Climate implications of the fire season

Anger has flared leading to has been more than a little trashy talk about bushfires and climate change. I would tend to agree with Phillip Coorey when he says (in the print edition) We can do without these dumb, nasty arguments.

    Apart from the United States, it is hard to think of any other educated country where this argument would be raging, let alone one as dumb and nasty as this one.

    The rest of the world long ago accepted climate change was a reality and grapples with how to combat it.

    Here, powerful people in media and politics with no qualifications or expertise whatsoever, continue to ridicule those women and men who have devoted their professional lives to science and fact with no ideological axe to grind.

David Rowe’s cartoon was priceless:

I think the fires have three clear implications for climate change policy.

Firstly, in passing the 1°C of warming level we appear to have triggered a wildfire tipping point. Even the AFR editorialises in Tackling climate risk will put out bushfires about “what might now be the new trend of more frequent and more extreme conflagrations linked to climate change” noting “an emerging international pattern.”

This marked change of pattern has been echoed by virtually all people with expertise and experience of managing bushfires. Annastacia Palaszczuk’s interview with Patricia Karvelas showed calm and a rational response. Large-scale fires appeared as a new pattern in Queensland in November 2018, she said, with rainforest burning unexpectedly in Eungella. The Queensland government allocated more resources, undertook a million hectares of hazard burning, made it easier, she said, for people to gain permits to undertake their own hazard reduction.

Now fire warning language is going beyond “extreme”, using the term “catastrophic” in Queensland, which is new for us. The notion of evacuating 8000 people in the Noosa area because of fire would have seemed risible not so long ago, but it happened.

Whether it is possible to adapt to the conditions now presenting themselves is a real question, with the window of opportunity for hazard reduction narrowing, and the northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons overlapping.

Secondly, then, the folly of presenting a 1.5°C target as a satisfactory outcome, or the best we can do, must come into question. James Hansen told us in 2007 that we had gone too far with 387 ppm of CO2 at that time, and we must aim to bring atmospheric concentrations down, initially aiming for 350 ppm. It’s a no-brainer that 300 ppm which in the Eemian gave us 6-9 metres of sea level rise does not represent a safe climate. Our goals are in the wrong direction.

I’ve been writing about this constantly over the last decade, but in recent time more specifically in:

The time is past when we could concentrate first on reducing emissions to net zero (the IPCC’s planetary target for this is around 2070, Extinction Rebellion wants it done by 2025). We need to do both now with maximum effort.

Third, we need to rethink the whole area of vegetation management, forestry and re-afforestation. Planting trees as a store of carbon has issues which I can’t tackle fully in this post. Trees take a long time to grow and draw down carbon, too slow for a genuine climate emergency. Clearly, there is also a risk that they will burn.

Less obvious, trees are darker than open landscapes so they absorb more heat from the sun, ironically increasing global warming.

Finally, trees alter the hydrology of any area as well as the plant ecology, not always for the best.

Please, I’m not against planting trees, it’s just that the issue is more complex than the science presently understands. We need to proceed thoughtfully, and planting trees is far from a silver bullet. Indeed the rewards may be quite small in relation to the climate emergency.

Obviously, fixing the climate cannot be done by Australia alone. We need the G20 as a minimum plausible effort, because it includes large developing countries. Carbon Transparency have taken a look in their Brown to Green G20 2019 report. They follow the IPCC script, saying:

    Excluding LULUCF (due to country data inconsistencies and uncertainties), total GHG emissions of the G20 countries need to be at least 40% below 2010 levels in 2030 in order to hit global 1.5°C benchmarks derived from the IPCC report. Under a ‘fair share’ approach, allocated G20 GHG emissions excluding LULUCF would have to be even lower: at least 45% (below 2010) by 2030 and 95% by 2050. (p 18)

This is what they say about Australia (p 22):

    Australia’s emissions have been rising since 2015 – after carbon pricing was abolished. Current policy projections show Australia failing to achieve its NDC of a 26–28% reduction below 2005 levels. The country intends to halve its abatement task 2021–2030 under the Paris Agreement by using Kyoto carry-over credits (emissions that could have been released under the Kyoto Protocol 2008–2020, but were not). There is no intention to establish a new renewable energy target for after 2020, and with the 2020 target already achieved, investments in renewable energy are already starting to fall. In the transport and industry sectors, where emissions are rising, the government has nearly no policies in place.

They are polite, but clearly we are bludging on the system, playing silly games and fooling no-one.

The Morrison government doesn’t want to talk about climate change in relation to the bushfires because it might reveal their pathetic lip-service and underlying denialism for what it is. He would like to keep on fooling the people who voted for him, pretending that he has the matter in hand.

We need to get our own house in order before we can join any international effort with credibility.

I’d need to look at the utility futility of name-calling in a separate post. However, I do think the present government is not fit to run the country. In time, internationally, I would like to see some of their leading members, the Coalsheviks, arraigned for crimes against life on the planet.

