Australia fires a "wake-up call to the world," says U.N. scientist

Climate scientist Joelle Gergis says the fires in Australia are "redefining what it means to actually be living through a period of rapid climate change." 60 Minutes reports, Sunday.

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An Australian climate scientist warns that epic bush fires and the hottest temperatures ever recorded on the continent are a wakeup call that climate change is occurring even more rapidly than models predicted. The scientist, Joelle Gergis, speaks to Holly Williams for a 60 Minutes report to be broadcast Sunday, February 16, at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

Williams went to Australia for her report, where she met Gergis of Australia's National University, a lead author of an upcoming United Nations report on climate change. "I think this summer has been a real wakeup call for most Australians. And myself as, as a climate scientist, seeing the extreme level of heat and the bush fires and the drought conditions playing out so catastrophically has been, I think, a wake-up call to the world," she tells Williams.

When Williams arrived earlier this month, the fires were still burning. The fire season is a normal occurrence in Australia, but this year's fires had begun earlier than usual in September and were on a larger scale than ever seen before. It is estimated that over 27 million acres have burned and a billion animals have died. Thousands of people have been forced from their homes by the deadly fires. Historic conditions caused by climate change gave rise to the severity of this year's fires, says Gergis. "2019 was the hottest and the driest year in Australia's history. So we actually saw temperature records be broken all over the country."

Scientists have predicted the temperature increase, but Gergis says the rise is occurring more rapidly than models indicated. "This is the type of summer you might not have expected 'til the middle of the century based on past projections. So I think this is really redefining what it means to actually be living through a period of rapid climate change."

Williams also speaks to fire and emergency authorities who complained that the Australian government was ignoring climate change. The issue has become a political football. Former fire chief Greg Mullins says he learned that the reason Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to see his group of former emergency officials was political. "We've been told by senior public servants in Canberra that because we uttered two horrible words: climate change – we were discounted as being activists, and we would not get a meeting at any stage with the prime minister," he says.

This frustrates Gergis and other scientists. "At this moment I think it is really reckless and potentially criminal [to ignore climate change] because we know enough. We actually know enough about the science now. I think the science is crystal clear," she tells Williams.