Australia's fires represent the first acute climate crisis of this new decade

Australia's fires represent the first acute climate crisis of this new decade
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The brushfires in Australia — one of Earth’s great biodiversity hotspots — have claimed more than 1 billion animals, over 3,000 homes, and the lives of at least 28 people. Clouds of smoke have reached as far as South America and pumped more than 400 million tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. For anyone concerned about climate change and the retreat of nature around the world, this disaster marks a devastating beginning to 2020.

Let’s get the usual caveats out of the way. Climate change alone did not cause Australia’s brushfires. A confluence of factors contributed to this disaster, from natural variations in ocean temperatures that reduced the amount of rainfall over the continent to unusually strong winds that helped fan the flames.

Nevertheless, the scientific evidence is overwhelming: the rapid warming of our planet makes outbreaks of wildfires more frequent and more devastating. So far, the fires in Australia have scorched over 24 million acres, an area 12 times larger than the area affected by the California wildfires in 2018.


According to NASA, 2010-2019 was the hottest decade on record, and the world is currently on course for 3-4° C of warming by 2100. That way lies even greater catastrophe— not just devastating wildfires, but also more frequent and intense hurricanes, floods, droughts, and other extreme events.

Today, the world is rightly focused on providing immediate assistance to the communities and wildlife impacted by Australia’s brushfires. But after the fires have died down and the news cameras have moved on, the broader climate crisis will still demand an urgent, ambitious, and concerted global response.

First, we need to accelerate our decoupling of economic growth from the use of fossil fuels over the next decade and complete the transition by mid-century. This is the milestone scientists agree necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

To achieve it, we need to reduce energy use where possible, electrify as much energy usage as possible, and shift energy production to renewable sources. The falling cost of renewables like solar and wind, as well as the cost of energy storage, have helped to speed up that transition, but we’re still way behind where we need to be.

Second, we need to protect forests, grasslands, oceans, and other ecosystems that store vast amounts of carbon dioxide. More companies must commit to deforestation-free production and sustainable waste management, and work with governments to restore destroyed or degraded landscapes.


Earth’s natural bounty is the lifeblood of business, and corporate leaders need to share the responsibility of environmental stewardship.

Even as we take these steps to mitigate more disruptive changes, we also need to recognize that some climate impacts are already baked into our future. Many of the communities and nations on the front line of climate change are least equipped to deal with its consequences and, in many cases, already struggling to maintain political and economic stability.

The security and prosperity of all nations depend upon helping vulnerable communities—including here in the U.S. — build their resilience to increasingly inhospitable conditions, from shifting to more climate-resistant crops to conserving wetlands, reefs and other ecosystems that provide natural protection against coastal flooding.

Through its support for international conservation programs, the US government plays a critical role in helping to conserve our planet's biodiversity and build nature's resilience to an increasingly volatile climate.

By protecting nature, these federal investments also protect the people who depend on it, enhancing the stability of developing communities and economies, as well as our security. Congress has provided significant increases and bipartisan support for these programs over the last few years, but even greater investments will be needed to meet the scale of the problem.

Ultimately, the intertwined challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change require global collaboration. This year, leaders will gather to revisit their commitments under the Paris Agreement and Convention on Biological Diversity and set new targets to protect nature and reduce emissions before 2030 — a critical window of opportunity to turn the tide. US leadership, from the federal government as well as cities, states, and businesses, is crucial to the success of these summits.

Australia’s brushfires represent the first acute climate crisis of this new decade, and history will judge how humanity responds. The images of charred landscapes, decimated wildlife and people gasping for air shock the collective conscience of people around the world, but will they also shock our leaders into action? The answer to that question could determine the future of humanity and the planet.

Mariana Panuncio is the senior director for International Climate Cooperation at World Wildlife Fund (WWF)