21 thoughts on “Climate implications of the fire season”

  1. So, yes, I’ve done my own bit of name-calling, but I think in a deliberative way, and without anger.

  2. The talk is trashy Brian, with sneering references to left wing loonies and worse. I’ve yet to fathom so many will just not see the real issue. One guy I know is a wannabe commentator and channels Bolt and Jones. I’ve known him for 30 years now I can’t talk to him it’s so buried in him. Similar thing in the republican leaders and the extraordinary denial of fact. If you have the time to follow you can’t believe that Lindsay Graham is allowed in public. And he is not alone.
    And no, this government wasted no time showing it is unfit on many fronts. It leads on arrogance, deception and lack of honour.

  3. Brian: If you can find it look at “Rough Weather Ahead” Jenifer Francis, Scientific American June 2019. It tells the story of a storm that started in the Atlantic and ended up doing extensive damage to the east coast of the US. The importance of the article is that it talks about what happened to this storm because of climate change driven changes to the northern jet stream, blobs of cold water south of Greenland etc.
    My understanding of the current Australian crisis is that it has arisen due to changes in the length of the Indian monsoon that has starved Aus of normal rain as well as changes in water temp in the Indian ocean.
    My recollection is that the Mayan civilization collapsed due to a drought that lasted for over a hundred years. There is no guarantee that long term changes to weather patterns driven by climate change may do a lot more damage that the hotter temperatures.

  4. I’ve camped up Eungella twice in the last 6 months, been doing it most of my life.
    It’s as pristine as et ever was, even more so because theres no sign of lantana that plagued the area.

    Go look with your own eyes, it’s still beautiful.

    That fire was mainly regrowth on previously cleared land.

  5. It’s as pristine as et ever was,

    That’s great news. I wonder why the locals were so concerned.

  6. John, the article is pay-walled but I get the drift.

    Jumpy, I tried to find out how much burnt, but no success. The linked article says 110,000 hectares of national park and surrounds have been destroyed. However, that is more than twice the size of the park is one sq km + 100 hectares.

    I did turn up this press release of December 11, 2018 talking about “more than 40 parks and forests have now reopened following recent fires, including Eungella National Park west of Mackay, Byfield National Park and State Forest, north of Yeppoon, and sections of the Cooloola Recreation Area and the Great Sandy National Park.”

    Ms Enoch said:

    significant environmental damage has been caused by these unprecedented bushfires, which were caused by an extreme weather event, the likes of which Queensland has not experienced before.

    Until this year, when it was even worse, and not finished yet.

    The “tipping point” may not so much be Eungella, but clearly everyone experienced in fires and the academics and scientists with relevant expertise are telling us something has tipped.

    Penny Wong, who was climate change minister back in the day, and Tony Burke, who was environment minister for a time, have both said they were advised that there would be increased risk of bushfires around about 2020.

  7. From Brian’s link re Eungella

    University of Queensland fire ecologist Philip Stewart said the impact may be felt for generations.

    This so-called expert reckoned the subtropical rainforest will recover “but we’re talking hundreds of years” yet here we are, less than a year later and our man on the spot reports that you wouldn’t even know there had been a fire.

  8. Fair enough, my eyeballs obviously deceive me I’m as thick as two planks or something.
    Worry on sweet empathetic solders, the media high command demands it.

    We’re all rooned!!!

  9. No, no Jumpy, it’s obvious. That academic in his ivory tower is planting false information on behalf of the warming alarmists who want to destroy our economy, and the hopelessly leftist ABC is helping him by propagating this information.
    Information which you can attest is completely false. Those locals they interviewed are probably actors as well.
    There can be no other explanation.

  10. Might I just say – and hearking back to some Victorian experiences of bushfire – fire likelihood down here with eucalyptus forests depend on several factors: temperatures, wind speeds, availability (density, dryness) of fuel, etc.

    High temperatures in preceding days and very low humidity
    both dry out dead leaves and small twigs, dry bark, (“leaf litter”) on the forest floor – within days the fuel load rises dramatically. More fuel to burn if a fire is started by lightning (“dry lightning” when no pouring rain accompanies the strike), or faulty electrical supply gear, or sparks from a machine, or an idiot lighting a fire, or arson….

    Down here a bad day typically occurs after a slow moving high pressure crosses the State. Hot, sunny, low humidity. Then hot, dry, strong winds from the north. Fires start, spreading roughly north-south. Eucalyptus oil evaporates and hangs high above the forest ready to explode; burning leaf litter and bark is blown ahead of the fire front to start “spot fires” (some of the embers can whip in under the roof line and start a house fire and not be noticed for, say, 30 minutes: by then you’re unlikely to save the house).

    Then the south westerly (cooler) change sweeps through and suddenly a north-south ish fire line becomes a much wider fire front sweeping to the north east.

    After Ash Wednesday (1983?) the CFA reported that damp gullies which would normally not ignite, had burnt. They had dried out during a drought that lasted several years. The fire behaviour had changed, so previous local experience, one of the bedrocks of CFA success, had turned out unreliable during those fires.

