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As Two Australian States Declare Emergencies, Scientists Warn that Climate Change is Making the Country’s Fire Season Worse

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  • Fires raging in Australia have forced officials to declare a state of emergency in New South Wales and Queensland.
  • The greater Sydney area is facing a “catastrophic” level warning, the highest level in the country and the first time it has been issued in the city since implemented after the 2009 Black Saturday fires.  
  • While scientists have said the fires are a result of worsening climate change, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister has said the concern should be on people losing their homes, not “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city Greenies.”

States of Emergency Declared

Nearly 90 fires are raging in New South Wales, Australia, with more than half of them considered uncontained, promoting Australian officials to declare a state of emergency Monday.

Fear mounted on Tuesday over a concern that a cold front might shift the direction of the fires that span along 620 miles of Australia’s eastern coastline. 

The fires, which began in early September, have forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes with more being warned to be prepared to leave, if necessary. More than 150 properties have been destroyed since the beginning of the fire season.

Over the weekend, the death toll rose to three people.

According to the BBC, authorities called this week “the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen.” 

Alongside New South Wales’ state of emergency, around 600 schools have shut down. Planes are spraying some homes and trees with flame retardant. 

On Tuesday, as the fires encroached upon Sydney, Australia’s most populous city. The city’s skyline sat under a blanket of smoke as some of the fires reportedly reached suburbs as close as nine miles away from the city center.

Experts compared the day’s forecast to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in the state of Victoria, which killed 173 people.

The greater Sydney area is now under a “catastrophic” level-warning, which is the highest level warning for fires. It is also the first time Sydney has been hit with such a grave warning since the system was implemented after the Black Saturday Fires.

Queensland, which has also declared a state of emergency, reported 55 fires on Tuesday. While its fires were not considered as severe at the moment, officials warned that could change with little notice.

Bushfires Start as Bad “Omen” in September

While the bushfires started as part of Australia’s expected fire season, they were exacerbated by drought and high winds. 

This season’s drought is particularly bad, but Australia’s east coast has actually seen below-average rainfall over the past two years.

In Queensland, more than 50 fires burned in early September.

Reports estimated more than 20 buildings destroyed within days of the start of the season. The destroyed property also included the historic Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National Park.

“We’ve never seen this before in recorded history, fire weather has never been as severe this early in spring,” Andrew Sturgess, an inspector with Queensland emergency services, said in September. 

Sturgess also called the fire a potential omen for worse to come, which proved to be true. 

How Are the Fires Related to Climate Change?

Climate scientists have associated Australia’s worsening fire season with climate change. Those scientists predict Australia’s bushfires will only continue to become more frequent and more intense as climate change worsens.

They also say that Australia is particularly susceptible to climate change because of its vast interior desert combined with rapidly-heating ocean currents surrounding the country.

“There’s a human fingerprint on the temperature increases since 1950 — all the weather patterns are occurring in a planet that is warming and warming because of human activity,” Joëlle Gergis, a climate scientist and writer from the Australian National University, told the New York Times.

“We’re really missing the opportunity to prepare for future life in Australia. It’s going to be a lot warmer, and we’re going to see a lot of prevalence of extreme fire conditions,” she added. “The further we kick the can down the road and avoid these conversations, we’re really missing the opportunity to get the Australian public ready for what is upon us.”

Australia’s Reliance on Coal

On top of climate change, Australia is at odds with its deep ties to coal, with the country’s primary energy consumption still being dominated by coal.

According to the Australian government, the country still relies on coal for 40% of its energy. It’s also the largest coal exporter in the world and has fallen behind on its promise in the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions.

Because of that, Australia has seen a number of dramatic protests over the last couple of months. In October, a man chained himself to railroad tracks while holding a sign reading, “Australia has the worst record of species extinction in the whole world.”

A couple of weeks ago, protesters locked arms to stop people from entering a mining conference. They were then forcibly dispersed by police using pepper spray.

Speaking with ABC Radio National on Monday, however, deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack denied that these fires are related to climate change. 

“We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance – they need help, they need shelter,” he said.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlighted, and woke capital city Greenies at this time when they’re trying to save their homes,” he added after he was asked why it was wrong to discuss climate change while the fires raged.  

Following McCormack’s interview, the mayor of the New South Wales town of Glen Innes challenged his statement. 

“It is not a political thing — it is a scientific fact that we are going through climate change,” Mayor Carol Sparks said. “I think that Michael McCormack needs to read the science.”

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (Weather) (Sydney Morning Herald)

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New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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