A nation blinded by bushfire

Jackie Brown reflects on the climate crisis close to home.

On my journey home this Christmas Vacation, my plane descended into a landscape I no longer recognised. An unfamiliar sky where clouds had been replaced by a thick, impenetrable blanket that seemed to be suffocating everything beneath it.

A blurred, dark outline of a city doused in orange, watched on by a blood red sun. This wasn’t my home; it was Hell. The imagination of Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Chaos was all laid out in front of me, and real. This was the new reality of urban Sydney: the air quality in some inner suburban areas measuring eleven times “hazardous” levels of toxicity at over 2000 AQI (the equivalent of smoking multiple packs of cigarettes), as temperatures soared well above 40 degrees.

The unparalleled scale and magnitude of these fires has been linked to climate abnormalities.

However, this was only a taste of the unprecedented catastrophe that has ravaged my home state, New South Wales, and my country, Australia. Since October 2019, almost 17 million hectares of the country has and still is burning; larger than the area of Belgium. New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia have all been declared to be in a state of emergency. 23 individuals have perished, a number of them the brave firefighters who have sacrificed their Christmas, New Year, and lives to battle this disaster. More than 1,995 homes lost in New South Wales alone, and counting. Over half a billion native animals killed, including a third of the koala population which, along with many other species, is now declared endangered. The towns and beautiful landscapes where I and hundreds of thousands of others spent their childhoods and lives – from Bateman’s Bay to Kangaroo Island – gone: a post-apocalyptic, modern-day Chernobyl. The sky raining with ash across the country, and settling as far as New Zealand 2,700km away.  Mass evacuations on crowded beaches where day has become night, creating a dark red tableaux of faces covered by masks. Individuals who are now refugees in their own home, sitting terrified for their fate as a wall of fire builds up behind them. An inferno of fire tornados and jumping flames that leap across rivers, tackled by thousands of volunteer firefighters, emergency personnel from the Rural Fire Service, the Australian Defence Force, and others around the world who have given up their holidays and risk their lives in this war. But this isn’t a war against any political government or regime; it is a war against our own climate.

A nation is becoming literally blinded by the haunting bushfire haze.

It is undeniable that the unparalleled scale and magnitude of these fires has been linked to climate abnormalities. The past year has been Australia’s hottest year on record, part of a conspicuous trend in rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, December alone was warmest in 110 years, 3.21 degrees above average, and recorded two days (17th and 18th) of a national average above 41 degrees: a disturbing reality given Australia is the sixth largest landmass in the world.

However, the international media coverage of this disaster has frequently overlooked the fact that these conditions have been grossly exacerbated by state and federal political mismanagement, along with the political apathy and ignorance surrounding the concept of ‘climate change’. In the lead up to the start of the bushfires, New South Wales witnessed significant cuts to the fire services. Within the 2019-20 State Budget, funding to ‘Fire and Rescue’ was cut by $28.5 million (35%), and the ‘Rural Fire Service’ by $49.9 million (75%). This meant that when the fires hit, fires services were spread dangerously thin, lacking in the needed resources and man-power. When multiple reports from 2012 by Infrastructure NSW warned of the warming climate, increasing evaporation rates, and risk of droughts, urgently advising a comprehensive program for new dams, the Liberal government was embarrassingly apathetic, contributing to the record-breaking drought and water shortages of 2019. The state government also cut funding to ‘NSW National Parks and Wildlife service’, the body responsible for Hazard Reduction Burning: the process of igniting burning controlled fires in predetermined areas to reduce fire-prone fuel hazards. The underlying irony is that the conservative, Liberal politicians who implemented this budget cut are the very ones continuing to recycle the old conspiracy that ‘Greenies’ are restricting hazard reduction burning processes for its use of fuel and damage to the environment and are therefore responsible for the bushfires. And despite being a nation that prides itself in the way “our land abounds in Nature’s gifts”, our own government seeks to destroy it by continuing to fund projects that directly contribute to the release of dangerous carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, including the recently approved Adani coal mine that is expected to produce 8-10 million tonnes of thermal coal a year and that has called out by both Greta Thurnberg and Jacinda Adern. In a nation that is becoming literally blind by the haunting bushfire haze, our own politicians are blinded by their vested interests and climate change ignorance and now have a legacy of making us one of the greatest contributors to Carbon emissions per capita.

This utter lack of concern is fittingly epitomised by the leader of the country, Scott Morrison, secretly jetting off on holiday to Hawaii on tax-payer money in the midst of the crisis, attempting to force angry pregnant mothers and firefighters to shake his hand to only then disgruntledly turn his back to their demands, and tweeting that it is “Going to be a great summer of cricket. And for our firefighters and fire-impacted communities, I’m sure our boys will give them something to cheer for.”

This is an issue that affects the entire world.

These fires have completely and literally overshadowed Christmas and New Year celebrations across the nation. For the sake of those who have lost loved ones, livelihoods, homes, and communities; for the sake of those who risk serious health problems from breathing toxic smoked-defiled air; for the sake of the brave firefighters who have given up everything to desperately save a nation from completely burning to the ground and who must clean up the mess of this political mismanagement; for the sake of the native animals, ecological diversity, and pristine landscapes that are dying or have been vanquished, it is time to face the glaring reality in front of us and, along with donations to rebuild these communities, come up with new, tangible resolutions so that it does not become a regular occurrence.

All governments, across the globe, must strive to limit production of fossil fuels and transition their economies to zero-carbon powerhouses, investing in renewable energy industries as oppose to coal. We must conduct further research into sustainable industries and smarter agriculture so that they can be implemented effectively at minimal costs. We must educate and train individuals – particularly in rural areas – in the skills required for these ‘green jobs’ so that the many workers within carbon industries are not left jobless. Individuals, institutions and governments alike all also have a role to play in divestment by companies that invest in fossil fuel emission. All of us must also strive to reduce consumption of meat products. But there are small things we can all do too: switch lights off, turn off the tap when brushing your teeth, have shorter showers, recycle rubbish, clothes, and other unwanted items, minimise driving and flying where possible and use public transport, cycle or walk, invest in electricity from renewable sources such as solar panels, hang dry clothes and wash them in cold or warm water, and continue to communicate to governments our needs and demands surrounding the prevailing climate crisis.

This is an issue that affects the entire world. Impacts of climate change have manifested not just in Australia, but everywhere, from the flooding and sinking of Jakarta to the fires in the Amazon and California. These are the resolutions that the entire globe cannot afford forget, give up on, or postpone to the next year. They are resolutions that if we fail to address now, we will suffer the consequences for the rest of our lives and beyond.

Image credit: frogpondsrock