By Dr Eric Kerr (National University of Singapore) and Dr Malini Sur
Smoke form Australia’s bushfires could be seen from space. But who should be held to account for the problem? NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY
Smoke from Australia’s bushfires has travelled far beyond its origins. It crossed New Zealand and South America (opens in a new window), and within days had drifted halfway around the globe. NASA predicted (opens in a new window)the smoke would complete a full circuit and arrive back where it started.
As climate change takes hold and global temperatures rise, bushfires are set to increase in severity and frequency (opens in a new window). The underlying cause of the fires and resulting smoke haze are often numerous (opens in a new window)- spanning both natural variability and climate change caused by individuals, governments and corporations.
Legal and policy frameworks - local, national and international – fail to capture these diffused responsibilities. Despite the proliferation of climate-related laws in recent decades, bushfire smoke still largely escapes regulation and containment. In this new era of monster fires, our laws need a major rethink.
Smoke haze blanketing Sydney late last year.NEIL BENNETT/AAP
A short history of smoke
Smoke is obviously not a new phenomenon - it has polluted Earth’s air since the invention of fire.
In Egypt (opens in a new window)and Peru (opens in a new window), evidence of ancient soot has been found in the lung tissue of mummies, thought to be the result of humans inhaling smoke particles from wood heaters and elsewhere.
The Romans (opens in a new window)referred to the gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”) and infamis aer (“infamous air”). Ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca (opens in a new window)wrote to a friend of his relief at escaping the polluted city:
No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city Rome and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition.
Smoke pollution grew worse during the Industrial Revolution, as coal-burning factories proliferated across Europe and the United States. In London, 12,000 people are believed to have died (opens in a new window)in the Great Smog of 1952.
In Australia too, air pollution, including from bushfire smoke, is not new. However laws to deal with it have traditionally targeted pollution from industry, transport, power generation, and vehicles. Until now, bushfire smoke has been seen as a natural phenomenon (opens in a new window), outside human control.
Indonesian women wear protective masks as they perform a mass prayer for rain to combat the smoke haze and drought season in Indonesia. AFRIANTO SILALAHI
Where to point the finger?
Australia’s fires are not the first to be felt far from their origin.
Slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia regularly spreads smoke across Southeast Asia. In September last year (opens in a new window), winds reportedly carried the smoke north to Malaysia and Singapore, prompting schools to close and triggering a mass public health scare.
In 2018, smoke from wildfires on the west coast of the United States reportedly travelled (opens in a new window)to the east coast of the continent to states such as Missouri, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.
As climate change worsens, and so too the frequency and extent of bushfires, it is critical that all efforts are made to prevent smoke from being emitted in the first place, and spreading around the world. However this requires identifying those responsible - a slippery concept when climate change is involved.
The Bureau of Meteorology recently confirmed (opens in a new window)what many strongly suspected: climate change contributed to Australia’s hottest, driest year on record on 2019, which led to the extreme bushfire season.
Following the latest bushfire outbreak, some declared Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government responsible (opens in a new window)for failing to take meaningful action on climate change.
Sharnie Moran and daughter Charlotte look on as thick smoke rises from a fire near Coffs Harbour, NSW.Dan Peled/AAP
The federal and state governments and some quarters of the media in turn blamed others, such as arsonists (opens in a new window)and conservationists (opens in a new window), for the fires – claims which were quickly discredited.
There is also a strong argument to hold corporations responsible for climate change – one analysis in 2017 (opens in a new window)found that just 100 companies were responsible for more than 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
But whether we blame a particular government or other human actors, the current suite of international laws are insufficient for holding them to account.
The law has failed
The number of global climate change laws has increased 20-fold between 1997 and 2017 (opens in a new window), from 60 to 1,260.
But despite this proliferation, the world is not on track (opens in a new window)to limiting planetary warming to less than 1.5℃ this century - a threshold beyond which the worst climate change impacts, including uncontrollable bushfires, will be felt.
Read more: What do Sydney and other cities have in common? Dust (opens in a new window)
This is because most of the laws and policies consist of “declarations” and soft law – that which is not legally binding, and so is easily ignored. Few deal with issues of restorative justice – until now a criminal law concept which involves repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour.
Experts have argued that (opens in a new window)the idea could be applied to disasters, drawing all parties to come together to deal with its aftermath and implications for the future.
The United Nations, which last year released the first-ever assessment (opens in a new window)of global environmental rules, says weak enforcement was “a global trend that is exacerbating environmental threats” including climate change and pollution. It also pointed to the need to properly fund government agencies responsible for enforcing laws.
Beachgoers in Sydney amid smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales.STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP
Many climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, are almost invisible. But bushfire smoke rapidly engulfs a city skyline. It travels beyond national borders and is impossible to ignore.
As fire seasons worsen, political leaders will come under increasing pressure to stem the emission and spread of bushfire smoke. Key to this will be stronger climate change laws and enforcement, which recognise that a bushfire in one country can quickly become the world’s problem.
This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in a new window)under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (opens in a new window).