World on fire

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The fires are just one of the tipping points that we are approaching that could take climate crisis out of human control. Politicians must act now, says Sonia Randhawa.

The northern hemisphere is leaving summer, and the southern hemisphere is entering it. And already the words being used to describe summer in Australia are “critical” and “apocalyptic”.

I feel like a prophet of doom as I stand before people and describe the cataclysmic changes the world is going through. But the problem is I am not speaking in tongues; I am not even soothsaying.

I am describing events happening now, knowing that unless we engage in an urgent drawdown of carbon and stop emitting greenhouse gases, what we face today is only going to get worse.

Already this year, the world has been burning in places that are supposed to be beyond the reach of bushfires.

In the Arctic – yes, the ARCTIC – over 600 fires blazed, billowing smoke so intense it could be seen from space. It is not that forests haven’t burned in the Arctic in the past. But this summer, the size and reach of those fires have dwarfed those previously seen, sparked by high temperatures and low rainfall.

Unlike the Arctic, Greenland doesn’t usually burn. This year, fires have raged in Greenland and Siberia as well.

Now the southern hemisphere is at the very start of spring, and the fires are starting there. No Malaysian can be unaware of the fires in Indonesia, what with the suffocating haze we are experiencing now.

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The early deaths of 100,000 people “mostly in Indonesia … but also Singapore and Malaysia” have been linked to the 2015 haze, researchers from Harvard University and Columbian University found. As temperatures continue to rise, the peat fires causing the haze are likely to become even more frequent.

Meanwhile, in Australia, in the second week out of winter, swathes of Queensland and New South Wales were ablaze. Firefighters said the only way to stop the fires burning would be a good downpour – but no rain is on the horizon.

Australia is prone to bushfires. But these bushfires have raced through semi-tropical rainforests. Sacred Antarctic beech trees – remnants of a time when Australia was much further south and part of the Antarctic – are gone.

And the Amazon is burning.

Fires happen. Fires happen in all these places. But the scale, intensity and timing of these fires have been unprecedented.

Worse, these fires are hastening climate catastrophe. At a time when a trillion trees need to be planted to draw carbon down from the atmosphere, we cannot afford to lose the carbon stored in the trees that have burned, in the peat that is burning and in the soil that is frying.

In previously frozen parts of the north, for example, the fires are burning the topsoil and opening up the lower permafrost, which decomposes faster when it is exposed to the air.

Permafrost is defined as soil that has been frozen continuously for at least two years. But much of this permafrost, frozen for millennia, contains stores of carbon dioxide and its more potent greenhouse relation, methane. Methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas – and there is no way of knowing just how much is stored in the permafrost.

READ MORE:  Stop bickering, take effective measures to clear haze

While shocking, these fires were predictable and predicted. As early as 2009, scientists were warning that an increasing number of fires would be one of the effects of global heating.

These fires are one of the tipping points that we are approaching that could take climate crisis out of human control. Right now, we are still able to make a difference: we can still take emergency action to cut carbon emissions to zero and draw down carbon from the atmosphere. But we need political will, which is notably lacking.

Individual solutions to the climate crisis are important, but they cannot tackle the problem on the scale needed.

We need politicians to commit to cutting emissions to zero in the fastest possible timeframe. We need them to commit to building the infrastructure that would enable us to make the transition to a zero-carbon future.

We cannot do this without the public resources that the government has at its disposal. And the sooner we act, the cheaper it will be.

We are in a climate emergency. We, the people, need to be sounding the alarm.

Dr Sonia Randhawa is a graduate from the University of Oxford, with a PhD from the University of Melbourne. She has been actively involved in commenting on Malaysian politics for over two decades.

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