The tragic and deadly Australian wildfires are due in part to climate change. That was the message delivered today by several prominent researchers as Australians reel from their worst natural disaster in more than a century.
Unprecedented heat, high winds and drought contributed to the deadly conditions that have so far claimed more than 160 lives.
“It’s very clear, both globally and in Australia, there has been a warming trend since about 1950,” said leading Australian climate scientist Kevin Hennessy.
“In a nutshell we can say the heatwaves and the fires we’ve seen in Victoria recently maybe partly due to climate change through the contribution of increased temperature.
“Going forward, we anticipate there will be continued increases in greenhouse gases and that locks in a certain amount of warming, and in the case of southern Australia further drying, and this will increase the fire weather risk.”
Gary Morgan, head of the government-backed Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre agrees. “Climate change, weather and drought are altering the nature, ferocity and duration of bushfires,” he said.
University of Sydney bushfire expert Mark Adams added there was evidence the deadly situation it was becoming even more volatile.
“I have never seen weather and other conditions as extreme as they were on Saturday, the fire weather was unprecedented,” Adams said. “We don’t have all the evidence yet to fully explain this day in terms of climate change, however all the science to date shows that we can expect more extreme weather in the years to come. That includes hotter days and drier landscapes across southern Australia.”
The terrible tragedies in Australia this weekend illustrate that climate change is not merely lines on a graph or mathematical models, but people’s lives.
Brian Fisher, a leading climate policy analyst and economist, said it was crucial for Australia to try to influence the world’s top emitters to rein in greenhouse gas pollution.
“The key issue is what we can persuade others to do in concert with Australia. That determines what will happen to the world’s climate,” said Fisher, an author for the UN Climate Panel’s Second, Third and Fourth Assessment Reports.
Australia’s extreme weather is not just limited to the deadly wildfires.
Elsewhere in the country, Queensland is facing the worst flooding in 30 years that has caused 60% of the state to be declared a disaster area. More than 700mm of rain has fallen so far and more is feared on the way. So severe was the flooding that crocodiles were washed into the streets and one boy is now feared dead after being eaten by one of giant reptiles.
Roger Stone, a climate expert at the University of Southern Queensland, said of the flooding: “It certainly fits the climate change models, but I have to add the proviso that it’s very difficult, even with extreme conditions like this, to always attribute it to climate change.”
Dr. Stone is of course correct. It is impossible to attribute any one weather event to climate change. But scientists agree that unless we get a handle on carbon emissions, and quickly, we can expect to live in a world where such terrible tragedies as the world witnessed this weekend become far more likely.