    After Black Saturday (2009) the CFA said many of the fires simply couldn’t be attacked effectively by firefighters. But many homes, businesses, human lives and animals were saved. These days there are more fire “bunkers” at bushland homes, and most homeowners plan to leave early.

    Victoria’s previous major disaster was Black Friday (1939?).
    In the 1960s it was common to see charcoaled tree trunks standing silent in the high country (Bogong High plains etc). That was only 25 years after the big fires.

    After we saw large fires at Wilson’s Prom around 2008 (?) an ecologist told me the experts weren’t sure what the post-fire ‘recovery phases’ of the bush would look like.

    Good luck, Qld.

  11. Ambi, and John D in particular, Geraldine Doogue this morning talked to Mark Graham, ,ecologist with the Nature Conservation Council, the NSW peak body for 160 member groups:

    Burnt forests in northern NSW had treasures that most of us didn’t even know about. They include a tiny frog whose males have side pouches where their offspring develop, the world’s first songbirds, and a potaroo that eats eucalypt truffles.

    It’s also near Antarctic beach country.

    He was saying that areas were burning that had been wet for tens on millions of years. Tree hollows that take over 100 years to appear are going.

    Volunteers are forming breaks by raking the litter off the forest floor by hand.

    One of the problems with back-burning and hazard reduction is finding a clean edge to work from. They are doing it the hard way.

  12. Brian/Jumpy; I remember once reading about old rain forrest trees that had species that were unique to the tree because of evolution during the life of the tree. If you think about the thousands of years some cloned Antarctic beech have lived the same may have happened there. Ditto for small creeks and….
    It is quite possible that an area may appear to have recovered even though a fire may have eliminated a rare species or done damage that will take hundreds of year to recover from.

  13. I remember a catastrophic fire (Victoria 2009?) where the extreme heat (hello global warming) led to the air being full of vapourised eucalyptus oil which in turn ignited, causing the fires to jump from canopy to canopy. Firefighters reported the air being on fire.
    No amount of work on the forest floor can counteract a situation like that.
    Jumpy’s not talking to me at the moment so it won’t happen but I’d love to hear what a market based approach to bush fires would look like. I’m sure the invisible hand would do a much better job than the inefficient, bungling government.

  14. Yes zoot

    That one’s called a “crown fire” and for the reasons you correctly remember, it is a formidable challenge. At an early stage of a fire in a eucalyptus forest, firefighters will try to prevent the flames going up tree trunks and into the tree crowns.

    A grass fire at ground level seems relatively benign, but often produces thick, choking smoke. Also can travel quickly across grassland.

  15. Hi Zoot I think that is called “crowning” in fire parlance: the fire roars above the canopy and the under story soon follows. The Adelaide Ash Wednesday fire, 1983, caught a lot of people unprepared. It was estimated that the fire was advancing at speeds around 100 kph. There were many fires across Vic & SA but I saw the Adelaide fire and of course it was scary.

    Some had prepared with water tanks etc but relied on mains power to pump, but of course power was lost very early. Even has they been able to pump, the fire was very much a force majeure, and it was risky to rely on even a good pump system.

    I struggle with a market based solution, unless it carries some sort of coercive power that guarantees everyone takes preventive measures. Even then, fires so hot they melt or soften iron are pretty challenging. I struggle to think how government will manage…

  16. When I was a teenager I recall 600 acres of felled scrub going up when lit simultaneously on all sides. That created a wind towards the fire on all sides. I recall hearing thunder although there were no storms around.

    No wildlife would survive such an inferno.

  17. Geoff, this comment was caught in moderation.

    Email spelling had “ourlook” in it, which doesn’t look right!

    I lived in Penno Parade North in Belair in the Adelaide Hills in the 1960s for a couple of years. We were scared of a fire coming up the slope from the east, as the only escape routes would be across the face of the fire.

  18. The Guardian online has an article by Graham Readfearn reporting a note by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber and colleagues (Potsdam) aiming to clarify what can be termed “an emergency” in the context of climate change risks.

    Note to Mr A; please.learn how to link on smartypants phone.

  19. When is an emergency really an emergency?
    If you’re the captain of the Titanic, approaching a giant iceberg with the potential to sink your ship it becomes an emergency only when it is too late to avoid the iceberg.
    So have we got a “climate emergency?”
    My reading says that ice melting in Antarctica has reached the point where there is nothing we can do to stop sea level rising by a few metres.
    However, the real problem is that the good ship planet earth has a committee instead of a captain and too many of the committee don’t believe in icebergs or heatbergs and are unwilling to alter course enough to avoid hitting the heatberg that is threatening to wreck our world as we know it.

  20. John, with the US pulling out of the UNFCCC we don’t have a committee any more. And some on the committee think the iceberg doesn’t exist.

    My reading says that ice melting in Antarctica has reached the point where there is nothing we can do to stop sea level rising by a few metres.

    We’ll be lucky is we can hold it there over the next few centuries. In W Antarctica goes it has implications for Greenland, parts of east Antarctica, all the land-based glaciers and thermal expansion.

    Some are saying it’s already time to put sulphate into the stratosphere to give us temporary cooling while we fix the basic problem.

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