“…Fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.” –Garnaut Climate Change Review 2008
“Then God said, ‘I give you the atmosphere that covers the face of the whole earth and the waters. It will be yours to sustain the life of you, your children, the beasts, the birds, and every green plant.’ And it was so.” – A 21st century adaptation of Genesis 1:29-30
I looked at the map carefully, zooming in and out, finding the familiar place names of big cities and tiny towns. It appears that the landscapes and communities I pedaled through as an undergraduate on an Australian bicycle tour have been mostly spared from the devastating bushfires making international headlines. However, the charming Adelaide Hills wine-growing region I cruised through one fine day in January 2005 was not one of those fortunate areas. Over 80 homes were destroyed and approximately one-third of the grapevines went up in smoke last month. Other than occasionally spotting an Australian bottle of wine on a grocery store shelf in recent years, I haven’t often thought about those particular hills in South Australia, but reports of the catastrophe Down Under nevertheless seem more personal than they would in another part of the globe.
Bushfires are a “season” in Australia; that is, they happen annually and are expected every summer (Australia’s location in the Southern Hemisphere means January is mid-summer). Much like the fire-adapted forest and chaparral ecosystems of the western United States, Australia has several regions where wildfires are regarded as an important natural force shaping the landscape. For this reason, the fire season doesn’t usually cause me to wonder whether my old cycling route has been destroyed. The severity of this year’s events suggests something else is happening here.
What is different about the fires this year?
Simply put, the scale of this season’s bushfires is much greater than it has been in past years, and government resources to protect human life, property, and sensitive environmental areas have been stretched beyond the breaking point. The situation could be compared to the 2018 California fire season that destroyed the city of Paradise, except that the area burned in Australia is more than ten-fold greater and there is no expectation that the fire season in Australia will be ending soon. The smoke plume from the fires is so massive, it is even affecting the weather in South America.
Along with at least 28 people, hundreds of millions of mammals, birds, and reptiles have been killed in the blazes. Including other kinds of animals, for which there is less reliable data to make accurate estimates, would easily raise the death toll into the billions. Hundreds of the species affected are found only in Australia or even specific parts of Australia, raising the possibility that the massive loss of individuals and their habitat could push some of the rarer species down the road to extinction. The entire world should grieve over these losses, not just Australians.
As an environmental scientist, one of my greatest concerns with climate change is the possibility of positive feedback loops, where environmental changes like fires release more carbon into the atmosphere, which fuels even more change. The fires in Australia this year have emitted almost as much carbon dioxide as Australians have emitted directly through industry, transportation, agriculture, and other activities. These emissions may further exacerbate climate change unless forests are able to regrow and reabsorb the carbon that has been released. Under historical conditions, this would generally be expected. However, climate change will continue to alter the local temperature and precipitation patterns that allowed these forests to develop over thousands of years, which may diminish the potential for regeneration.
Did climate change cause these fires?
In the face of such an unstoppable force of nature, human interventions can seem inconsequential. And yet one of the largest human interventions into natural processes—the alteration of the planet’s atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels—looms. The trouble with labeling something a “climate disaster” is that the causes for any natural disaster are complex. Australia is currently suffering through a severe drought that has been caused in part by the cycling of the Indian Ocean Dipole, a large-scale temperature fluctuation in the Indian Ocean (similar to the erratic El Niño/La Niña phenomenon that is likely more familiar to North American readers). However, Australia has also been setting and resetting high temperature records over the last decade, a phenomenon that is unambiguously associated with human-caused global climate change.
So, did climate change cause these fires? Which is to say, did we cause these fires? Distressingly, I would say the answer is yes. To be clear, climate change is not the cause of the annual bushfire season in Australia. But fires so massive they generate day-after-day news coverage? Those are our headlines to take responsibility for.
A report written at the request of the Australian government, the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review, examined the impacts of climate change on the Australian environment and economy. It found that Australia was uniquely vulnerable among highly developed nations. However, the recommendations and warnings contained in the report did not lead to much substantive action. Australia has one of the highest national per capita rates of carbon emissions, higher even than the United States. The review’s timeline for climate change resulting in noticeably more severe fires (by 2020) is now tragically accurate.
It might be easy to look at that inaction and feel that Australia is getting what it had coming. But atmospheric mixing means every carbon dioxide molecule released by my car in Colorado is just as linked to the Australian fires as the carbon that came from an Australian coal mine. The realization that the planet’s atmosphere is a community resource is one that human society is still struggling to grasp. It is daunting to think that economic structures, political decisions, and personal choices in my country could somehow be related to the ongoing disaster in a place that is literally as far away as possible.
Where is the hope?
Coming to terms with this reality requires us to acknowledge the power of our species to shape our environment, for good or ill. But this acknowledgment is not a new concept in the Christian tradition. In Genesis, the Creator makes clear that the whole of creation is entrusted to the ones made in the Creator’s image. This power of dominion is no different than humans’ other abilities in that it is God-given, but also corrupted by sin. Recognizing that our dominion extends to the atmosphere, and therefore truly the whole of creation simultaneously, is essential to stabilizing our climate and our future.
Aboriginal societies used low-intensity fire as a tool to shape the Australian landscape for thousands of years. The exercise of their dominion renewed plant communities through nutrient cycling, produced good hunting grounds with abundant game, and protected Australia’s ecosystems from catastrophic fires by thinning dead vegetation. Of course, exercising human dominion over the atmosphere is certainly more complicated than even managing the diverse and unique ecosystems of Australia.
Humility and caution are needed as we seek ways to reverse the chaos we have wrought through poor stewardship of the atmosphere God created. But if there is hope to be found in the grim headlines from Australia, and all the other places where a changing climate is causing suffering, it’s that God did not create humans to be passive participants in God’s world. We are not condemned to an irreversibly warming world, and all the disruption it causes, because the same God-given dominion we have abused in our care of the atmosphere is redeemed through Christ. This redemption empowers Christians to bold action and prophetic speech in the face of humanity’s self-inflicted suffering, no matter the scale of the pain. The Creator granted us dominion over the atmosphere and saw that, it too, was good.