Movie scenes about human evolution often start the same way: with the discovery of fire. Burning timber shielded our ancestors from the cold and shone light in the dark. It helped people cook, smelt metals and power trains.
Fire is vital to life, but it can also be a force of destruction. Due to our uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels, fire now rages all over the world, transforming and threatening every aspect of life.
Fires are essential to human activity.
Smokestacks are an icon of both modern life and urban pollution.
The Lights Never Go Out
Today, fire still supports modern life.
Whenever we use our phones, take the bus or turn on the lights, we consume electricity. Industries are even more energy intensive. Making and moving goods, keeping factories running and lighting streets — everything relies heavily on the burning of fossil fuels.
This energy source is mostly invisible. Coal, oil, and natural gas are extracted from deep underground, then transported to power plants away from the public eye. There, fuels are burnt to create steam, which turns turbines to generate electricity. Burning fuels also releases unseen greenhouse gases that trap heat in our atmosphere.
The whole process happens out of sight, easily ignored. For decades, our rampant burning of fossil fuels kept growing. They now supply 80% of the world’s energy.
As a result, global temperatures are rising, unchecked. Now, the world finds itself on fire.
As we plug into the internet, we draw on fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels keep our cities awake and moving, long past nightfall
On Singapore’s offshore islands, oil refineries run all day and all night.
Cities are becoming heat traps. With many people living close together, cities use plenty of electricity in a small area. They burn fossil fuels to sustain its consumption, releasing high levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. At the same time, concrete and asphalt absorb heat in buildings and roads.
Singapore is already heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world. Local temperatures could even hit 40°C by 2045.
Elsewhere, greenhouse gases lead to actual fire. Hot periods last longer and dry vegetation becomes more flammable, so wildfires spread faster and further. Each year, fires affect about four million square kilometres of Earth’s land—an area larger than India.
Wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity, from California to Australia to Indonesia. Record-breaking fires have reached even famously frigid places like Ukraine and Siberia.
Nowhere is spared.
In concrete jungles, temperatures are only getting hotter
In 2020, wildfires set Ukraine’s forests ablaze.
An unfiltered image of San Francisco engulfed in orange haze.
Fuel for Catastrophe
Fierce wildfires, which usually originate in tropical regions, are directly connected to glacier melt in colder zones.
In 2019, burning of the Amazon rainforest produced a massive cloud of soot that accelerated glacier melt in the Andes mountains, hundreds of miles away. In 2020, black carbon from Australia’s bushfires drifted all the way to remote Antarctica.
Everywhere, glaciers are receding at an alarming pace due to atmospheric heating. As ice sheets erode, sea levels rise and animal habitats disappear. The world’s landscapes are changing dramatically.
Although the disasters are unfolding far from us, they are driven by our own industrial and urban pollution. The devastating effects, like rising sea levels, could soon wash up on our shores.
Satellite image of soot clouds over Alaska, from Google Earth
Rising sea levels make coastlines and islands more vulnerable to storm surges.