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Australian Fires News

Entry 2021, on 2020-01-11 at 15:35:35 (Rating 2, News)

A few weeks back the sky here in New Zealand was coloured an ominous dull yellow by the smoke from the bush fires in Australia, two thousand kilometers away. The lack of light and general eerie feeling was almost apocalyptic, and the end of the world - brought about by climate change - seemed like a real thing.

But since then the smoke has gone from this area, although the fires are unfortunately continuing unabated back in Australia. So, if you ignore the news and some social media, you wouldn't even be aware that anything is happening.

But even if you did follow the news, you might be somewhat mislead about the phenomenon. A younger person I talked to the other day told me "Australia is on fire". I said, it is certainly bad, but saying Australia is on fire is a bit of an exaggeration. She told me the fires covered at least half of Australia, according to reliable maps she had seen.

I was skeptical, and said that, as far as I knew, only a few percent of the continent was directly affected. I'm not trying to minimise how serious the fires are, I just want the facts. So I did some research today to find out exactly how much of Australia is affected by the fires.

I found the area affected from the BBC. I used that because that company takes climate change very seriously and was likely to overestimate rather than minimise the problem. So this number was likely to be the worst case, and it was also at a point of time (8 January) and the fires are still burning, so it will get worse, but those caveats aside, the number is 10.7 million hectares.

Then I looked up the total land area of Australia, which is a well established and uncontroversial number, and is 7,682,300 square kilometers. A hectare is 100 x 100 meters and a square kilometer is 1000 x 1000 (you've got to love the metric system) so the area of Australia in hectares is 100 times the area in square kilometers, or 768,230,000.

Do the division and it turns out that about 1.4% of Australia has been affected. That's not what is burning now, it's what has been affected during the whole period of the fires existing this season. I'm not saying that it's all OK, because just over 1% doesn't sound like a lot, but I am saying that the common perception, encouraged by misleading maps, is overly dramatic.

There are other controversies associated with the fires too. The first is the connection to global warming. Many people point out that the fires started as a result of conventional events, such as lightning strikes, accidents, and arson, and that these have nothing to do with climate change. Well fair enough, that is true, but the conditions which lead to the fires being worse than usual have been exacerbated by the climate. To pretend that climate change isn't a major factor in the magnitude of the fires is delusional.

Another controversy involves the claim that regular clearing of excess trees and undergrowth has been neglected, and that if regular controlled burning had been allowed the fires might have been able to be controlled. Additionally environmentalists, and especially the Australian Green Party, are blamed for this lack of clearing, because they see it as unnecessary destruction of native forests.

This claim is a bit more difficult to evaluate. There is still some clearing going on, but not as much as in the past. That might be because of pressure from environmentalists, or it might be due to budget cuts by the current government, or it might be because controlled burns are far more dangerous to perform now than in the past. Most likely there is some contribution from all of these factors.

Some people have partaken in a certain amount of schadenfreude at Australia's expense, because of the contribution their coal production makes to CO2 emissions, which in turn has increased the damage from the fires. Australia does produce quite a lot of coal, of which 90% is exported. But the 481 million tonnes produced last year is only 6% of the world total of 7727 million tonnes, and only about a third of global carbon emissions come from coal. So if Australia stopped coal exports now, it would make very little difference to global warming and to the severity of fires.

Finally, I was told that New Zealand's prime minister had been secretly sending her own money to help the victims of the fire. I could find no reference to this happening, but it might be a story confused with the NZ government sending resources to Australia to help, just like every other government has done in the past. It is possible that the PM has contributed small amounts to various appeals for help, but the majority at least seems to come from the taxes which we all pay.

So 5 minutes of research - all from reputable sites I should emphasise - has showed me the real facts, rather than the propaganda, deliberately misleading stats, conflation of real and imagined events, and outright lies prevalent from the news and social media. It's not that hard, really. I'm not saying ignore those sources, because most of the time they are roughly correct, but a little bit of extra research from neutral sources sure can change your perspective!


Comment 1 (5201) by Anonymous on 2020-01-13 at 11:38:48: Makes sense thanks.


Comment 2 (5202) by OJB on 2020-01-13 at 20:13:13:

Well, sure. Looking beneath the surface and finding the reality is always worthwhile.


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