An Open Letter on Australian Bushfires and Climate: Urgent Need for Deep Cuts in Carbon Emissions

An Open Letter on Australian Bushfires and Climate: Urgent Need for Deep Cuts in Carbon Emissions

The tragedy of this summer’s bushfires commands our attention, and after aiding and supporting the victims it is important to learn from the event. The scale and ferocity of the recent fires are unprecedented since European settlement of this country. They arrived at the end of a year with the lowest average rainfall and the highest average temperatures ever recorded across Australia. Climate change has arrived, and without significant action greater impacts on Australia are inevitable.

While many factors have contributed to the bushfire crisis, the role of exceptional heat and dryness cannot be ignored. Temperatures nearly everywhere on Earth have been rising for decades, a clear result of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from fossil fuel use and other human activities. The increasing variability of rainfall across Australia, bringing more dry years, is a consequence.

These outcomes were predicted decades ago. We should listen to the voices of not only our scientists, but also those who are on the front lines fighting fires. The message is clear: the situation is becoming ever less manageable as extreme-fire-risk weather becomes more common, while conditions suitable for controlled burns to reduce fuel loads are becoming less frequent. While much remains to be learned about the impacts of climate change, more than enough studies have been conducted to tell us we have a serious problem that requires urgent changes to be made.

We welcome government actions to help current victims and improve adaptation to future fires, as well as its acceptance of a role for climate change in the catastrophe. But this is not enough, because the greenhouse gas amounts driving warming are still rising: the world is only at the beginning of the climate change phenomenon. The current impacts are happening with just 1 Celsius of global temperature increase, but we are set for the best part of another degree even if very strong international action is taken to reduce emissions. This means further increases in extreme fire risk, heat waves and flooding rains; ecosystems degraded and wild species forced to migrate or vanish; agricultural activities moved or abandoned, challenging our food security; and so on. If strong action is not taken, environmental degradation and social disruption will be much greater and in many cases adaptation will no longer be achievable.  It would be naive to assume that such a world will still support human societies in their current form and maintain human well-being.

This dire outlook demands stronger mitigation of carbon emissions. Many argue that actions to achieve this would be economically destructive. This claim has no basis, nor is it consistent with Australia’s traditional optimism and ingenuity, nor with historical experience.  Similar objections were raised in the past against government policies to limit air pollution, environmental toxins and ozone-destroying chemicals, but we collectively found ways to achieve mitigation at manageable cost, and with net benefits to society that are clear in hindsight.

A transition to lower, and eventually net zero emissions, is a huge task but is achievable and far less risky and irresponsible than allowing unmitigated warming. This transition requires determination on the part of leaders, as well as empathy, aid and forward planning for communities disadvantaged by the transition. Large transformations in the face of comparable challenges have been successfully achieved in the past, such as the development of road and mass transportation systems, waste-water and sewage handling to minimise diseases, and many others. These transformations created new jobs and whole industries, and will do so again.

Australia cannot solve climate change on its own. Reducing emissions is a global challenge that requires collective action. But Australia’s current visibility as ground zero for both climate impacts and climate policy uncertainty presents a unique opportunity for us to emerge as a leader on this challenge. Doing so will aid our economy, strengthen our standing in international affairs and relations with neighbours, and help secure Australia and the world from the impacts of climate change.  Much research has already been done to identify the policies and technologies that can move us to where we need to go. What is lacking is the courage to implement them on the required scale. We call on all governments to acknowledge the gravity of the threat posed by climate change driven by human activities, and to support and implement evidence-based policy responses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in time to safeguard against catastrophe. We owe this to younger generations and those who come after them, who will bear the brunt of our decisions.

