2020 started badly for the planet. Australia is witnessing the worst forest fires of its modern history, provoked by months of droughts and record temperatures in one of the most biodiverse countries of the world.
Last week, the University of Sydney warned that there could be half a billion animals lost to the fires, whilst 8 people have died and hundreds have lost their homes or are trapped in rural areas of New South Wales and Victoria. The images that shocked the world showed a blood red sky whilst people took refuge on the beaches of the country’s east coast, and also animals such as koalas and kangaroos on life support machines after being gravely injured in the fires.
Reports that the aftershocks from the fires began to be felt in Latin America started this week, when various media outlets from the region published that smoke from the Australian fires had arrived in Argentina and Chile. The giant smoke and ash cloud travelled 12,000 kilometres across the Pacific and is currently situated at 6,000 meters above the Southern Cone.
Although experts ensure that there are currently no warnings about negative effects this could have in the region, it’s a chilling reminder that the climate emergency is increasingly global in nature, and that an extreme occurence in one part of the world can easily have devastating consequences in another. What’s more, after the forest fires in the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon last year, many in Latin America fear what could happen this year if the scenario worsens.
How do the fires in Brazil and Australia compare
Last year, in Brazil an area the size of 5,500,000 hectares was burnt in the Amazon region due to devastating forest fires, many of which could have been avoided if the government had implemented greater controls over the region according to Greenpeace International. This figure represents an increase of 80% compared to the previous year, and it is perhaps no surprise that this increase coincides with the first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Around 8 million hectares have been burnt so far in New South Wales and Victoria, which is roughly 45% more than what was burnt in the Brazilian Amazon
According to the Environmental Institute of the Amazon (IPAM), the areas which suffered the worst rates of forest fires were also those which suffered the worst rates of deforestation, a worrying finding given that since Bolsonaro has become president, deforestation rates have increased by 29.5%.
How do the Australian and Brazilian forest fires compare, then? According to Greenpeace, around 8 million hectares have been burnt so far in New South Wales and Victoria, which is roughly 45% more than what was burnt in the Brazilian Amazon. The immense size of this area is also worrying when compared to the area burnt during the California bushfires of 2018, which totalled 800,000 hectares.
Under the current Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, the country has remained the third largest fossil fuel exporter of the world, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia, and in 2018, these exports were worth around $42 billion USD. Morrison has defended these exports, claiming they’re a fundamental part of the Australian economy. He has also failed to make a connection between this industry and the drastic increases in temperature that Australia has recently been experiencing that could be behind the forest fires.
Two governments that deny the dangers of climate change
Although Bolsonaro stands out for his blatant climate emergency denial, evident in declarations such as ‘Brazil is one of the countries that most looks after the environment around the world’ made at a UN conference in the midst of the devastating fires last year, Morrison is also a serious threat to the environment.
The response of Scott Morrison to the Australian fires has also been to deny the role that global warming has played in provoking them
Accusations last year that Bolsonaro is responsible for ecocide by world leaders and activists put Bolsonaro on the defensive, leading him to reject $20 million USD in aid from the G7 to assist with the efforts in calming the fires.
He appeared shortly after in a speech accusing NGOs of criminal activity in the Amazon as a reaction to funding that his government recently cut, and an attempt to discredit his government. He also accused voluntary firefighters of being pyromaniacs that were actually fuelling the fires.
The response of Scott Morrison to the Australian fires has also been to deny the role that global warming has played in provoking them. Many have also accused him of pulling a ‘disappearing act’ due to his lack of response at critical moments of the current crisis. He has called ‘reckless’ those who are fighting to end coal mining in the country, even though coal is one of the main causes of global warming around the world.
He has also made declarations that Australia must maintain a balance between the importance of the economy and the environment, and in moments such as this one we shouldn’t lose sight of this - a clear indication that the economy remains his priority.
The lack of consciousness of these two governments is dangerous for the planet. Although they both have different strategies and discourse, they both appear to have equally damaging effects for the environment, and it’s clear that their policies of prioritising the economy at all costs and promoting ‘unsustainable’ development’ contribute to the creation of natural disasters that are increasingly frequent and out of control.
The state of the world today forces us to consider that ‘development’ at all costs that will only provide short term benefits no longer makes sense. When the fire season begins again in Brazil this year, we must be watchful of the response of Bolsonaro, and critical of the development model he will no doubt defend.