Australia’s bushfires and the “boiling frog effect”: why should we all care? Featured

By By Priscilla Owusu January 13, 2020 1534 450 comments

Normalising extreme weather conditions could make people less driven to take steps to fight global warming

With eight million hectares destroyed by flames so far and 25 people and millions of animals killed, the recent Australian fires have shocked the world, but still not enough to ensure that climate change does not get the better of us.

Australia is not new to bushfires. Since 1851, 800 people and millions of animals have died in intense bushfires, but the blaze that started in December 2019 has had one of the worst effects recorded.

Entire regions have been left without power and clouds of smoke now cover half the continent, according to the preliminary assessment of the fires. It will be impossible for scientists to know precisely how many animals have been killed until the devastating fires subside enough to allow surveys of the burned area.

One estimate reckons that in the state of New South Wales alone, roughly 800 million animals have probably been affected by the fires. But it is unclear how many have perished outright.

The boiling frog

The extreme weather that comes with the effects of climate change is becoming the new normal – so normal that people are either talking about it not as much or not talking about it at all. As compared to social and political campaigns in which people demand change with public outbursts and protests, only a few people and organisations seem to care about climate change and its impact.

The same can be said about people’s reactions to the recent bushfires. Though people are sending contributions to help the Australian firefighters and displaced families, reports say the public was more concerned and sent in more donations within a very short period when the spire and roof of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral burned down in April 2019, an incident which barely endangered any lives.

Normalising extreme weather conditions could make people less driven to take steps to fight global warming. Researchers analysed more than two billion social media posts between 2014 and 2016 and what they found was that, when temperatures were unusual for a particular time of year, people would comment on it at first. But if the temperature trend continued and there were unusual temperatures again at the same time the following year, people would stop commenting on the matter as much. And this can be likened to the boiling frog phenomenon.

The boiling frog is a fable describing an amphibian slowly being boiled alive. The idea is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in lukewarm water that begins to boil by degrees, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

This is to say that if the effects of climate change are marked and immediate, people will react more intensively and do more, as compared to the public’s indifference now to issues that relate to the climate and the slow effects of climate change. Nevertheless, whether or not people react, like the boiling frog, we will all slowly suffer the outcome of our actions and the dire effects of climate change until we get to the point of no return.

Australia is one of many countries suffering from the public’s inability to do more to fight climate change, as citizens have grown used to bushfires.

Why the fires escalated

Fire season in Australia is always dangerous and it can’t be avoided. Each year there is a fire season during the Australian summer, as the weather is hot and dry, makinh it easy for blazes to start and spread widely.

The fires are often attributed to natural causes such as lightning strikes in drought-affected forests. Dry lightning was responsible for starting a number of fires in Victoria’s East Gippsland region in Australia in late December. The fires travelled more than 20 kilometres in just five hours, said Victoria Emergency, a state agency.

Though natural causes can be inevitable, human beings can also be to blame. Australian police have charged at least 24 people with deliberately starting bushfires, and have taken legal action against 183 people for fire-related offences since November.

The 2009 Black Saturday fires killed 173 people in Victoria, making it the deadliest bushfire disaster on record. But conditions have been unusually severe this year, fanning the flames and making firefighting particularly difficult. This has led Australia to experience one of its worst droughts in decades, December being the driest on record. A heatwave last month also broke the record for highest nationwide average temperature, with some places sweltering under temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius (about 113-120 degrees Fahrenheit).

In all this, experts say, climate change plays a role and it has worsened the scope and impact of natural disasters such as fires and floods. With weather conditions growing more extreme, the fires have been starting earlier in the season for years, and spreading with greater intensity. Climate scientists have been warning for years that rising global temperatures would bring more drought, longer fire seasons, and more frequent and intense fires to the part of Australia that is now ablaze. Even for scientists, who are acutely aware of the predictions, the current fires have been devastating.

Should I be worried?

A satellite image of the bushfires across Australia on December 26

Just like the boiling frog, Australia has only been boiling for years and these fires we see will only intensify as the years go by, affecting Australia and many other countries including Ghana.

In Australia, entire towns and their green spaces have been immersed in flames, and residents across several states have lost their homes. The heaviest structural damage occurred in New South Wales, the country’s most densely populated state, where 1,588 homes have been destroyed and over 650 damaged.

In total, more than 7.3 million hectares, which is 17.9 million acres of land, have been burned across Australia’s six states. The worst-affected state is New South Wales, with more than 4.9 million hectares (12.1 million acres), burned.

More pressingly, the increasing number of forest burninsg only means a reduction in the number of forests left in the world and this has its problems. Countries which are already experiencing a rapid change in climate, such as Ghana, Uganda, the United States and India, will experience a rise in bushfires, floods, droughts, landslides and mudslides, unpredictable weather patterns and an increase in temperatures in the environment, endangering lives and destroying property.

Not only will the climate change drastically, but there will be an increment in the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Though we many not soon see the immediate effects of toxic atmosphere on our health, like the boiling frog, most human deaths will be caused by respiratory disease, experts say.

So, yes, we should be worried because what global warming scientists feared would be happening many years from now has already started happening. It is not too late. You can help create more awareness and donate to organisations and individuals which are crowdfunding to help the displaced families, firefighters and organisations risking their lives to ensure the Australian fires do not destroy more than they already have done.

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