Inconvenient Facts On Australian Bushfires

Written by Roger Pielke Jr PhD

bushfires saving animals

We live in a time where every extreme weather or climate-related event is immediately associated with human-caused climate change.

Such associations are often not really about the science of climate, but rather a symbol used to exhort in the political battle over climate change.

For instance, on one extreme there is Michael Mann, of Penn State University, who is spending an academic sabbatical in Sydney.

He claims that “The brown skies I observed in the Blue Mountains this week are a product of human-caused climate change… it’s not complicated.”

Mann frequently uses the climate issue as the basis for electoral politicking – he calls for Australians to remove their Prime Minister: Australians are going “to have to vote out climate change deniers like [Scott] Morrison.”

In contrast, the Australian Academy of Science says that the causes of bushfires are actually extremely complicated:

“Bushfires, along with other weather and climate challenges, pose complex and wide-ranging problems. Population growth, climate change, temperature extremes, droughts, storms, wind, and floods are intersecting in ways that are difficult to untangle and address.” And rather than calling for changing out individual politicians, the Academy calls for improved policies: “Everything, including urban planning; building standards; habitat restoration; biodiversity and species preservation; and land, water, and wildlife management will need careful and measured consideration.”

The climate issue is so deeply politicized that some will cheerlead the politicization of the issue, some even going so far as to even deny any connection between climate change and fires at all.

Nowadays, the politicization of scientific issues is often intense, but it is not uncommon. Climate change, of course, is an extreme example of science that is variously hyped and denied, making it difficult for non-experts to tell the difference.

And using your political preferences to sort what you think is good science from bad is never a good idea.

Fortunately, the scientific community has developed some special organizations whose job it is to play things straight.

One such group is called @ScienceBrief at the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (funded by the United Kingdom and European Commission).

@ScienceBrief has produced a summary of what the Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded about the risks of wildfires and placed those conclusions into the context of more recent peer-reviewed literature.

Their summary is not likely to make anyone happy at the political extremes of the climate debate, but it is a fair representation of the current state of the science, as found in leading assessments and the peer-reviewed literature.

I encourage you to read it in full, but below are some highlights.

First, and crucially, they conclude: “The impact of anthropogenic climate change on fire weather is emerging above natural variability.”

Human-caused climate change affects “fire weather”, which they define as “periods with a high likelihood of fire due to a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall, and often high winds.”

SEE ALSO: Australia’s Epic Fires Caused By Bad Forestry And Arson, Not Climate Change

However, the emergence of that impact has only been detected in ~22% of the world’s burnable land area, according to a recent study by John Abatzoglou and colleagues.

They conclude that:

“Detection and attribution of global fire activity to anthropogenic climate change [are] confounded by influences of other anthropogenic activities such as land‐cover change, population, and fire suppression, as well as temporally limited satellite‐based fire records.”

In 2011, we contributed an early paper proposing a methodology focused on quantifying the “timescale of emergence” of a signal of human-caused climate change on tropical cyclones (hurricanes) and their impacts.

The idea behind this approach is to use climate models, assuming for purposes of analysis that their projections are accurate, and ask when would we expect to detect a signal of human-caused climate change in climate variables or in their impacts.

It will always be easier to detect the role of human-caused climate change weather and climate data (like in fire weather) than it will be to detect that role in societal impacts (like in the number of buildings burned).

As we explained in an analysis of Australian bushfire losses over time:

“…bushfire damage is not solely a function of bushfire weather; far from it, in fact. Even given a gradual aggravation of bushfire weather due to anthropogenic climate change or other factors, a bushfire still has to be ignited.

“Once ignited, a bushfire then has to traverse the landscape and impact a populated area, where outcomes in terms of damage will be a function of the spatial disposition of dwellings with respect to the fire front, and especially distance of properties from the bushland boundary.”

In the Abatzoglou study, 22% of the burnable land area where detection of the role of human-caused climate change has been achieved includes the Amazon, Mediterranean, Scandinavia, and Western North America. It does not include Siberia or Australia.

That’s right, according to the latest research looking at the issue, the role of human-caused climate change in Australian bushfires has not yet been detected.

It remains to be seen if the fires of 2019/2020 will alter that conclusion, but according to the Abatzoglou study, such detection is not expected until the 2040s.

And that conclusion depends upon projections based on an extreme (and implausible) scenario for future emissions (RCP8.5), so detection may take a bit longer, assuming the projections are correct.

Those who have chosen to wage their political battles over climate change through science – whatever side they are on – will certainly not be happy with the nuanced, somewhat complex current state of detection and attribution of wildfire to human-caused climate change.

