With the sky outside a menacing red, Nerilie Abram’s family is staying inside, with the windows shut and curtains drawn at their home in Canberra, Australia’s smoke-choked capital.
On their return from recent holiday travels, “the kids didn’t want us to open the curtains because outside it looked scary,” the professor and climate scientist at the Australian National University said.
Family friends who struggle with asthma have left town, she said, and most residents who do venture outside wear disposable masks — although the city, which had the world’s worst air quality for several days last week, is running out of those.
“We’re been really caught off-guard by these fires,” said Abram, who works with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes.
“Scientifically, it’s not surprising. We totally expected that as the climate warmed, fires in Australia would get worse. But the scale of this disaster is something I couldn’t have imagined, and it’s the same for a lot of people in Australia,” she said.
Large swathes of the country are battling wildfires that have killed at least 27 people and torched more than 10 million hectares in the wake of the southern-hemisphere nation’s hottest and driest year on record.
The ferocious, fast-moving blazes have consumed more than 2,000 homes, blanketed major cities from Sydney to Melbourne in thick smoke, killed an estimated billion animals and pushed exhausted firefighters to their limits.
While summer bushfires are nothing new in Australia, scientists say these are different.
Their scale and ferocity raise questions about how nature will recover — and the fires are now affecting a much higher percentage of Australia’s population, the scientists say.
In the well-populated southeast, nearly a third of people are estimated to have been directly affected by this season’s fire and smoke.
In a nation of just 25 million, “most people know someone who’s been affected,” said Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
That might have political implications in a country that less than a year ago elected a conservative coalition government with close ties to the powerful coal industry and a record of dismissing action on climate change as too costly.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been verbally abused while visiting fire-hit areas after returning from an ill-timed Hawaii holiday, with angry residents saying his government has done too little to respond and prevent damage.
“People are deeply affected,” said Joe Fontaine, a lecturer in environmental science at Murdoch University in Perth, noting “a deep sense of loss and anxiety in society.”
However, it was “a little too early” to tell if the bushfire crisis was shifting views on climate change, he added.
Australia’s brutal fire season stems from a confluence of threats, scientists say.
Climate change is generally causing a long-term trend toward hotter and drier conditions, while Abram said that shifts in clouds and winds are gradually driving winter rain toward Antarctica.
This season, unusual cold in the eastern Indian Ocean has cut off moisture moving to Australia.
All that adds up to an extremely dangerous fire season — but it might not be the “new normal” some have dubbed it, Abram said.
Not every year will be this bad, although future years could possibly be much worse, she said.
This season’s runaway fires have occurred at 1.1°C of global warming compared with pre-industrial times.
However, the world is on track for more than 3°C of warming, even if current commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change are met.
“We’re on an upward trajectory,” Abram said. “How bad is this going to get? How bad are we willing to let it get?”
Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s husband, a volunteer firefighter and former Australian army firefighter, said the color of ash on the ground and dripping aluminum from melted car parts point to higher-than-usual temperatures in this season’s fires.
Those, and the rising frequency of bushfires in some areas, could make recovery increasingly difficult for Australia’s normally resilient forests, scientists predict.
“I’m skeptical that we will see things return to the way they were,” Fontaine said.
Those who argue nature will bounce back because Australia is fire-prone are “overlooking the interaction with climate change,” he said.
Some iconic Australian tree and plant species, like banksias with their flower spikes, might be on their way to disappearing as they struggle with more heat, drought and fires, he said.
Wildlife experts also estimate that as many as 30 percent of the country’s koalas could have died in the blazes.
The widespread destruction of this season’s fires similarly is expected to have implications for Australia’s insurance and tourism industries, as well as for healthcare.
Extended smoke and fire exposure might spur lingering physical and mental health problems, doctors and scientists fear, but whether those impacts will pressure politicians to take significant action on climate change remains in doubt, they said.
Previous dire warnings about climate change risks to the Great Barrier Reef had not worked, Abram said.
“I hope this [fire] threat affecting such a large proportion of the Australian population will be the catalyst to really take this seriously,” she said.
“That could be one of the only positive things that comes out of this experience — if it’s that wake-up call to see what climate change looks like,” she added.
French firm DCI-DESCO in April won a bid to upgrade Taiwan’s Lafayette frigates, which has strained ties between China and France. In 1991, France sold Taiwan six Lafayette frigates and in 1992 sold it 60 Mirage 2000 fighter jets. To prevent arms sales between the nations, China negotiated an agreement with France and in 1994 in a joint statement, France promised that there would be no future arms sales to Taiwan. From China’s point of view, the DCI-DESCO deal constitutes a breach of the agreement, but the French stance is that it is not selling Taiwan new weapons, but instead providing a
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in her inaugural address on May 20 firmly said: “We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo.” The Chinese government was not too happy, and later that day, an opinion piece on the Web site of China’s state broadcaster China Central Television said: “While Tsai’s first inaugural address four years ago was read by Beijing as an ‘unfinished answer sheet,’ the one she presented this time was even more below-par.” Speaking to the China Review News Agency, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies vice president
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc worldwide. Despite countries being under pressure economically and from the novel coronavirus, China’s National People’s Congress last month passed national security legislation for Hong Kong, a decision that has shocked the world. Let there be no doubt: This move is the beginning of the end of China’s plans for “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Proposed amendments to extradition laws last year ignited massive protests in Hong Kong, with millions of participants, shocking the world and making confrontation between government forces and those who opposed the change a permanent part of Hong
Protecting domestic workers Ms Heidi Chang’s (張姮燕) article (“Employers need protections too,” May 24, page 6) made the case that “migrant workers’” rights had improved in Taiwan, but employers’ rights had not, going so far as to complain that all employers are treated equally under the law — as though this was not how the law was supposed to work. The truth is that the rights of foreign blue-collar workers have still not caught up with the rights their employers have always enjoyed. This segment of the foreign community in Taiwan is more likely than other groups to encounter abuse. Recently, a care