Wildfires in Western US show we can't continue to ignore climate change

Commentary: When Australia burned, our leaders downplayed climate change. We can't afford that again.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
5 min read
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G'day, America.

I know this isn't a great time. The pandemic has been devastating, to say the least, and now huge blazes are tearing across the West, with thousands of homes destroyed and dozens of lives lost. This torrid year marches on, as horrifying as it is tragic.

For Australians, like myself, the scenes from California, Oregon and Washington are eerily familiar. There's a numbing sameness to it all. As images of Blade Runner San Francisco trickle across our social media feeds, it seems eerily familiar. We've been there, we say.

In December last year, Australia was on fire. Our bushfire season was in full swing, and catastrophic blazes were burning across the country. Scientists had predicted the knock-on effects of climate change would result in unprecedented fires. We knew it was coming and yet, as blazes whipped over mountainsides, bore down on townships and left charred carcasses of livestock piled along the side of country roads, there was little we could do but adapt.

The dangers of bushfire season exist perpetually in Australian minds; memories of devastation in years gone by are tucked away in the dark corners of our consciousness. But during the 2019-20 bushfire season in Australia, they violently stirred.

Our daily lives were changing. The climate emergency was writ large overhead. The sky became hazy, then sepia, then blood red. Smoke became our new normal. We added a new routine, thrice daily: Check the Air Quality Index to see how bad the particle pollution was for the day. Moving between home and the office, your lungs filled with smoke. Across the ditch, in New Zealand, smoke from the fires turned glaciers brown. Wildlife was decimated -- likely more than a billion animals perished, according to some estimates.

It was the first time in my life that I could really see and feel the effects of climate change. I'm sure that many of those on the West Coast right now feel the same way.

We've been there, we say, as we tighten our N95 masks around our ears.

I don't need a crystal ball to tell you what happens next: Blame is shifted, facts are obscured, doubt is merchandised. A parallel universe is created where climate change plays no role in the havoc caused by wildfires, a universe where politicians can bury their head in the sand and ignore the reality of the situation. I don't need a crystal ball, because this is exactly how it played out in Australia.

In Australia, our leaders refused to discuss climate change. When quizzed about the issue at a briefing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison waved the question away. "There is a time and a place to debate controversial issues and important issues, right now it's important to focus on the needs of Australians who need our help," he said. His former deputy claimed the sun's magnetic field was responsible for the blazes. His current deputy said only "raving inner-city lunatics" were concerned with climate change.

Science was constantly undermined by misinformation, disinformation or outright apathy. The prime minister claimed there was no scientific evidence linking the bushfires with carbon emissions and climate change. There is bountiful evidence. In the US, President Donald Trump -- who has been criticized for being too silent on the western wildfires -- hasn't directly dismissed climate change, but has blamed poor forest management as a reason for the conflagrations.

We've been there.

Down here, we spent an inordinate amount of time debating who started the fires and why they burned out of control. Left-wing activists and "greenies" were erroneously accused of deliberately lighting the blazes and preventing hazard reduction burns that would have stopped them from growing to such an immense scale. As the inferno continued to torch entire towns, media organizations, like Richard Murdoch's NewsCorp, played down the role of climate change and ramped up the arson talk.

There is no evidence any of this was true, but the rumors persisted, touted by some of the country's leading politicians and coordinated by bots on social media.

We're already seeing similar campaigns against political groups in the US. On Friday, the FBI in Portland issued a statement it had received reports that "extremists" were responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon. Its investigation showed the reports to be untrue.

We've been there, too.

No one claimed climate change started the fires Australia experienced in January. They didn't start the Amazon fires of 2019 or the zombie fires of the Arctic's recently completed fire season. They didn't start the US wildfires, either. But climate scientists have demonstrated, time and again, how a warming planet contributes to worsening weather conditions, increasing the likelihood of more devastating fire seasons. In places like Oregon, fires are burning where they don't usually burn.

Yes, we've been there.

Sydney Harbour Bridge amid haze

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, shrouded in haze.


I'm encouraged by some of the discussion across the Pacific. In California, where the fires have burned more land than ever before, Gov. Gavin Newsom has not minced words.

"The debate is over around climate change," he said during a press conference on Sept. 11, backed by charred trees and a ground covered in gray ash. And he's right. There's no longer time to debate. You debate which Netflix show you should watch tonight or what you should cook for dinner or which school you should pick for your kids. You don't debate whether climate change is real. You can't debate something when all of the evidence points in one direction.

You simply can't debate something when an international committee synthesizes all of the scientific evidence from across the globe over decades and concludes "warming of the climate system is unequivocal." Not heeding these words, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is partly why Australia was caught on the back foot when the infernos hit.

In January, the Australian public rallied. There was outrage. Protests around the country called for the prime minister to resign. They demanded immediate changes to climate policies and extra funding for firefighters. But change hasn't come. The political pressure dissipated.

Australia bounced from one crisis to the other, from fires to viruses, and entered an economic recession, the first in nearly 30 years. It was hard to keep the pressure up by marching in the streets. It still is. But as a "green recovery" from COVID-19 has been pushed across the world, by a diverse range of governments, Australia has taken a different tack. It wants to use natural gas, a fossil fuel, to regrow its economy. Scientists aren't convinced this will be at all good for the environment, noting that gas is the fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

When conflagrations bore down on rural communities, we saw the consequences of ignorance, the devastation of doing nothing. Towns leveled. Lives lost. We had a chance to align climate and energy policy and reduce carbon emissions going forward, to alleviate some of the ruin we are set to face in the coming decades. Australia's 2020 fire season has just begun. Despite all the evidence, despite the countryside turning black, Australia continues to move slowly in combating climate change.

After the fires are extinguished across the western US, attention will shift to the future. Climate change can't be waved away. It can't become a political football. It can't be ignored. There is a small window of opportunity to get aggressive, set carbon reduction targets, enact legislation that addresses the crisis and safeguards against ever more destructive infernos and extreme weather events.

We've been there, and we didn't. You must.