As horrific as the recent bush fires in Australia have been, a satellite image attributed to NASA shared recently on social media made me gasp. It showed the entire continent of Australia literally on fire.
On further inquiry, it turned out to be a composite image of all the forest fires (or bush fires as they are called in Australia) that the continent had suffered in the last one month or so. The brightest spots were on the east coast in the most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria where the two largest cities of Australia – Sydney and Melbourne – are located.
The latest report puts the toll at more than 2,000 houses destroyed, 26 deaths, and six million hectares burnt – an area bigger than the size of Ireland. Heart-breaking scenes of wild animals such as the cuddly koalas and innocent kangaroos perishing in large numbers have made it to social media worldwide.
The total loss of species is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions and many of them face extinction. The emotional trauma suffered by house owners, firefighters and survivors is harrowing to say the least.
I landed in Sydney in 1998 for the first time flying in a Qantas flight from Mumbai. Taking off, I left behind a sea of shanties in Dharavi slum surrounding the Mumbai airport, and the colour of the Arabian sea fading from dark brown from untreated sewage discharged in shallow waters to light brown and eventually to blue.
While landing in Sydney, I was immediately struck by the clear blue of the skies meeting the blue of a deeper hue in the Pacific Ocean on an unusually bright day. Sydney was to become our second home for the next five years. We spent some wonderful time exploring the beauty of the Blue Mountains, and the pristine beaches of Bondi and Manly.
Even during those days and for decades and centuries before, bush fires have always been part of Australia, as much as the aboriginals in the outback and the kangaroos and koalas. However, the current fires are something else altogether in their scale, magnitude, ferocity and damage.
More importantly, they are the clearest evidence yet that manmade climate crisis is now well and truly on our doorsteps.
The Australian bushfire season is not at its peak. The summer months are just starting, with the driest and hottest period historically occurring towards the end of February. Most experts believe that the worst is yet to come.
Australia has been a climate change hotspot, with fragile eco-systems such as the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland already showing signs of major stress from global warming and ocean acidification. The climate policy of successive governments in Australia has favoured promotion of a fossil fuel-driven energy-intensive economic growth model, in spite of having vast untapped reserves of renewable energy such as solar and wind.
The controversial Adani coal mine project (promoted by an Indian tycoon) has become a deeply contentious issue in the last few years.
Australia like most developed countries has a very high per capita carbon footprint. Thanks to the conservative government led by Scott Morrison, it was at the forefront of a small group of fossil fuel-driven countries that ensured the unfortunate failure of COP 25 climate summit in Madrid.
It blocked progress towards goals set by the Paris agreement by scuttling all action to limit global warming below 1.5 deg above pre-industrial levels. These urgent actions have now been delayed by another year.
Australia’s bush fire catastrophe is truly apocalyptic in magnitude without any historic precedent. Years of drought stemming from long stretches of dry weather in a continent with little rain to start with, and ever-increasing summer temperatures, have prepared the grounds for these cataclysmic events.
The effect can be seen from space in satellite images. The smoke is predicted to circle the globe, polluting the air and causing health problems for millions in Australian cities and elsewhere. The massive fires earlier in Amazon forests in Brazil, California and elsewhere are now dwarfed by this disaster.
As we watch climate crisis unfold in different parts of the world in the form of more frequent disasters of ever-increasing intensity, the prospects in places like Hong Kong are not much brighter either. It is reliably predicted that future typhoons will be more frequent and ferocious.
A rise in seawater level is likely to be faster than predicted and could drown precious real estate in the most valuable coastal plains. Unpredictable weather patterns such as unseasonal rains, and unusually warm winters interspersed with record cold temperatures would cause major new public health issues.
Hong Kong will also suffer from the major impact of the climate crisis in the Chinese mainland. The unsustainably high carbon footprint of Hong Kong – dependent as it is on imports and extremely high consumption of meat – sets a very bad example for the rest of the world. A major re-think and change in policy towards dealing with the climate crisis is urgently needed.
Australia is experiencing a climate emergency predicted by scientists well in advance. It’s a lesson for Australians as well as humanity at large. Unless fossil fuel use is drastically reined in and use of alternative renewable energy promoted on a massive scale, red meat consumption curtailed and afforestation taken up on a war footing, the future of our race is uncertain at best and doomed at worst.