US wild fire crisis brings home the global threat from climate change

SINGAPORE – Apocalyptic orange-coloured skies filled with choking smoke and ash, communities fleeing raging firestorms driven by freakishly hot and windy weather, thousands of homes and livelihoods reduced to ruins.

The wild fires tearing through the US West Coast are eerily similar to the bush fires that scorched Australia’s east coast late last year and earlier this year.

Climate change is the key driver of both disasters, with predictions growing that climate change impacts are going to get worse.

“The future has arrived. What we’re seeing now, with massive wildfires, worsening storms, unprecedented heat, and record droughts and floods is just the beginning of the climate changes to come,” said California climate and water scientist Dr Peter Gleick in a commentary in The Guardian last Friday (Sept 11).

The crises might seem far from Singapore, but climate change could also affect fires that burn closer to home.

As National University of Singapore peatland scientist Dr Lahiru Wijedasa noted, large-scale fire events are happening more frequently around the world.

“Last year, the fires were in Australia, Indonesia, California and to a lesser extent the Amazon and even in the UK. This year, its California and the Amazon, and colder boreal areas that we don’t normally hear about,” he told The Straits Times.

“All this is happening without an El Nino and La Nina, so it is exceptionally significant. What it is showing is that areas are becoming drier and more flammable and fires more frequent at a global scale,” he said. El Nino and its alter ego La Nina are tropical Pacific Ocean phenomena that can trigger droughts and floods in different parts of the globe. El Nino events typically push up global temperatures.


The US fires bear the mark of a man-made crisis.

Mankind is heating up the planet by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide (CO2) by burning fossil fuels.

No matter where those emissions are, whether from the industries on Jurong Island, coal plants in China or cars all around the world, it all goes into one common atmosphere, which is trapping more and more heat.

Record heat and drought in Australia primed dried-out forests and farmlands for ignition.

All it took were lightning strikes to trigger epic fires that fire-fighters struggled for months to contain, killing 33 people nationally, burning millions of hectares and destroying thousands of homes in a multi-billion-dollar calamity.

The same thing is repeating itself in California, Oregon and Washington.

A long drought, years of declining rainfall and rising temperatures have led to very dry conditions. In Oregon, there are huge fires in areas normally too wet or too cool to go up in smoke.


For years scientists have been warning of the consequences as the global thermometer crept up.

Now, many of these consequences – both fires and floods – are upon us.

Globally, heatwaves and droughts are becoming longer and more intense, triggering fires in the Amazon and record blazes in the Arctic.

A prolonged dry season last year also exacerbated the annual fire season in Indonesia.

A firefighter conducts a controlled burn to eliminate fuels before the upcoming bushfire season in the Arcadia suburb of Sydney, on Sept 8, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

Climate change is also heating up the oceans and supercharging storms and triggering record floods, like those in China this summer and Japan last year.

Ice caps and glaciers are melting, accelerating a sea level rise that is threatening low-lying island nations such as Singapore and the Maldives.

As these extremes intensify, so do the threats to global food and water supplies, with uncertain weather making crop production more challenging.

The UN’s leading climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has for years been alerting the world about the growing risks from climate change, and especially the need to limit global warming.

Nearly 200 nations meeting in Paris in 2015 agreed to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and ideally aim for 1.5 deg C to prevent dangerous impacts.

Yet with greenhouse gas emissions continuing to grow as the world devours more energy, food and manufactured goods, that 1.5 deg C could be breached, at least temporarily, as early as 2024, an update published last week by the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation said.

Temperatures have already risen by 1.1 deg C, the WMO said, and the world is experiencing record extremes even at that level.

“We are seeing the emergence of some signals that would have had almost no chance of happening without human-induced climate change,” Professor Sonia Seneviratne, a climate scientist at Swiss university ETH Zurich, told Reuters.


Scientists say the clearest climate change links are in the growing frequency and intensity of heat waves worldwide.

Research published in March by the World Weather Attribution, a consortium of scientific organisations, found that climate change increased the risk of the hot, dry weather that fuelled Australia’s fires by at least 30 per cent, compared to a world without global warming.

Increasingly, climate change signals are being found in other events, too, through the emerging area called attribution science.

The intense rainfall triggered by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was caused in part by climate change, researchers found.

“It’s not so much that climate change is destabilising historical weather patterns,” said Dr Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California.

“In many cases, it’s amplifying them,” he told Reuters.

And that’s certainly the case with the wildfires consuming the US West Coast.

The disaster points to the growing impact of climate change on lives and livelihoods globally, and the urgency in taking stronger climate action.

The Covid-19 crisis has prompted some governments to make systemic changes to their economies to transition to a low-carbon future.

And even as pressure mounts on nations to do more to reduce their emissions, individuals can also do their part by walking or choosing public transport over driving, buying energy-efficient appliances and eating locally grown food.

These actions might not move the needle as much as institutional change. But they all uphold the stance that more can – and should – be done.


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