on certain days.
For most people, particularly healthy individuals, the effects of exposure to pollution even at these extreme levels are likely to be transient. They may have experienced some irritation in the eyes, nose and throat or a cough, which would have disappeared soon after air quality returned to normal. We are more concerned about sensitive individuals, such as young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with lung and heart conditions, who are at higher risk from smoke exposure. For example, those with existing lung and heart disease may have experienced flare-ups of their symptoms, but also potentially longer term medical complications.
Although the evidence in relation to long-term health effects is still limited, some studies have shown an increased risk of gestational diabetes in pregnant women exposed to smoke, a small decrease in birth weight in babies born after wildfires, and restricted lung development in children growing up in polluted places. Bushfires and smoke have also caused a lot of stress and anxiety in the affected communities, which can last over long periods.
The ANU College of Health and Medicine, in collaboration with the School of Psychology and the Medical School, has developed a set of factsheets on how we can protect our physical and mental health from bushfires and smoke. The factsheets have been translated into twelve languages by staff and students from the School of Culture, History and Language, and the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. We have also worked closely with local communities and health authorities in the ACT and NSW to provide practical advice on exposure reduction and health messaging.
As the bushfire catastrophe was unfolding, we realised that there were many inconsistencies in the way air quality data and related health advice were communicated to the public. A lot of the existing advice was tailored to brief air pollution episodes (lasting only a few hours or days) rather than prolonged periods with smoke (lasting from several days to weeks). We identified a number of gaps in our knowledge, for example in relation to the effectiveness of certain health protection methods such as the use of face masks, the toxicity of bushfire smoke compared to pollution from other sources, and the long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to smoke. We also became aware of the health equity implications of bushfire and smoke disproportionally affecting poorer families typically living in older “leakier” houses without air conditioning or air purifiers.
To address these inconsistencies and gaps in knowledge and data, ANU has joined forces with other leading Australian universities to call for the establishment of an independent national expert committee on air pollution and health protection in an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia. This expert committee should have a clear mandate and resources to develop evidence-based, accurate, practical and consistent advice on health protection against bushfire smoke, and air pollution more broadly, across Australian jurisdictions. The ANU Research School of Population Health has also established a rapid response air quality monitoring unit, which can be deployed in areas affected by bushfire smoke.
The ANU College of Health and Medicine, in collaboration with Canberra Hospital, has initiated a number of pilot studies aiming to generate urgently needed evidence on the effectiveness of certain health protection measures, the effect of smoke exposure on pregnancies and babies, and the mental health impacts of bushfires. Importantly, we have called for an ambitious national climate change mitigation strategy to address the main underlying cause of the increasing bushfire risk in Australia.