Heatwaves and Wildfires: Indigenous Knowledge and Global Climate Security

Over the past few months, local temperatures in South and Southeast Asia have broken previous records. Temperatures in Thailand reached 45 degrees Celsius, while Vietnam hovered around 44 degrees Celsius and Singapore recorded 37 degrees Celsius. Worldwide, extreme heat has become a mainstay for international news, particularly in July as wildfires and extreme heat were recorded across many continents. Climate change makes such occurrences more frequent and extreme. It is a reality that the world now faces collectively but its impacts differ widely across physical geographies and political contexts.

The impacts of climate variability include more droughts, heatwaves and El Nino weather patterns which will likely increase the risk and behaviour of extreme heat and wildfires. Wildfires will cause more carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere feeding global heating and increasing air pollution in areas near and far as the air travels. Lightning, volcanic eruptions, sparks from falling objects and spontaneous combustion are all naturally occurring triggers for wildfires in dryer climates made more likely because of climate change.

However, not all wildfires occur naturally. Some people intentionally start fires such as by arson. In other cases fires can start by accidental ignition and uncontrolled use of fire in land clearing and agriculture in the tropics, like the slash-and-burn policy common in Southeast Asia. Outside of the tropics, common causes of wildfires are coal seam fires, overhead power lines, arson or sparks from equipment use which can trigger accidental ignition. More recent studies have also found potential fire triggers coming from solar panels.

There is debate about the place and prominence of indigenous knowledge in climate science and policy responses to address climate change. This is particularly ripe given the divergence of opinion between the role of controlled burning of forest and vegetation to avoid wildfires, and tree planting, reforestation, and rewilding techniques as strategies to address climate change.

Historically in Europe, the continent was split between Northern European countries where there was less need for slash-and-burn policies due to the cooler local climate, and Southern European countries where slash-and-burn was a commonplace solution to a drier climate so that trees, shrubs, and vegetation would not necessarily trigger wider damage to the environment and people’s homes as a result.

In recent years some age-old wisdom has become less prominent as greater incentives have generated more interest elsewhere in European national governments. Quick-growing trees like Eucalyptus have found favour in warmer climates where countries have sought to reach their climate targets outlined in the Paris Agreement. Yet these initiatives have provided false promise as Eucalyptus trees are non-native and draw much water to grow quickly, making the soil drier. They are also a drier tree variety that is more susceptible to fire triggers as witnessed in Portugal.

As a result, in an effort to plant more trees to meet their commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, national governments end up overriding local knowledge in understanding their own surroundings and in turn exposing their communities to greater wildfire risk, rather than less.

Extreme heatwaves and wildfires have generated much coverage in the international media in recent months. However, less attention is paid to the multiple conflicting incentives and trade-offs to address this climate change challenge. While slash-and-burn policies in Southern European countries were an antidote to the fire triggers in a drier climate, uncontrolled slash-and-burn has contributed to worsening air quality in in Southeast Asia’s tropics. This points to the need for better regulation and education on such practices.

What the recent experiences across the world have illustrated is that while there is a common cause to address the challenges of climate change, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. What works in one continent may not work in another, and even may have the inverse effect of making a country and its community more exposed to extreme heat and wildfires. The mid-year period of 2023 will serve as a reminder that we need to consider the place and prominence of indigenous and local knowledge in our efforts to address climate change impacts while seeking to contribute to overall global climate security.