In recent weeks, both the news and our social media feeds have been flooded with images and videos of the inferno sweeping across Australia, showing the damage that it has left behind. Whether photos of homes reduced to dust, animals covered in burnt flesh or soot-covered firemen clutching koalas, the true extent and horror of the fires is impossible to ignore. But will the terror and destruction in Australia be enough to wake us up to the true climate crisis at hand, or will we simply get used to large parts of the world being in flames?
Since September, more than 6.3 million hectares (roughly 6.3 million football pitches) of Australian land has been engulfed by flames. People are losing their source of income, their homes and their lives in the blaze which is affecting every state and territory in Australia. One study estimates that half a billion animals have already been killed, and that many more will have to be put down in the coming weeks. Although bushfires are not alien to Australia (it does have a ‘fire season’), this year’s fires have already been significantly more catastrophic than expected. Worse still, with two months remaining of the fire season, the damage does not appear to be slowing down.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that rising levels of carbon dioxide are warming the planet. This has become evidently clear in Australia, with images of whole towns in flames and piles of animal corpses dominating the news. Temperatures in Australia have been rising considerably over recent decades and are expected to continue to do so. Scientists have long warned that this hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense. So why has nothing been done to stop this?
Mark O’Connell, in his poignant opinion piece for the Guardian (‘Picture of a World on Fire Won’t Shock us for Much Longer), describes the fires as the ‘catastrophe proper’. He explains that as a society we have known that catastrophe was on the horizon for over a decade and that the moment in which this looming threat became a present one is almost impossible to identify. However ‘the spectacle in recent weeks of a continent in flames feels like a clear indication that the time of looming has ended’. O’Connell emphasises that we can no longer talk about the climate crisis in the future tense as the devastation has already begun.
He is not the only one who feels this way. Sir David Attenborough has warned that ‘the moment of crisis has come’. The renowned naturalist and broadcaster states: ‘As I speak, south east Australia is on fire. Why? Because the temperatures of the Earth are increasing’. He highlights the fact that while climate scientists are becoming clearer about the need for an immediate response, the pace of international negotiations is unbearably slow. ‘We know perfectly well,’ he said, ‘that human activity is behind the heating of the planet and so there is no excuse not to take action’.
Back in 2018, the UN climate science panel concluded that emissions of the gases heating the planet should be almost halved by 2030 if the world were to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the most dangerous temperature rises in future. However, despite these discussions the release of those gases is actually increasing rather than falling. Additionally, the key gas, carbon dioxide, is now in the atmosphere at a level far above anything experienced in human history.
The latest assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explains the dangers of that. It suggests that a rise of anything above 1.5 degrees Celsius would mean that coastal flooding, heatwaves and damage to coral reefs would become more severe. With the latest figures showing that the world has already warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius, it is no wonder that Sir David claims ‘we have to realise that this is not playing games’. The crisis, it seems, is very much upon us; meaning it is now a case of stopping or slowing it, not preventing it.
In recent weeks social media news feeds have been flooded with images of the fires. O’Connell explains that ‘all these scenes suffused with a malignant red glow, as though put through an Instagram filter named “Inferno”. It looks like a film. It looks like a video game. It looks like what we have always imagined the end of the world would look like’. It does feel impossible not to read this as a warning about the broader climate emergency, something we have been hearing about for decades but have been far too slow to act on. Perhaps hearing about the suffering elsewhere hasn’t been enough.
‘You read about the melting ice caps, the rising temperatures, the mass extinctions, and you understand intellectually that something truly terrible is happening. It doesn’t feel like that on the nerve endings, though. On the nerve endings, it feels like an unseasonably warm day in January’, O’Connell adds. But the fires in Australia are different, ‘the images that are emerging from the fires feel like a closing of the gap between the scientific evidence and the field of immediate perception’. The burning of the world is no longer hypothetical.
But for O’Connell the worst thing about these images ‘is not that they might signal the end of the world, but that they might signal how the world will continue’. He says that at the end of the world ‘people would point their phones at the fire in the sky, and they would send photos to their friends in other places. “This is what the apocalypse looks like here,” they would say. “How is it where you are?” There would be a great storm of content and engagement, and then there would be nothing at all’.
So the risk is that we become desensitised. That these images of black fields and derelict towns get swept up with the pictures of our lunch or our new outfit. That we get used to fires and floods as we have done school shootings in America. The concern is indifference, when these images should perhaps be more than shocking. Right now the burning is miles away, but one day it may be closer to home; the bushfires in Australia are just another sign that human destruction of the earth is out of control.
Image: Bertknot via Flickr