Our Opinion: It could happen here
Australia is burning.
Here in Oregon, we got through our most recent fire season more or less unscathed. There were no major conflagrations of the sort that choked Central and Southern Oregon in 2018, or blanketed the Portland area and the Columbia River Gorge in smoke in 2017. Some local firefighters from here in Washington County were briefly deployed to California to assist with fires there, but all in all, 2019 was not a terrible fire year in the Western United States.
We were fortunate. Our brethren Down Under are not.
Well over a billion animals, some of them already threatened in Australia's unique and delicate ecosystem, are believed to have been killed by flames, smoke, drought and starvation as wildfires — known on the southern continent as "bushfires" — have torn through vast swaths of the Australian Outback. More than two dozen people died. Thousands more have had to flee their homes, in some cases taking boats out onto the water to get away from their burning lands.
The fires have been especially bad in the state of New South Wales, home to Australia's largest city of Sydney. But what's most notable about them is how widespread they are.
Australia spans nearly 3 million square miles, almost the exact same size as the land area of the contiguous United States. Yet it seems the bushfires are everywhere. They've burned parts of every Australian state, including the island state of Tasmania.
California reported its worst fire season on record in 2018, with nearly 1.9 million acres burned in total across the Golden State. That fire season saw multiple deployments of firefighters from Oregon, including from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
The Australian bushfires this season have burned more than 18 million acres.
It's a nearly unfathomable scale of destruction. Images and video from the scene of some fires can only be described as apocalyptic: blood-red skies, countless corpses of animals stretched out along the side of the road, families fleeing in desperation as fast-moving fires descend on their homes.
It's a sobering reminder that when we talk about global warming, we're talking about a planetary condition. We got off light last year, with only a few fires of note on the West Coast, like the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, California. But on the other side of the world, an entire continent has been wracked from west to east, north to south, by disaster.
Why did the fires in Australia get so bad this (southern) summer? Intense heat and lack of rain have dried out much of the country, even normally lush areas in temperate Victoria sometimes likened to the English countryside, leaving brown grass and parched trees and brush only awaiting a spark to burn.
Yes, it's normal for most of Australia to experience heat waves in the summer. But this much heat and this little rain is unusual. Dry lightning strikes and human activity have both contributed to the swarms of bushfires across the continent, but it's the drought that has allowed them to burn so widely, so intensely and so rapidly.
Experts say that as the Earth continues to warm, extreme weather events like this will become more commonplace. What we consider unusually intense heat, or unusually intense storms, will become less unusual with time. As an average shifts, so do its extreme outliers. Within many of our lifetimes, we will see heat waves and storms like no human has seen before.
This isn't a prediction, it's already reality, and Australia is experiencing it now.
There is a scientific consensus that human activity is the driving force behind climate change. Yet this scientific consensus has not led to a political consensus, at least not in the United States, where many of our leaders — including our president — continue to voice skepticism about our climate emergency, downplay the danger to our economy, security and health, and roll back regulations and treaties intended to curb climate change.
What can we do?
There are any number of individual choices that we can make to reduce our "carbon footprint" — the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that is emitted into Earth's atmosphere as a result of our actions. Driving less generates fewer emissions. Animal husbandry, particularly of cattle, is a leading human-caused source of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, so consuming less meat and dairy — especially red meat and cow's milk — could help lead to lower emissions. Many forms of power generation cause air pollution; some utility companies, including Portland General Electric, have started offering opt-in programs for households and businesses to only use renewable and clean sources of energy, like wind and solar power.
But for action on the scale that is required to begin turning the tide against climate change, we need our leaders to get on board. The United States is still the world's largest economy, and decisions made at the macro level have an exponentially vaster impact on emissions than personal choices to bike to the supermarket or try the Impossible Whopper. For those decisions to be sound, they need to reflect reality.
Some experts, including at the Pentagon, have warned that climate change will pose a greater risk to national security in the 21st century than any nation or terrorist group. Computer models suggest that a "runaway" warming effect could be in motion before the midpoint of the century, and after that, it will not be possible to avert major and long-lasting disruptions: drowned cities, melted tundra, inhospitably acidic oceans and worse.
What has happened this fire season in Australia is a human tragedy and an ecological catastrophe of massive scope. But it's only the beginning.
This time, it was Australia. It could easily be us.
It's time for our federal government to recognize the climate crisis for what it is and take decisive action. Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing; they need to decline, and by a lot. We can each pitch in on a small scale, but it will take more than that. And it has to start now.
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