Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Unlucky Country

Australia has been known as The Lucky Country. Perhaps we should rename it The Unlucky Country, given the never-ending mishaps that seem to befall the country. 

The climate has warmed by more than one degree Celsius over the past century, causing an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and droughts. Eight of Australia's ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. 

These conditions lead to bushfires that are concentrated mostly in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. The southeast coast is the most severely affected, but fires have also hit every Australian state and territory this season. 

Since September, at least 24 million acres of Australia have burned in one of the country’s worst fire seasons on record. That’s an area larger than Portugal, and more than 12 times the area that burned in California in 2018, the state’s most destructive year for wildfires (Vox, January 13, 2020). 

According to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, Australia’s bushfires have released 400 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Burning huge swaths of forest introduces carbon stored in biomass back into the atmosphere, and that carbon will stay there essentially as long as it takes the forest to regrow. 

Where the fires have been quelled, a blackened desolation remains, with thousands of homes lost and communities uprooted. 

Videos of singed kangaroos and parched koalas prompted an outpouring of grief on social media. 

And as the bushfires are being controlled, massive dust storms appear in New South Wales on Sunday, blanketing entire towns and blacking out the sun. Images from the ground showed huge, rolling clouds of dust, at least ten stories high. The dust storm moved fast, darkening neighborhoods in minutes and obscuring what previously was a blue sky. 

The rains came too. But, they weren't enough to put out the flames, and likely won't be enough to end the drought. 

Experts repeatedly sounded the alarm that the extreme heat, drought, wildfires and dust are symptoms of Australia's climate crisis. 

And not just the rains but parts of southeastern Australia were pelted by hailstones, measuring about 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide the size of golf balls, big enough to smash car windows and injure birds, less than 24 hours after this part of the country was hit by humongous dust storms.














Image credit: Twitter @Tom_Swann, Caberra, Australia, January 19, 2020

Tom Swann, a researcher at the Australian Institute based in Canberra said he found an injured cockatoo that "screeched horribly" and took it to the vet, where there was a "steady stream of injured birds coming in". 

"Someone behind us at the vet brought in another galah (Scientific name: Eolophus roseicapilla), another brought a currawong (Genus: Strepera; Family: Artamidae); another a crow (Genus: Corvus; Family Corvidae)", he told CNN. 

And yet, prime minister Scott Morrison has been really slow to respond and worse, he has clearly underestimated the severity of climate change. 

Morrison (left) is the politician who is notorious for a stunt he pulled in 2017, when, as Australia's treasurer, he showed up to a session of Parliament brandishing a lump of coal and a message to his colleagues not to be “scared” by fossil fuels. 

He came to power in 2018 in an internal party coup that unseated then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose attempts to set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions were resisted by rivals within the right-wing Liberal Party. 

Under his watch, Australia stopped payments to the Green Climate Fund, the UN-backed mechanism that assists developing countries hit by climate disaster. When the United Nations chaired a climate meeting in September in New York, Morrison skipped the session. 

And in last month's major climate conference in Madrid, Morrison's government came under particular criticism for thwarting collective efforts to set meaningful emissions targets. 

A report published last month by a group of think tanks that ranked 57 countries on their national climate action policies placed Australia sixth from bottom. 

Another study published in November ranked Australia as third-worst among the Group of 20 nations. Though Australia just produces a bit more than 1 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, it's the world's biggest exporter of coal, whose use is a major factor in the warming of the planet. 

In the midst of the crisis, Morrison persists in his climate denial, pointing to a long history of seasonal fires. No big deal, he seems to be telling Australians. 

How unlucky to have him as prime minister!

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