Writer Katie Byng-Hall looks closer at the reasons attributed to the latest climate catastrophe.
Since September 2019, fifteen million acres of forest in New South Wales, Australia has been destroyed by wildfires: an area around the size of Belgium.
As well as the detrimental impact on Australia’s wildlife, a smoke haze ten times thicker the safe level for humans to breathe in has descended on Sydney. The smoke has travelled so far that glaciers in New Zealand have begun to change colour. This coincides with Australia's hottest ever day being recorded at 41.9C. And yet, is the world really paying this crisis enough attention?
Probably the most talked about consequence of these fires is the death of 8000 koalas – around 30% of New South Wales’s population of the marsupial. This is because they are too slow to be able to escape the blaze as it tears through their habitat.
Koalas are not the only animals to have fallen foul of the fires, and some species are even more threatened. Indeed, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney estimates that in some areas affected by the fires, up to thirty rare plant species and thirty rare animal species may have been lost in just a few months.One species which is at severe risk of being the next victim of this trend is the regent honeyeater.
It is believed that almost 500 million animals have been killed in the blaze, as well as at least eight people.
50% of the nature reserves in the Blue Mountains, the only surviving home for the endangered birds, were destroyed in November and December alone. With no sign of the blazes abetting, there’s a high risk of the 250-400 remaining specimens of the species not being alive when the fires eventually die down.
48% of the iconic Gondwana reserves, which incorporate rainforests that have existed since the time of the dinosaurs, have now been burned to the ground. We can only imagine how many species could have been destroyed in such a richly biodiverse habitat which can never be restored.
Despite the huge threat to a large proportion of Australia’s forests, and indeed to the population and their homes, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison seems alarmingly unphased.
In 2013, the section of the government created to address global warming, the Climate Commission, was abolished.
Since then, former members of the Commission have formed the Climate Council, a non-profit organisation providing independent information and advice about climate change. Despite the Council’s expertise, Morrison has refused to meet with them since the outbreak of the fires, suggesting he has little regard for the preservation of the country’s habitats.
Such a laissez faire reaction to large-scale blazes evokes a disconcerting sense of déjà vu: Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro had similar responses to the fires in California and the Amazon respectively. Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist with the University of NSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, has condemned the leaders’ behaviour, saying politicians are “burying their heads in the sand while the world is literally burning around them”.
You would think the “healthy emergency” of the smoke in Sydney, which has caused a 25% increase in people visiting emergency departments for asthma and breathing problems, would be enough to kickstart government action, but it looks like leaders across the world are becoming desensitised to crises such as this.
Normalisation of Catastrophe
In fact, this desensitisation may extend to more than just leaders. The fires in California in 2018, which threatened the homes of celebrities like the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus, prompted a much more outraged and widespread reaction on social media than those currently burning in Australia, yet the former only destroyed an area just over a tenth of the latter. It seems that disasters in Western countries combined with celebrity is the only way to capture the attention of the public when it comes to climate crises.
Climate change experts say these fires should act as another wake-up call to governments and populations across the planet that radical action needs to be taken to counteract global warming before more habitats, and more human lives, are lost.
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