Climate change and bush fires: are they linked?

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This summer season for Australia has brought unprecedented heat, prolonged droughts and strong winds, fostering the perfect environment for the bush fires that are raging across Queensland and New South Wales.

Killing 28 people and destroying 3000 homes so far, fires have engulfed an area around 17.9 million square acres, and the season is still only halfway through.

Bush fires are a natural phenomenon in Australia and have been for years with many natural causes such as lightning strikes. But with global temperatures on the rise and Australia having the hottest day on record there since 1920 at 41.9°C, 1°C hotter than 100 years ago – can climate change be to blame?

Can we stop climate change?

With politics and climate change intertwining in recent years, the lines become blurred as to what is exact science and what is opinion on events. However, scientists say that the interaction of climate change and weather events is complex, as it’s difficult to solely put an event, such as a bush fire, down to climate change. But overall trends suggest that climate change is a contributing factor.

Conditions caused by climate change, such as increased temperatures and extended periods of drought have exacerbated the effects of the bush fires, increasing their intensity and duration, and scientists warn if rising temperatures continue then extreme weather patterns will only get worse.

Fires in New South Wales and Queensland have never been seen to such an extent, especially so early in the season, and it is thought that the driest spring since records began in Australia has had an effect on this, which correlates to global warming playing a role. But if climate change is already having a drastic effect- can we stop it now?

Overall trends suggest climate change is a contributing factor

Australia’s target under the Paris Agreement – a global deal to reduce climate change – is for a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2030, which has been criticised as not enough and according to a UN report in 2019, the continent is not on track to achieve this. To make matters worse, America, one of the leading global polluters, pulled out of the deal in 2017.

Globally the average surface temperature has risen by 0.9°C in 100 years, with most of the increase occurring in the past 35 years, pointing to human effects contributing to the warming, such as increased greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Not only are polar ice caps seeing the effect of this through increased melting and sea-level rise, but at the opposite end of the scale there is increased drought leading to fires, not just in Australia but globally.

The Paris Agreement is focused on reducing the global rise in temperature this century to below 1.5°C, but with a temperature increase of 1°C already having catastrophic global effects, will this be enough to mitigate climate change?

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