Could Australia’s bushfire disaster alter the conversation on climate change?

Could Australia’s bushfire disaster alter the conversation on climate change?


JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been an awful summer in
Australia, with extreme weather and terrible consequences. Thunderstorms and hail have
been pelting eastern sections of the country, but strong winds have also created dust storms. Drought conditions and the bushfires remain
a major problem. This fire season is hardly over. Miles O’Brien has been reporting from there
for our regular coverage on the Leading Edge of science and for the weather app MyRadar. MILES O’BRIEN: The bunker gear is hung and
dry at the Bairnsdale Fire Department in East Gippsland, Australia, for now, the calm after
the firestorm 10 days earlier. Captain Aaron Lee, his 12 year old son, Ryan,
in tow, took me to the spot in nearby Sarsfield where they waited and watched the flames approach. AARON LEE, Bairnsdale Fire Brigade: We had
a lot of vehicles parked here in the first — as like a first rally point. The fire was
put out with the smoke straight out ahead of us. (CROSSTALK) MILES O’BRIEN: So, you’re looking at the fire?
We’re like pointed toward the fire? AARON LEE: We’re basically looking at the
fire, yes. MILES O’BRIEN: Nearby, the fire is still smoldering
in a peat bog. When it roared in, it took 20 homes, but Lee and his brigade, all volunteers
who left their own families and homes behind, worked tirelessly, saving countless others,
while constantly facing instant decisions on where to take a stand. AARON LEE: You have to protect the assets
where possible with what resources you have got. And, sometimes, assets aren’t defendable.
We can’t — we have literally have to — we have to go, well, sorry, we can’t defend that
because it’s too risky for us. MILES O’BRIEN: At the command post, firefighters
still have their hands full coordinating the fight against uncontained wildfires covering
a huge swathe of Southeast Australia. Across the country so far this fire season,
more than 24 million acres have burned, killing two dozen, destroying 2,000 homes. The fires
have also taken a terrible toll on wildlife, injuring and killing millions of the unique
species that live on this island continent. Brett Mitchell is the incident commander here. BRETT MITCHELL, Forest Fire Management Victoria:
So, we have been fighting these fires since November. So, fatigue is a real issue we have to manage.
We do have teams coming in from Canada and the United States to give us a bit of relief,
which is great. And really appreciate that assistance. But we can also get new starts as well. So,
lightning can start new fires as well. So, we’re not only dealing with these particular
fires, but quite often, given we’re in January, we can get over 100 new fires start. MILES O’BRIEN: The unprecedented fires come
amid record drought and heat. Farmer John White is the mayor of the shire
of East Gippsland. JOHN WHITE, Mayor of Shire of East Gippsland:
It’s been extraordinary. And people who have known the bush all their life have just described
the fire behavior as something they have never seen before. I think, in terms of area, it has possibly
burnt close to 60 percent of our area. MILES O’BRIEN: Mayor White is grateful his
fellow countrymen have rallied to help farmers like him in this time of great need. On Saturday, a convoy of trucks carrying hay
rolled into town with a police escort to speed the way. Besides agriculture, this area depends
heavily on tourism. But with the fires looming, authorities were forced to evacuate 30,000
people enjoying the Christmas summer holiday. Businesses on Main Street are hurting, but
it’s too soon to invite the tourists back. JOHN WHITE: It’s difficult to say we’re in
recovery while we still have a fire that could bust out anywhere over the next six weeks
and actually cause similar devastation where it’s not burnt now. MILES O’BRIEN: Fire has always been a part
of the landscape here in Australia, but this year, it’s different. LINDEN ASHCROFT, University of Melbourne:
Yes, the fire season of 2019 in Australia is really a perfect storm of climate events,
to be honest with you. MILES O’BRIEN: Linden Ashcroft is a historical
climatologist at the University Of Melbourne. She says a stronger-than-normal shifting ocean
current called the Indian Ocean Dipole is at play. Like El Nino in the Pacific, the
Dipole changes winds and sea surface temperatures. This year, it has blown warmer water toward
Africa, allowing colder water to surface near Australia. The colder air there contains less
moisture and fewer clouds, creating drought conditions. Meanwhile, the air above Antarctica became
unusually warm, which triggers windier conditions for Australia. And all of this happens as
the climate steadily warms. LINDEN ASHCROFT: So, we had tinder-dry forests.
We had really strong winds. We had a temperature or a climate that’s a degree warmer than it
was 60 years ago. And all of those things combined just made it — just made it exactly
right for a devastating bushfire season. MILES O’BRIEN: And it might be exactly right
to change the public discourse on climate change here. Australia generates 80 percent
of its electricity with coal and gas. It is the world’s third largest exporter of fossil
fuels. The country’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison
has a long history of skepticism and denial of climate science, but with the fires raging,
he is now saying he hopes to evolve climate change policy. Amanda McKenzie is leading advocate for action
on climate change in Australia. AMANDA MCKENZIE, Climate Council: I think
the fires have changed everything. We don’t know just how much that that has
impacted people yet, but the trauma will go on for some time, and I think it will fundamentally
change how Australians look at the issue of climate change, but it also will change how
we look at the federal government. MILES O’BRIEN: Here in Southeast Australia,
it is impossible to ignore the crisis at their front door. And while there is some evidence
opinions may in fact be changing, not everyone recognizes the urgency. JOHN WHITE: This has sort of become a generational
thing in terms of people picking up on it. and I’m not a skeptic, but it’s — I hope
they’re wrong. I really do. I hope they’re wrong, because that would be a disaster for
the planet. MILES O’BRIEN: Do you worry about Ryan’s future
and what this — as the trends go up, what that might mean for living in Australia? AARON LEE: Yes and no. Yes, there is climate
change there, but how much of it is actually having effect on what we’re doing here? I base my decisions on information. If I got
the information, I will make that decision, basically. So, if I am fed the right information,
yes, I might be less skeptical. MILES O’BRIEN: There is some evidence that
the political inertia on climate change may have met its match with this wildfire season. On Sunday, the state environment minister
for New South Wales, where I stand right now, Matt Kean, in the same party as the prime
minister, Scott Morrison, said many members of his party have widespread belief that they’d
like to take greater action on climate change. The prime minister’s response? No one at the
federal level even knows that environment minister — Judy. JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating. And, Miles, tell us about the situation there
right now. MILES O’BRIEN: Well, there’s been rain over
the weekend, and that’s helped a little bit for the firefighters, allowed them to contain
some blazes. By no means did it put everything out, and
by no means does it solve a drought that has lasted three years. And the rain does have
— it’s a two-edged sword, Judy. I’m standing here. You can see the soil behind me. It’s
pretty much stripped, denuded. And too much rain can lead to mudslides, and flash flooding. And then also windy conditions, and, of course,
rain leads to thunderstorms, thunderstorms lead to lightning, and that’s what started
many of these blazes. So it gives and it takes away, and people
here are hunkered down, because it is still early in this fire season — Judy. JUDY WOODRUFF: Still sounding like a long
road back. Miles O’Brien, reporting from Australia, from
New South Wales, thank you, Miles. MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Judy.

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