As fires rage across tens of thousands of square kilometers of the Amazon forest, dubbed the Planet’s lungs as it produces some 20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, some 72,843 fires are burning in Brazil this year. Fires on a large scale including through Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, southern Europe and elsewhere, herald a world where increasing temperatures and droughts overwhelm original habitats, flora and fauna.
As atmospheric levels of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide have reached a combined level of near 500 parts per million, intersecting the melting threshold of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets and heralding a fundamental shift in the state of the planetary climate, fires are consuming large parts of the land.
While the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets progressively melt, at a rate more than 6 times faster than during the seventies, the tropics expand and arid deserts encroach at a rate of 56 – 111 km per decade into temperate Mediterranean-type climate zones, where the Earth’s fertile regions are progressively replaced by environments less suitable for farming.
According to reports “climate change itself is making dry seasons longer and forests more flammable. Increased temperatures are also resulting in more frequent tropical forest fires in non-drought years. And climate change may also be driving the increasing frequency and intensity of climate anomalies, such as El Niño events that affect fire season intensity across Amazonia.” The image below clearly shows that the current fires in the Amazon are concentrated along linear access roads, which means the fires are related to land clearing.
The pace of global warming is astounding climate scientists. Within the last 70 years or so major shifts in climate zones and an accelerating spate of extreme weather events—cyclones, floods, droughts, heat waves and fires— are increasingly ravaging large tracts of Earth.
However, despite its foundation in the basic laws of physics (the black body radiation laws of Planck, Kirchhoff’ and Stefan Boltzmann), as well as empirical observations around the world by major climate research bodies (NOAA, NASA, NSIDC, IPCC, World Meteorological Organization, Hadley-Met, Tindale, Potsdam, BOM, CSIRO and others), the anthropogenic origin, scale and pace of climate change remain underestimated and subject to extensively propagated denial and untruths. Indeed, the term “climate change” hardly reflects the extreme pace of the event, spanning about 70 year since its acceleration post-WWII. Climate change remains counterintuitive to many, let alone where potential mitigation could affect vested economic interests.
Climate scientists find themselves in a quandary, similar to medical doctors facing grave situations where they need to communicate a serious diagnosis. How do climate scientists tell people that the current spate of cyclones devastating islands from the Caribbean to the Philippines, or floods devastating coastal regions and river valleys from Mozambique to Kerala, Pakistan and Townsville, can only intensify in a rapidly warming world? How do scientists tell people that children are growing into a world where survival under a mean temperature 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures may be painful, and in some parts of the world impossible, let alone what conditions will be like under the 4 degrees Celsius rise projected by the IPCC?
The Cassandra syndrome is alive and well. Throughout history messengers of dangerous news have been rebuked or worse; nowadays they also face reluctance on the part of the mainstream media to publish warnings of dire climate projections. Given the scenarios climate scientists are looking at, many find it difficult to talk about the issue, even among friends and family.
It would appear parliaments, including in Australia, preoccupied as they are with economics, legal issues and international conflicts, hardly regard the future of nature and civilization as a priority.
Andrew Glikson is an Earth and climate scientist.