Swept up in a fiery inferno of destruction, both literally and politically, Australia is currently a nation on fire. For the most part confined to the realm of abstraction, the reality of global warming hasn’t truly sunk in for masses (myself included), that was until a month ago when our country went up in a blaze.
On the date of writing this (4th January) so far Australia has lost 15 million acres (think twice the size of Belgium) of land to ravenous wildfires along with 2,500 structures and the lives of 24 with a further 30 unaccounted for.
Unprecedented is the scope of these current fires, touching almost every state and devouring more land mass than any previous bushfire in Australian history. Authorities and witnesses have likened the damage and evacuation measures to a war zone as fires burn through areas larger than some small European countries.
More than 140 fires are burning across NSW, with dozens uncontained and thousands of firefighters in the field.
In Victoria about 50 fires burning in the state's east and north east.
There are about 20 bushfires burning in South Australia which includes three significant blazes.
Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland each have more than 30 fires burning with a number of considered significant.
The smoke has become it's own disaster. On January 1st, Australia's capital recorded the worst pollution it's ever seen, with an air quality index 23 times higher than what's considered "hazardous." Smoke in the city crept into birthing rooms, stopped MRI machines from working, and triggered respiratory distress in one elderly woman who died soon after stepping off a plane.
New South Wales has faced the brunt of the disaster, with the largest amount of effected land mass and an estimate of over 500 million wildlife dead, among 8,000 included koalas, accounting for one third of their entire population.
The unnerving fact is, the worst is yet to come. Summer extends from December to February, with fire season typically peaking in late January or early February - the disaster is expected to continue. On January 3rd, officials warned that conditions would get worse over the following few days. "It's going to be a blast furnace," says New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance.
Is Global Warming a cause?
"The reality is, this is a function of climate change - this extreme heat, these extreme conditions that are so volatile and are producing the types of intensity and early season burning that we do not normally see in Australia," says Crystal Kolden, an associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho who studied wildfires in Tasmania.
Bushfires are not new to Australia. It's typically hot and dry, similar to conditions in California or the Mediterranean. Eucalyptus forests in Australia have a unique relationship to fire; the trees actually depend on fire to release their seeds. However a large amount of the inferno has taken a grip on forests often too moist to be susceptible to wildfires, a sure sign that the current climate conditions are contributing to the vastness of this disaster.
Weather conditions feeding the fires are historic. Australia suffered its hottest day on record with temperatures in Australia last month hitting 49.9 C (121.8 F), with the average annual temperature 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1960 to 1990 average. This extreme heat and drought create more tinder to fuel fires.
The heightened intensity and frequency of wildfires falls in line with scientists' predictions for a warming world.
In October there were record warm temperatures above Antarctica over a matter of weeks. this "sudden stratospheric warming" brought above-average spring temperatures and below-average rainfall across large parts of New South Wales and southern Queensland.
This Antarctic warming resulted in persistent strong westerly winds bringing hot dry air from the interior to the coast, making the fire weather even riskier for the coasts.
This dry environment lead to a large portion of these fires being started by "dry lightning events" or lighting storms with minimal rainfall. Through a natural phenomenon these fires are now so intense they are triggering their own thunderstorms.
If this is the effect of 1 degree Celsius change in temperature are we willing to wait and find out the devastating consequences of a 2–3 degree shift will cause?
My only hope is that the chaos we’re currently experiencing will provide enough tangible evidence that the implications of global warming are not confined to decimal points and percentages on a scientific report, but instead will directly impact our lives in a very real way.
If there is a time to take accountability for your individual impact on the environment the time is now.
As we’ve seen through various scientific studies eating a vegan diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on earth.
Researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.
Meanwhile, if everyone stopped eating these foods, they found that global farmland use could be reduced by 75 per cent, an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined.
Not only would this result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, it would also free up wild land lost to agriculture, one of the primary causes for mass wildlife extinction.
The new study, published in the journal Science, is one of the most comprehensive analyses to date into the detrimental effects farming can have on the environment and included data on nearly 40,000 farms in 119 countries.
The findings reveal that meat and dairy production is responsible for 60 per cent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, while the products themselves providing just 18 per cent of calories and 37 per cent of protein levels around the world.
Researchers examined a total of 40 agricultural products in the study, covering 90 per cent of all food that is eaten. They looked at how each of these impacted the environment by analysing climate change emissions, water pollution and air pollution.
Lead author of the study Joseph Poore said: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.
“It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he explained, which would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy,” he added.
The research also looked into the different techniques used to produce the same foods and found vast distinctions in terms of environmental impacts.
For example, beef cattle reared on natural pastures used 50 times less land than those raised on deforested land.
The latter can leads to up to 12 times more greenhouse gas emissions by comparison. This starkly contrasts with emissions of greenhouse gases released as a result of plant-based protein production for items such as tofu and peas.
If you’ve already adopted a plant-based diet or have taken the first step of reducing your meat consumption you’re making a wildly valuable contribution to the current state of environmental catastrophe.