Scenes of devastation from Australia's fires have been heartbreaking. How do we stop this suffering? For many campaigners and politicians, the answer is clear cut: drastic climate policies. When we examine the evidence, this simple answer falls short.
Australia is the world's most fire-prone continent. In 1900, 11 per cent of its surface burnt annually. These days, some 5 per cent of the country burns every year.
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By the end of the century, if we do not stop climate change, higher temperatures and an increase in aridity will likely mean a 0.7 percentage point increase in burnt area, an increase from 5.3 per cent of Australia to 6 per cent.
This increase is not trivial, and it is an argument for effective climate change action. By far the most impactful, practical policy is a dramatic increase in investment in low- and zero-carbon energy innovation.
I say to those who are delaying action on climate change: Look at the blood-red sky and unbreathable air in Australia because of raging forest fires.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 2, 2020
Our futures are all connected. That is why we must bring the world together and enact a Green New Deal. pic.twitter.com/GBQQpDc4vE
That's because, for decades to come, solar and wind energy will be neither cheap enough nor effective enough to replace fossil fuels. Today, they make up just 1.1 per cent of global energy use and the International Energy Agency estimates that even after we spend $3 trillion more on subsidies, they will not even reach 5 per cent by 2040.
Innovation is needed to bring down the price of green energy. We need to find breakthroughs for batteries, nuclear, carbon capture, and a plethora of other promising technologies. Innovation can solve our climate challenge.
Unfortunately, many reports on Australia's fires have exploited the carnage to push a specific agenda, resting on three ideas: that wild fire is worse than ever, that this is caused by global warming, and that the only solution is for political leaders to make even bigger carbon cut promises.
Globally, wild fire burns less land than it used to. Since 1900, global burnt area has reduced by more than one-third, because of agriculture, fire suppression and forest management. In the satellite era, both Nasa and other groups document significant decreases.
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Surprisingly, this decrease is even true for Australia. Satellites show that from 1997-2018 the burnt area declined by one-third. Australia's current fire season has seen less area burnt than previous years. Up to January 26 2020, wildfire burned 19.4 million hectares in Australia – about half the average burn over the similar time frame of 37 million hectares in the satellite record. (Actually, satellites show 46 million hectares burnt, but 9 million hectares are likely from prescribed burns.)
Suggesting Australia's fires are "unprecedented in scale" is wrong. Australia's burnt area declined by more than a third 1900-2000, and has declined over the satellite period. This fire season at the time of writing, 2.5 per cent of Australia's area has burned compared to the last 10 years' 4.8 per cent average by this point.
What is different this year is that fires have mostly been in New South Wales (home to Sydney) and Victoria (Melbourne). These are important states with a little more than half the country's population – and many of its media outlets. But suggesting fires are caused by global warming rests on cherry-picking these two regions with more fire and ignoring the remaining 87 per cent of Australia's landmass, where burned area has declined.
Peer-reviewed estimates of the future of Australia's fire see a long-term increase in burnt area because of global warming. But these estimates show the effect of climate change does not increase Australia's burnt area until the 2030s or 2040s. A new review of available data suggests it's not actually possible to detect a link between global warming and fire for Australia today. An increase will only become detectable in the 2040s. The images coming from Australia are shocking, but images should not trump science.
Along with many other campaigners, the Australian Greens argue that preventing fires is about "rapidly transition to a renewable energy economy". Carbon-cutting promises from politicians are not going to do a thing.
Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand is aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The government's own commissioned report shows this will cost 16 per cent of the nation's annual economy, or US$5 trillion over the century. It will only reduce temperatures by 0.002C by 2100.
Replicate those costs across Australian states and around the world; taxpayers are just not going to withstand that kind of pain, regardless of the intention. The world's poor countries can never afford to follow through. The costs alone make this "solution" to climate change wishful thinking.
Moreover, even if Australia were to dramatically change its climate policy overnight, the impact on fires will be effectively zero. If Australia had completely ended its fossil fuel use way back in 2012, the UN standard climate model shows the impact on fires this year would be literally immeasurable. Even if Australia could somehow be entirely fossil fuel free for the entire century, burnt area in 2100 would be 5.997 per cent instead of 6 per cent.
This feeble, flawed response is pathetic. We need to spend far more resources on green energy research and development to develop medium-term solutions to climate change. And we also should focus on the many straightforward measures that would help now.
Wildfire scientists have consistently told us that forest fuel levels keep increasing, making extreme bush fires much more likely. Controlled burns cheaply and effectively reduce high-intensity wild fires. Other sensible policies include better building codes, mechanical thinning, safer powerlines, reducing the potential for spread of lightning-caused wild fires, campaigns to reduce deliberate ignitions, and fuel reduction around the perimeter of human settlements.
The compassionate, effective response to Australia's tragedy is to focus on policies that can actually help.
• Bjorn Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus, Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Visiting Professor at the Copenhagen Business School.