We Now Know How Much Climate Change Contributed to Australia's Disastrous Bushfires

This is what a climate emergency looks like.
This is what a climate emergency looks like.
Photo: Getty

The most recent Australian bushfire season from hell is one for the record books. And a new analysis published Wednesday shows all the ways humans made it worse, and it’s clearer than ever that climate change left its mark all over this disaster.


The findings come from World Weather Attribution, a group with researchers from Australian, European, and American universities, which used peer-reviewed techniques to perform the analysis. The team found that these bushfires—which killed at least 34 people and burned more than 46 million acres of land—can be attributed to the global warming we’re all experiencing as part of climate change. This is further proof that the climate crisis is already here and fueling today’s natural disasters.

“Climate change is now part of Australia’s landscape,” said author Sophie Lewis, a researcher at the University of New South Wales, in a statement.


The team of scientists used 11 climate models and data dating back to the 1850s to find the impact carbon pollution has had on the extreme heat, drought, and fire risk in southeastern Australia, where the fires were concentrated. All these factors contribute to the formation and spread of bushfires. While researchers didn’t link climate change to the drought the region is experiencing, the authors did find that climate change has increased the risk of just about everything else.

That doesn’t mean bushfires aren’t naturally occurring. Of course, they are: The continent has known fire for millions of years, and they’ve helped create the Australia we know today. Still, the fires we saw toward the end of 2019 and in January 2020 were unprecedented. They followed record-breaking heat across the country and appeared earlier in the season than usual.

The study found that the extreme heat Australia dealt with is twice as likely now due to climate change. The risk of severe fire weather also has increased by some 30 percent. The paper authors go on to note that “we think the true chance in probability is likely much higher” because climate models tend to overestimate the influence of natural climate patterns like the Indian Ocean Dipole, which was unusually positive last year. That usually means warm and dry weather in Australia and including it in the modeling may have masked the full impact of climate change on the bushfires.


Future warming would only increase the odds of a similar bushfire season happening. The scientists used two of their models to project what would happen if the world warmed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the goal outlined in the Paris Agreement. The results show that, at a minimum, a fire season like the one that just passed would be four times more likely.

“We do not need to do an attribution study to know that climate change is happening but to understand what climate change means where people live we do,” said co-author Friederike Otto, director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, in a press statement.


These wildfires didn’t just damage property and land. They ended lives and affected the health of millions of people forced to deal with the choking smoke. The fires also killed more than a billion animals, bringing some 100 species closer to extinction. All the carbon they released also contributed to worsening the climate crisis. It’s a sad tale—one that climate denial and corporate greed have caused. And now we know just how much influence they had on the horrifying flames that engulfed Australia.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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The next step for attribution science (attributing a specific event or phenomena to climate change) may be laws and regulations at the nation/state level. At the regulation level there may be some sort of standardized method(s) for performing climate attribution studies. Standardized methods sounds boring and restrictive, but it helps make the case, so to speak, when going from study/investigation to corrective/remedial action. That is, the study premise and methods used to carry out the study have been agreed upon by interested parties. Standard methods for study/investigation gets everyone from scientists to lawyers to lawmakers on the same page. Sort of. Let’s not kid ourselves too much, we’re talking billable hours here.

You could have a zillion attribution studies performed by the world’s brightest scientists and in the end it may not mean much more than, “huh, interesting study, dude” without laws, regulations and agreed upon methods.

Or put it this way, for every attribution study there may be an equal and opposite non attribution study. Then it comes down to which study has the best communications strategy and or team of lawyers w/experts.

Climate attribution consulting with or without licensure may become a big deal in future.

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