Story at a glance
- Massive fires in Australia have raged across a landscape primed for ignition by climate change, driving thousands from their homes.
- Prominent climate scientist Michael Mann says that as global temperatures increase, large swaths of Australia could become too hot and too dry for humans to reside.
- The scientist warned that if the world fails to dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, future Australians could be forced to abandon their homes by the extreme conditions, joining the growing ranks of “climate refugees.”
The future is going to be hotter. This is the incontrovertible truth of climate change for the foreseeable future unless dramatic action is taken. And as the mercury marches ever higher, some areas of the world that are already hot and dry will become places humans simply can’t survive.
Australia, currently in the midst of a cataclysmic fire season, may become one of these forsaken places, prominent climatologist Michael Mann told Reuters.
“It is conceivable that much of Australia simply becomes too hot and dry for human habitation,” said Mann. “In that case, yes, unfortunately we could well see Australians join the ranks of the world’s climate refugees.”
A climate refugee is someone forced from their home by the planet’s changing climate or an extreme weather event.
In 2018, a World Bank report predicted that by 2050 sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could have 143 million climate refugees — displaced by the expanding deserts and rising seas wrought by climate change.
Extreme weather, predicted to become more prevalent and severe under climate change, has displaced an average of 24 million people since 2008.
At present, Australia’s unprecedented fires have reduced an area the size of Bulgaria to ash, killed at least 28 people and incinerated more than 1 billion animals. Scientists say the fingerprints of climate change are all over the raging conflagrations, so big they are kicking up fire tornadoes and dry lightning that can start new fires.
As the Earth gets hotter, the conditions that prime the outback for fires — high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall and strong winds — have become more common, upping the odds of destructive bushfires and making them harder to extinguish. The current fires have been preceded by a three-year drought and sustained by 100-degree heat, little rain and powerful winds.
Things will get worse, in all likelihood, as global temperatures continue to rise — bringing Australia closer to the unlivable future Mann predicts. Curbing global greenhouse gas emissions is the surest way to avoid turning Australians into climate refugees, but, despite an increasingly concerned public, the country’s conservative government continues to prioritize economic growth over long term survival.
“It’s possible to grow the economy, create jobs, and preserve the environment at the same time. These are things that all Australians could embrace,” Mann said.
“They just need a government that’s willing to act on their behalf rather than on behalf of a handful of coal barons.”
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