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Australia’s bushfires and climate change: A media analysis

08 January, 2020
Daisy Dunne, Josh Gabbatiss and Robert McSweeney, Carbon Brief

Forest, firefighters.jpg

Forest, firefighters
© Daniel Zuflucht/Pixabay.com

Australia is currently experiencing one of its worst bushfire seasons, with swathes of the southern and eastern coastal regions having been ablaze for weeks.  As the fires have spread, there has been extensive media coverage both nationally and internationally documenting – and debating – their impacts. This Carbon Brief overview summarises how the fires – and the political response to them – have been covered by the media.

There has also been widespread criticism of Australian leaders’ handling of the situation, particularly in the context of the government’s poor record on climate action. The fires come at the end of the nation’s hottest and driest year on record. To understand the extent of the problem and how media has reacted to it, this article answers six questions:

  1. What is happening in Australia?
  2. What role does climate change play in the fires?
  3. What other factors are involved in the fires?
  4. How do the fires compare to past events?
  5. What has the political impact of the fires been?
  6. What has the media response been?

 

What is happening in Australia?

This year’s bushfire season is widely regarded as one of the most severe on record. Since September, fires have spread across much of southeastern Australia following a period of extreme drought and record-breaking temperatures. By the beginning of 2020, around six million hectares had been burned, mainly in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. The affected area has been described by various publications as roughly twice the size of Belgium, Maryland or Wales. On 7 January, this area had expanded to more than 10 million hectares or “an area the size of South Korea”, according to Reuters.

Dozens of people have been killed by the fires and thousands of buildings have been destroyed. Bloomberg reported that the infernos have “cut-off communities, destroyed hundreds of homes and shocked the world with images of holiday-makers forced to shelter on beaches”. According to HuffPost, ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate more than one billion birds, reptiles and mammals in New South Wales alone are likely to have died in the rapidly spreading wildfires. ABC News reported that tens of thousands of livestock are also likely to have been killed.

After the fires had already burned for around three months, NBC News noted that, despite thousands of firefighters battling to contain the blazes, “many continued to burn out of control, threatening to wipe out rural townships and causing almost incalculable damage to property and wildlife”. With more than 100 separate fires burning at once, air quality across the region has also been affected. The Financial Times reported that a public-health emergency has been declared.

As the new year began, the Australian capital city of Canberra registered the worst air quality reading in the world. The Canberra Times reported that smoke billowing through the city had raised its air quality index reading to 20 times above the level considered hazardous. The fires in Australia are happening on such a scale that their effects are even being felt beyond its borders. Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, BBC News reports that smoke from Australia had turned the skies an “eerie” yellow.

What role does climate change play in the fires?

Much of the media coverage has discussed the different factors that have driven the extreme fire season, with climate change coming up as a prominent theme. “Wildfires need four ingredients,” explained Prof Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at the Australian National University, in a piece for the Scientific American: “Available fuel, dryness of that fuel, weather conditions that aid the rapid spread of fire and an ignition.” Climate change plays a role because it is “making Australian wildfires larger and more frequent because of its effects on dryness and fire weather”, she noted. A BBC News “very simple guide” made a similar point:

“While fires are a natural part of the Australian weather cycle, scientists have long warned that this hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense.”

According to ABC News, the fires come at the end of Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Data from the Australian government Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) shows that annual average temperature “was 1.52C above the 1961-90 average of 21.8C”, said the article – putting it “well above” the previous hottest year in 2013 of 1.33C above average. USA Today quoted a tweet from Nasa climate scientist Dr Kate Marvel, in which she noted that Australia has warmed by around 1C since records began.

