Fear, not hope, reigned in Australia on New Year’s Day. A string of fires all the way down the South Coast region of New South Wales and Victoria are burning at emergency levels . This year’s bushfire season is widely regarded as one of the most severe on record. Since September, fires have spread across much of south-eastern Australia following a period of extreme drought and record-breaking temperatures.
At least 25 people killed and ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate more than one billion birds, reptiles and mammals in New South Wales alone are likely to have died in the rapidly spreading wildfires. Reuters reported that by January 7, the fire had expanded to 10 million hectares or “an area the size of South Korea”.
The direct cost of the fires to the Australian economy has been estimated to be at least $2 billion and rising. With summer only one-third over, the situation is likely to grow even grimmer in Australia.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, torrential rains, which began on New Year’s Eve, set off deadly flash floods in the capital Jakarta and elsewhere on the island of Java, killing at least 66 people and sending over 173,000 residents to temporary shelters.
Jakarta is a sinking city built on swamps, riddled with punctured aquifers, clogged waterways, and weighed down by an unwieldy population that is regularly inundated by floods as sea levels rise steadily. This is why Indonesian officials are already seeking to relocate the country’s capital to East Kalimantan Province, on the island of Borneo.
However, the deluge in the first week of 2020 was the heaviest in the capital since record-keeping began in the 19th century. “This rain is not ordinary rain,” warned a statement from Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency.
As always multiple factors are at play in this annual cycle of fires and floods on the Australian continent and the Indonesian archipelago, but the scale and intensity of this year’s unfolding disasters unequivocally reiterate that the link between the current extremes and anthropogenic climate change is scientifically undisputable.
If Indonesia is naturally prone to floods, Australia is naturally primed to burn. Every year there is a fire season in the summer, with hot, dry weather making it easy for blazes to start and spread.
More than a decade ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that ongoing anthropogenic climate change was virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency of fires in Australia and flooding in Indonesia. This assessment of the science evidence has been repeated in countless reports, including the IPCC’s Climate Change and Land report, released in August.
Yet neither the Australian nor Indonesian governments have announced any significant changes to their climate policies. Australia produces iron ore and a third of global coal exports and the Indonesian economy is fuelled by export of palm oil and coal. Both countries are also among the top 20 CO2 emitters.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison openly promotes coal industry, which is allegedly a major funder to his party. “I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries,” he told Australian broadcaster Channel Seven.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has pledged to rein in the illegal expansion of palm oil sector, the largest driver of deforestation, but at the same time in a bid to bring “development” to remote regions, he is accused of surreptitiously allowing vast tracts of peat land forests to be cleared for palm oil in the Indonesian part of Papua New Guinea.
Australian fires and Indonesian floods are merely a glimpse of a world careening irreversibly into a climate emergency that appears to be set to unfold across the planet in 2020.
As Cate Blanchett put it so succinctly at the 77th Golden Globe Awards night, “…when one country faces a climate disaster, we all face a climate disaster, so we are in it together.”
The question is if Morrison and Widodo are willing to accept that climate change is aggravating natural disasters in their own countries, that they urgently need an alternative business model to shore up their GDPs, that bold and decisive action to end coal extraction and deforestation once and for all will go a long way in helping the world survive the ongoing climate crisis.
Shailendra Yashwant is senior adviser, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba. Views are personal.