“We’re in a state of anxiety, shock and grief. Many of our staff, volunteers and the communities we work with have lost homes and environments. This is climate change. This fire season is exactly as predicted by scientists. This is what a +1.5 degree world looks like for us.”
Cam Walker, Friends of the Earth Australia
Australia is currently in the midst of an unprecedented bushfire crisis. The scale and devastation of the fires is incomprehensible. To date, the fires have burned over 12 million acres of land, destroying 1500 homes and killing over a billion animals. At least 27 people have died, including at least two firefighters [6 January 2020]. Ancient rainforests have burned – areas totally unique in terms of the biodiversity they support – lost forever. Scientists fear entire species may have been lost.
The fires are so immense, they are creating their own weather systems. Fire tornadoes and fire-induced electrical storms are hampering firefighting efforts. Smoke is blanketing much of Australia’s East Coast resulting in the worst air quality in the world and even deaths. Smoke from the fires has reached New Zealand and as far as Latin America.
Given that summer has only just started in Australia, already reaching record temperatures of 48.9 degrees celsius in Sydney – making it the hottest place on earth – people are bracing themselves for what the rest of the fire season brings. Many Friends of the Earth Australia volunteers, staff and communities have been affected, suffering devastating loss of homes and having to evacuate. Many are also working hard as volunteer firefighters to battle the fires and protect lives and properties, including Friends of the Earth Australia’s Cam Walker.
The Australian government’s response has been shocking. Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially refused to return from his Hawaii holiday. Incredibly, there has been an abject refusal on the part of the government to acknowledge the role of climate change in creating this catastrophe.
The growing trend in right wing capture of mainstream media and politics is sadly dominating Australia’s bushfire narrative. False narratives have circulated via the right wing media: a suggestion that these fires are not exceptional; and when that claim could no longer be sustained, claims that environmentalists have contributed by “supposedly opposing dry fuel loads being burned or manually removed”; and finally the idea that arsonists lie at the root of the problem. Anything to avoid facing the truth: that the fires are indisputably climate impacts and they are already worse than predicted.
Developing countries have endured devastating climate impacts for decades, but now impacts are inevitably hitting parts of rich countries too. For all those who believed that once rich countries were affected, their governments would take hitherto unconsidered dramatic climate action, there is a salutary message here. For decades Australia has refused to come close to doing their fair share on climate, while climate impacts have ravaged some of the most vulnerable peoples and countries on the planet. Now, it is clear they won’t even act for their own citizens. They refuse to curb emissions even when faced with catastrophic impacts for people and wildlife, and financial losses of up to Aus$4.4 billion. They remain in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry – propping up coal extraction, and privileges for the few at great cost to the many. Our great hope is that the outrage and crisis in Australia will force dramatic change and action. Right now, of course people are focused on fighting the fires and their aftermath, but we must also focus people power on bringing change and transformation from the ashes of this disaster.
And while most eyes are rightly on Australia, we must remember that climate impacts continue unabated in other parts of the world, particularly in developing countries. In the Asia Pacific region, with far less global media coverage, an unprecedented flooding disaster has unfolded in Jakarta, Indonesia. At least 67 people have died as a result of flash floods and landslides and thousands of homes have been swept away. The Guardian reported that “Government data on Monday showed some 35,500 people were still unable to return home after houses were submerged in filthy waters up to 1.5 meters.” [6 January 2020]
There is a terrible irony in the two extremes endured by the Asia Pacific region depicting the wide spectrum of climate impacts: extreme heat, drought and fire on the one hand; excessive monsoon rains, floods and mudslides on the other. But ultimately we see people and nature paying the cost for years of inaction on climate. We stand in solidarity with all those affected and all those valiantly supporting relief and recovery efforts under heartbreaking conditions. We must fight to change this broken system: we must dramatically reduce emissions; we must finance adaptation and loss and damage in developing countries; we must build resilient societies everywhere. We must continue the fight for peoples, biodiversity and nature the world over.
How you can take action and show support:
What we need more than ever is people power to mobilize action on climate. Please join a campaign for climate justice wherever you are in the world. Friends of the Earth International has member groups in 73 countries. Join us in the fight for climate justice and to protect biodiversity. Your actions will help us to protect peoples and the planet.
Friends of the Earth Australia recommends supporting fire emergency relief if you want to donate. You can also follow their social media accounts @FoeAustralia on Twitter and Facebook for more information.