For those of us interested in more aggressive mitigation and adaptation policies, scientific nuance and complexity are not at all a problem – because it is accurate, and accuracy is important.

Playing things straight on climate science may not always support a particular political agenda, and at times might even seem to undercut claims by one side or another.

But what playing things straight can do is sustain public and policymaker trust in the scientific community.

Playing things straight can be difficult on highly politicized issues, but organizations like the IPCC and @ScienceBrief are absolutely essential to the integrity of science as viewed by politicians and the public, whatever their political predispositions happen to be.

So how should the media report on the bushfires? Accurately. That means relying on organizations like the IPCC and placing the outlier views of individual scientists into that broader context.

Here is an example of how the information from @ScienceBrief might be translated into plain English:

“The effects of climate change have not yet been detected in Australian fires, but changes underway suggest that those effects will be detectable as early as the 2040s. If so we should expect, more and more intense fires, and respond accordingly.”

The science of climate change and extreme events does not always fit readily into political campaigns, no matter how popular or accepted, and certainly not easily into electoral politics.

However, as experts, it is absolutely essential that some part of our community plays things straight in support of our collective efforts to prepare for and mitigate an uncertain climate future.

Roger Pielke Jr. has been a professor at the University of Colorado since 2001. Previously, he was a staff scientist in the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He has degrees in mathematics, public policy, and political science, and is the author of numerous books. (Amazon)

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Comments (5)

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    So are they able to show us how this man made climate change happens? So far there has been nothing but nonsense concerning it. Have they found a way to prove that a colder object can make a warmer object hotter?

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    Krissy Holmes


    These fires were not caused by “climate change” as the activists would suggest, ridiculous.
    I am an aboriginal woman who grew up out in the harsh west of NSW i now live here in the fire zone on the south coast. For the last 3 years the summers have been a lot cooler, so much so that it’s been too cold for me to even bother taking a dip in the ocean. Growing up through the 70/80s we had days over 50 Celsius, enough to melt the bottom of our shoes, yet we still enjoyed the great outdoors and didn’t have a luxury such as aircon, some nights it would be 33 degrees at 1am, that’s how we knew it was going to be a long hot summer.
    My aboriginal grandparents used to take me out as a child to do back burning and land clearing, when the farce of the hole in the ozone layer surfaced I was 9, as a 9 year old I didn’t believe this science, it made no sense, gasses could get in via the hole but nothing could get out? I took this to my grandparents who spoke of times, pre industrialisation where there would be mass heatwaves that killed people, droughts so severe the land would crack, fires during those droughts that couldn’t be put out and had to take their course, of course back then they cleared the land so while the fires did not have the same intensity as what we’ve just witnessed, they still had the voracity.
    These fires were caused by man, not the ordinary man, the political man. In 1995 then, NSW state premier Bob Carr introduced the land clearing laws to meet emission reduction targets for the Kyoto protocol, all state forests were locked up, cattle banned from grazing in them, wood collectors stopped from taking dead fallen trees under the guise of animals wanting to live in dead logs, four wheel drive enthusiasts were locked out so there was no one clearing the fire trails and any person found clearing their own land had the prospect of fines up to $1 million dollars and/or 5 years imprisonment for what the state government deemed “illegal” land clearing. In 2000 the Queensland state government enacted the same laws followed by Victoria and South Australia. The true nature of these beasts were bad policies based on fraudulent science and of course, the arsonists of which some have been a part of extinction rebellion, I guess they can’t extinct us fast enough.

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      Krissy, this “professor” is known to be a “climate-clown”. He believes CO2 can heat the planet. He lives in an office, playing with computer models, with no knowledge of the relevant physics.

      Your personal experiences are worth more than 10 of such computer models.

      Thanks for sharing.

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        Haha thanks JD I had no idea. How utterly ridiculous to think that 0.04% GHGs/(CO2) of which man contributes just 1% of that 0.04% is causing the earth’s temperature to rise! I wonder, did it ever occur that the sun plays a crucial role in warming and that the earth isn’t flat? It’s not often I’m lost for words but when I found out the earth was being inputted as flat into the climate models, I had nothing but a blank expression on my face trying to comprehend it. Well better move along, I’ve got plans, going to go sail my boat off the edge of the planet!

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    Pielke disappoints me. While recognizing the politicization of climate “science”, he nevertheless says that the IPCC and @ScienceBrief are “playing it straight”, when it’s clear that they promote the human-caused climate change claim without reference to data. It’s sad that so many educated people are willing to buy an invalidated hypothesis and astonishing that they disregard the weird use of “climate change” as a force — unitless and immeasurable.

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