By Lily Owen
As Coronavirus sparks global hysteria, Britain leaves the EU and Harry and Meghan’s royal departure captivates the nation, the Australian bushfires that dominated the news and social media over Christmas appear to be over.
Crisis averted? No.
Just this last week, more homes are reported lost as wind and thunderstorms hit New South Wales and Canberra, and a smoke health warning is issued. After mass reporting, fundraising and charity appeals, the worst of the fires might be beaten, but the crisis itself, the aftermath and rehabilitation still remains to be discussed.
2019 has seen The Amazon rainforest, California and South-East Australia burn, all within a few months of each other. It is evident that climate change does not stop, or relax with the end of each individual crisis: as Sonoma County dampened, New South Wales set alight. Separated only by location, these cases are joined as part of the same crisis of “global heating”. The mere action and perhaps appealing idea of ‘warming’ is no longer an accurate term to describe the changes occurring in our atmosphere, according to key scientist at the UK Met Office, Professor Richard Betts. We have moved past the stage of ‘natural’ disasters and are in the midst of a human-caused, climate emergency. Climate change ceases to be a theoretical construct to be warned against. It is happening to us now and any conservation and environmental progress made by governments are officially playing catch-up.
Current, sitting governments in Australia, the UK and US all have ties to fossil-fuel interests that slide into a tone of denial and fuels a public disconnection with this dangerous reality we face. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has provided refuge and a welcoming outlet for such fossil-fuel-funded voices, shouting headlines that include the absolute lie that “Warming is good for us” (the Herald Sun). Scientific fact is becoming subordinated to the false comfort and reassurance of political rhetoric.
National disasters are coinciding with failures in our national leadership. In particular, Prime Minister, Scott Morrison’s response to the Australian bushfires was called out as totally irresponsible. It was the very $186m campaign slogan approved by Morrison when he was head of Tourism Australia that became trending in a campaign against him: #wherethebloodyhellareyou. Holidaying in Hawaii with his family, avoiding public appearances, communicating on social media, Australia’s PM appeared to literally blind himself from the chaos. He did manage to surface, however, to host the annual New Year’s Day Cricket Australia-McGrath Foundation reception; but when faced with pressing questions from a heckling crowd in Cobargo, he walks away. The “miracle man” of the 2019 election handled the situation with no sense of authority or sympathy for his own, affected people. The fires that raged across 5 states and destroyed at least 4 million hectares of land was a scenario foreseen by fire chiefs last April, calling for more federal resources years ago, only to be ignored.
Similarly, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and his predecessor, Michel Temer have, together, sparked a slashing of government budgets for the environment that can be held cataclysmic of the Amazon rainforest fires last summer. The government has a pro-business approach – criticised by French president, Emmanuel Macron and environmental non-government organisations (ENGOs) – that prioritises deforestation for mining and farming operations in the region and thus lessens its role as a carbon sink in the global ecosystem. Despite making an announcement on a “zero tolerance” for environmental crimes and deploying forces to cope with the Amazon fires, the president dismissed global panic and interference as sensationalist and made wild claims that actor and environmentalist, Leonardo DiCaprio and NGOs were responsible for setting the fires in return for donations.
Of course, it goes without saying that the legendary, climate-change-denier, President Donald Trump has also played a part in promoting this narrative of ignorance. It is scientific knowledge that fossil fuel infrastructure contributes to the levels of greenhouse gas emissions by leaking methane into the atmosphere. Yet, Trump’s administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to stop the very collation of data from oil and gas companies required to control such pollution leaks and loosened methane regulations for private and public land projects.
There is a serious danger that the figures we rely on most for the actualisation of policy and procedure are, in fact, the figures least educated on, or, at least, disinterested or disengaged with the issues that require the most attention. Nonetheless, now, with incidents quickly following one after the other, it has become harder for citizens of these affected nations to succumb to the same sense of denial when they are literally running from the flames themselves.
It has fallen to members of the public, influential figures, celebrities and charity organisations, rather than our own governments, to source the funds and galvanise an educated motivation to act in these circumstances. Australian actor, writer and comedian, Celeste Barber started a fundraiser on social media for The Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund that has raised £26,206,787. These donors were ordinary people from all over the world, including myself and other fellow students whose role in fighting the grievances of a foreign government and nation is by no means primary. Nonetheless, it is a demonstration of the sense of urgency, crossing seas and borders, that even a few pounds can be offered in aid, regardless of the financial situation of the individual. These donations were a direct defiance to the ignorance perpetrated by certain government officials and, if there is to be a silver lining to all of this, then the disillusionment shown through such generosity is it.
As parliament reconvenes in Canberra, Liberal MPs are returning to the opening session with a view that the government must reform its climate change policy. Hindsight is a great thing and clearly, the Australian bushfires have prompted many individuals to encourage a change in their environmental attitude and behaviour. However, the pattern before us is one with an ever-narrowing gap between cases of climate disasters. As we take on 2020, the clock is ticking for us to wake up to the idea that the next one is only around the corner, unless the necessary actions are taken now.