A “warming stripes” tweet from Prof Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading illustrated that trend. As does a second tweet in which Hawkins shows how the December of 2019 would be a “normal” year for Australia in a world that is between 2.5C and 3C warmer than average. Average temperature was not the only record to be broken in 2019, ABC News added. The daily average maximum temperature of 30.69C was more than 2C above the long-term average and “smashed” the previous record of 30.19C set in 2013. And the average national rainfall total of 277mm was “well below” the previous record of 314mm set in 1902, the article said. Climate change is bringing “longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat”, said a piece in the New York Times, which “worsens these conditions and makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn”. It added:

“A changing climate has meant an increase in temperatures in the Indian and Southern Oceans, which in turn has meant drier and hotter weather across Australia this summer.”

The “unprecedented wildfires” have been “supercharged thanks to climate change, the type of trees catching fire and weather”, said a Q&A by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. “What would have been a bad fire season was made worse by the background drying/warming trend,’’ Dr Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecasts at the BOM, told Borenstein. The drier the trees and plants are, the easier it is for fires to start and take hold, Dr Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada, told Borenstein:

“It means more fuel is available to burn, which means higher intensity fires, which makes it more difficult – or impossible – to put out.”

Fire authorities measure the risk according to the Forest Fire Danger Index, a combined measure of temperature, humidity, wind speed and the availability of dry fuel, explained the Guardian. The Australian spring of 2019 was the “worst year on a record going back to 1950 for bushfire risk”, the article added.

In addition, the Guardian noted that a recent study had identified a “clear trend toward more dangerous [fire] conditions during spring and summer in southern Australia”. Another study concluded that “extreme temperatures that helped drive historic 2018 bushfires in north Queensland were four times more likely to have happened because of human-caused climate change”. A piece in the Conversation, published in September, described some of the recent studies that link climate change to Australia’s hottest year on record.

Finally, there has also been coverage of how the fires themselves can contribute to climate change. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that in the three months the fires had burned, they had “spewed as much as two-thirds of the nation’s annual CO2 emissions”. Scientists told the paper it could be up to a century before forests reabsorbed what had been emitted over the course of the season. Articles in the Guardian, Reuters, E&E News (via Scientific American) and Time all picked up on the CO2 emissions from the fires.

What other factors are involved in the fires?

While the link between the current extremes and anthropogenic climate change is – in the words of Prof Nerilie Abram – “scientifically undisputable”, there are also other reasons why the fire season has been so dramatic. Or, in the words of the Daily Express, the “Australia fires have been extra bad in recent months due to a combination of factors”. For example, one factor in Australia’s long-term decline in winter rainfall is the positive trend in the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), explained Abram in her Scientific American article. She said:

“This change is causing the westerly winds that circle the Southern Ocean to shift southward toward Antarctica, causing rain-bearing winter cold fronts to pass south of the Australian continent. The role of anthropogenic climate change in driving this trend in the SAM is also clear in the science.”

However, as this video from Australia’s BOM explains, the SAM has the opposite effect in the southern hemisphere summer. And the recent spell with SAM in its negative phase has brought dry air from Australia’s interior to eastern regions. This pattern results in below average rainfall, the video explains. Another large-scale climate fluctuation has contributed to the extreme conditions, noted Australia’s CBS: The ongoing drought “is due in part to a typical weather pattern called the Indian Ocean Dipole” (IOD), it said. Vox described the IOD as “the cycle of the temperature gradient between the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean”. This year there has been a record positive IOD, said CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli, with warm water in the western part of the Indian Ocean and cooler-than-normal water in the eastern part. He added:

“So we end up with rising air over the western part of the ocean right near Africa. That causes rain. But sinking air, dry air in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean – that causes Indonesia and Australia to dry out.”

The IOD has been in its positive phase for “the past two years”, said the Washington Post. The BOM said it was unusual to have back-to-back years with a positive dipole, the paper added. Here again “climate change is part of the story”, noted Abram: “Anthropogenic warming is causing positive IOD events to become stronger and more frequent.” In this video, Prof Michael Mann – distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State – explained to ABC News how natural fluctuations can add to the climate change signal. Both the IOD and SAM have recently shifted “towards neutral”, reported the Guardian. However, the damage they have caused would likely remain for several months, Dr Watkins told the paper:

“The damage from the positive IOD and the negative SAM has been done – the landscape is extremely dry. This means that fire danger will remain high for some time…And it certainly does not mean the end of the drought – that will take some time; many months, especially for those rivers to rise again and for the soils to even reach average wetness.”

