Greenhouse on Fire?

The text below was published in "The Age" * on Tuesday 6th January 1998
as a letter to the editor
(* "The Age" is a daily newspaper in Melbourne, Australia)

This summer's endemic bushfire situation, evolving in less than extreme weather conditions across Australia, demands serious scrutiny.

As with earlier fires in Indonesia - Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea, el Niño has brought much of the fuel to a tinder-dry state. Leaving aside the issue of possible influence of climate change on el Niño, it is an observed fact that el Niño has increased in frequency and severity over several cycles now. We must therefore anticipate more frequent dry spells, and possibly periods of rapid vegetation growth during the wet part of each cycle.

Again ignoring the debatable predictions of climate change modelling, there is a proven and unprecedented increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels. It is reasonable to postulate that this carbon dioxide is being absorbed by Australia's native vegetation also at unprecedented rates (per hectare of remaining forest, that is). It would seem a matter of some urgency that research (1) be undertaken to quantify the effect of this increased carbon dioxide on the growth rate, carbon content, eucalyptus oil content, and flammability of our native vegetation. Within the last few days NSW fire officials have been quoted as saying that the rule books on fire behaviour may as well be thrown out.

Before we smugly walk away from Kyoto claiming victory, the government must be reasonably sure that it's advocacy on behalf of the fossil fuel industry is not leading this nation to a devastating holocaust. The Kyoto "victory" could turn out to be not only Pyrrhic but pyrotechnic.

Michael Gunter

Trustee, Renewable Energy Development Trust


(1) It appears the research may have already been done. Do not trust the abstract (below), as it comes from the Global Climate Coalition (

"Estimating Australian Forest Fire Danger Under Conditions of Doubled Carbon Dioxide Concentrations,"
T. Beer (CSIRO Bushfire Unit, Mordialloc 3195, Australia), A. Williams, Clim. Change, 29(2), 169-188, Feb.1995

Abstract: Two different models predict an increase in fire danger over much of Australia for doubled C02. They confirm that annually averaged daily relative humidity is the single most important variable in estimating forest fire danger; even though the models tend to produce relative humidities that are slightly too low, and to overestimate fire danger.