The burning issue
Sweltering streets. Record-breaking June temperatures. Summer 2021 had barely begun and the Pacific coast from Canada to California was already being ravaged by heatwaves and wildfires, driven by a ‘heat dome’ of high pressure. In Australia, however, wetter-than-average conditions saw the release of a report that cautiously predicts a less devastating fire season in the coming months, compared to recent years.
But with the climate heating up, shouldn’t we expect fires everywhere to worsen every year? Well, things aren’t quite that simple. The warming climate raises the risks of fires by increasing the likelihood of long, hot spells of weather that dry out vegetation, turning swathes of grassland and forest into potential fuel.
While these hot, dry spells become more likely as the temperatures rise, they are still affected by local factors and so are not completely predictable. In the case of Australia in 2021, the global weather cycle known as La Niña has brought wetter conditions which, at the time of going to press, were expected to dampen down the fires this year.
The other factor is of course the human fire-starters. It’s not inevitable that dried-out vegetation catches fire – 96 per cent of wildfires are ignited by human activity, including purposeful (and often illegal) efforts to clear forest land for agriculture or other extractive projects.
Conversely, good interventions such as indigenous land management and controlled burning in Australia can reduce the risk of fires. Let’s hope a quieter fire season can give space for those solutions – raised by groups like the indigenous youth climate network SEED – to be heard.
Breaking the mould
On top of floods, fires and droughts, climate change is bringing a less visible type of threat: new strains of fungal disease. For millennia, our high body temperature has protected us from most infections, as the spores were unable to survive inside us. In fact, warm-bodied resistance to fungal disease may have been a key factor in the rise of mammals as a dominant species after the end of the dinosaurs.
But the balance may be shifting. The rise of the fungal infection Candida auris in the last few years has led researchers to believe that these microscopic moulds have been gradually adapting to the warming environment, to the point where they are now able to get a foothold inside previously off-limits human hosts.
Here comes the sun
On a more positive note, electricity is the cheapest it’s been in human history – thanks to solar. The projects built last year will generate cheaper electricity than even the world’s cheapest coal plants, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Rounding off a decade of falling prices, the cost of solar panels fell by a further 7 per cent in 2020, while concentrating solar power became 16 per cent cheaper to produce. At the same time, the costs of offshore and onshore wind fell by 9 per cent and 13 per cent respectively. A clean energy transition is in reach – if we can overcome the vested interests standing in its way.