Another contributing factor has been a “rare phenomenon called sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) that took place in Antarctica”, noted the Times. Back in September, “winds circling the South Pole about 30km high in the stratosphere went into reverse causing the temperature of the stratosphere to rocket by 40C”, the article explained. This “added to the hot dry conditions by shifting the westerly winds, which usually lurk over the Southern Ocean, up onto the continent”, said ABC News.

SSW events, which also occur in the northern hemisphere, are “rare in the southern hemisphere with only one major event ever identified, in 2002”, noted another ABC News piece. Strong winds have also played a substantial role. The Daily Telegraph said the extreme conditions “have been accompanied by brisk winds which fan the flames and push the smoke across Australia’s major cities”. The most dangerous fire days occur when hot, dry air blows from the desert centre of the continent toward the populous coasts, explained the New York Times:

“A weather front – where air masses at different densities meet – can cause the direction of the wind to change rapidly. Ultimately, that means bigger fires spreading in multiple directions.”

These various factors have combined to push bushfires into new areas, said Greg Mullins, former commissioner for Fire and Rescue for New South Wales. In an interview on National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Weekend Edition Saturday” in the US, Mullins said:

“As fire chiefs, we’ve been watching the wildfire situation, our cyclones, our hurricanes, our storms, our floods get worse and worse as extreme weather just gets more and more extreme. So we have areas burning in Australia that have never burned before. We have trees in Tasmania – Huon pine – so they’re 3,000 years old. They have no fire scars on them. We have tropical rainforests burning.”

Despite the focus on the weather and climate change, in a press conference on 4 January, prime minister Scott Morrison said the “most constant issue that has been raised” with him during visits to fire damaged areas was “managing fuel loads in national parks”. He added:

“As is often the case, those who, on one hand, say they are seeking those actions on climate change, which we’re delivering, can, on the same hand, also be those who don’t share the same urgency of dealing with hazard reduction.”

Hazard reduction is “the management of fuel and can be carried out through prescribed burning, also known as controlled burning, and removing trees and vegetation, both dead and alive”, explained the Guardian.

But the “claim of a conspiracy by environmentalists to block hazard reduction activities has been roundly rejected by bushfire experts”, the article added. The Guardian ran a factcheck on this issue back in November, in which Prof Ross Bradstock, the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, said: “These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires. They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”

In this video clip, the Australian news and current affairs programme The Project explained how hazard reduction is carried out. (Amidst all the coverage of the Australian fires, BuzzFeed News has been keeping track of “all the bullshit spreading online”. This “false and unverified information” includes that the fires were being started by environmentalists to promote awareness about climate change, and allegations the fires are an effort to clear a corridor for a high-speed rail track.)

Morrison also defended the Australia’s climate policy and coal industry in response to a tweet from Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, reported Deutsche Welle. “We’ll do in Australia what we think is right for Australia…I’m not here to try to impress people overseas.” Much of the media coverage has also picked up on the role of arsonists in the fires. Picking up on a story in the Australian, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that “hundreds of Australians have been arrested for allegedly deliberately lighting Australian bushfires in only a matter of months”. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that New South Wales police has “taken legal action against 183 people so far this bushfire season, including charging 24 people with deliberately lighting bushfires”. It added:

“Since November, police have also taken legal action against 53 people for failing to comply with a total fire ban and against 47 people for discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land.”

 

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ArticleClimate Diplomacy
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Topic
Climate Change
Forests

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Oceania & Pacific

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

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Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

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Finance

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Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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