Signed the ARC Laureate Fellows:

Steven Sherwood, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Sydney
Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU
Trevor J McDougall AC, School of Mathematics and Statistics, UNSW Sydney
Matthew England, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Sydney
George Zhao, School of Chemical Engineering, U. Queensland
Michael Bird, College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University
Tamara Davis, School of Mathematics and Physics, University of Queensland
Mark Westoby, Dept of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University
Eelco J. Rohling, Research School of Earth Sciences, ANU
Lesley Head, School of Geography, University of Melbourne
Chris Turney, Chronos 14Carbon-Cycle Facility, UNSW Sydney
Trevor Lithgow, Centre to Impact AMR, Monash University
Paul Mulvaney, School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne

Zheng-Xiang Li, School of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Curtin University
Peter Hodgson, Institute for Frontier Materials, Deakin University 
Philip Boyd, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania
Madeleine JH van Oppen, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne
Lisa Kewley, Research School for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Australian National University
Warwick Anderson, Department of History and Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney
Chennupati Jagadish, AC, Research School of Physics, Australian National University
Sue O’Connor, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University
Ronald Rapee, Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University
Jolanda Jetten, School of Psychology, University of Queensland
Richard G. Roberts, School of Earth, Atmospheric & Life Sciences, University of Wollongong

Katherine Demuth, Centre for Language Sciences, Macquarie University
Gottfried Otting, Research School of Chemistry, Australian National University
John Dryzek, Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra
Belinda Medlyn, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University
Adrienne Stone, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne 
Ben Andrews, Mathematical Sciences Institute, Australian National University
Stuart Wyithe, School of Physics, University of Melbourne
Leann Tilley, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of Melbourne
Geoffrey McFadden, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne
Matthew Bailes, ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, Swinburne University of Technology
John Quiggin, School of Economics, University of Queensland
Bernard Degnan, Centre for Marine Science, University of Queensland
Jon Barnett, School of Geography, University of Melbourne
Martin Asplund, Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Australian National University

Ivan Marusic, Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne
Edward Holmes, School of Life & Environmental Sciences and School of Medical Sciences, University of Sydney
Kate Smith-Miles, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne
Justin Marshall, Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland
Peter Goodyear, Sydney School of Education & Social Work, The University of Sydney
David Lindenmayer, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University
Alexandra Aikhenvald, Language and Culture Research Centre, James Cook University
David Bellwood, College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University
Glenda Sluga, Laureate Research Program in International HIstory, THe University of Sydney
Enrico Valdinoci, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Western Australia

Michelle Coote, Research School of Chemistry, Australian National University
Jennifer L Martin AC, University of Wollongong 
Ian Reid FTSE, University of Adelaide
Hilary Charlesworth, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University and Melbourne Law School
Bostjan Kobe, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, The University of Queensland
Peter Visscher, The University of Queensland
Terry Hughes, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University
William F. Laurance FAA, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, James Cook University
Kaarin Anstey, School of Psychology, University of New South Wales
Hugh Possingham, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, ARC Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies & School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland
Jamie Rossjohn FAA, Biomedicine Discovery Institute, Monash University
David Studdert, Stanford Law School, Stanford University
Maria Forsyth FAA, Institute for Frontier Materials, Deakin University
Peter Taylor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers, University of Melbourne

Michael Tobar, ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems and the ARC Centre  of Excellence for  Dark Matter Particle Physics, Department of Physics, University of Western Australia 
Jason Mattingley, Queensland Brain Institute & School of Psychology, The University of Queensland
Rose Amal, School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW Sydney
Marilyn Fleer, Conceptual PlayLab for STEM education, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne
Matthew Spriggs, College of Arts and Social Sciences, The ANU
Joy Damousi, SHAPS, University of Melbourne 
Dan Li, Department of Chemical Engineering, The University of Melbourne
Julian Gale, School of Molecular and Life Sciences, Curtin University
Mark Finnane, Griffith Criminology Institute and School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, Griffith University
Lorraine Mazerolle, School of Social Science, University of Queensland
Alex Haslam, School of Psychology, University of Queensland
Barry Pogson, ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, Australian National University

Michael Fuhrer, ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies, Monash University
Zhiguo Yuan AM FTSE, Advanced Water Management Centre, The University of Queensland
Lianzhou Wang, School of Chemical Engineering and Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, the University of Queensland
Barry Brook, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, University of Tasmania
Paul S.C. Tacon, Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Queensland

Ann McGrath, Research Centre for Deep History, ANU
Karl Glazebrook, Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology
Sharon K. Parker, Centre for Transformative Work Design, Future of Work Institute, Curtin University, Western Australia
Andrew Dzurak, School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications, UNSW Sydney
Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW Sydney

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