The devastating impact of the climate crisis is evident in the bushfires that have ravaged Australia.

Words by Eric Barrell, Staff Writer.

An area of Australia almost the size of England has been set ablaze with devastating bushfires for the past four months. Thousands of citizens have fled their homes, 28 people have died and the country’s unique ecology has been in a state of emergency as millions of hectares of bushland have been scorched. To many onlookers, these events are an example of the crisis of climate change that will continue to cause extreme weather and natural disasters worldwide. Yet from both climate activists and climate change deniers, a number of distorted statistics and fake news facts have been spread around that have distorted many people’s perceptions of the crisis. 

One thing that is indisputable is the emergency itself. From both an ecological and human perspective, Australia has been devastated by these fires. Firefighters are outnumbered by thousands of volunteer civilians helping to put out the fires. Despite recent cooler conditions and rainfall, more than 100 fires are still burning in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. On Kangaroo Island near Adelaide in South Australia, a famous nature reserve, two people and around 25,000 koalas have been killed by the flames. 

Although it is clear that the cost to animal life has been far greater than the number of humans injured or killed, some of the information spread on social media has been exaggerated. A widely-reported estimate that nearly half a billion animals have been killed by the bushfires has been scrutinised by BBC Reality Check. This statistic comes from Professor Chris Dickman, a biologist at the University of Sydney. He elaborated that he was actually referring to the number of animals affected by the fires in one part of New South Wales rather than the overall number of animals dying as a direct result of the fire. The fact that this was only in one small portion of Australia does show the vast extent of this disaster’s effect on the country’s wildlife, but it is false to report it as nearly a billion animal deaths so far. Although slow-moving animals that have difficulty fleeing from fires such as koalas have been badly affected, faster moving animals such as kangaroos and flying birds have fared better. Reptiles can also survive well in fires due to burrowing in soil, which is a very good thermal insulator.

What is more concerning to scientists is the aftermath. Many of these animals’ habitats have been destroyed. This, coupled with human development in various areas of the bushland that make it difficult for habitats such as eucalyptus forests to grow back, threaten the long-term survival of Australia’s wildlife. Small reptiles and amphibians emerging from burrows after the fires to feed are more susceptible to introduced predators such as foxes and cats, as reduced vegetation means there is less shelter. 

On the other side of the debate that has arisen around the relationship of climate change to the bushfires, climate change denialist groups have been spreading misinformation about the causes of the fires. Although there is not yet an overall number from Australian authorities as to the causes of the fires, there is no evidence that 75% of them were started by arsonists, as has been reported by some sources. In Queensland, 114 fires out of 1,048 (around 10%) have been lit deliberately or recklessly through human involvement, which may be due to lack of campfire safety or improper disposal of cigarettes- not deliberate arson. The primary cause of the bushfires has been an increase in extreme weather brought on by the average temperature of Australia rising by just over 1 degree celsius since 1910. This, combined with global extreme weather effects, has given rise to Australia’s hottest summer on record. Just a few lightning strikes in this hot, dry environment spark fires that spread quickly across the arid land. 

When dealing with a crisis of this magnitude, it is important that the facts are clear. The politicisation of the climate debate has increased the propensity for fake news to spread. The reality is that Australia is facing one of the biggest ecological disasters of our time, and future predictions from climate scientists paint a bleak picture of what’s to come. It’s important to do everything we can as individuals to lessen our environmental impact and assist causes that are trying to mitigate crises such as this. A key way you can help is by donating to the Australia Appeal at WWF.

[Image Credit: WikiCommons] 

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