By Steve Yolland in GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20
A BURNING PRIORITY
by STEVE YOLLAND
Australia is known for many things. Lovely beaches, great cuisine, a laid-back attitude, world-leading arts, egalitarianism, and now ... fires. Blistering, unstoppable and unprecedented fires.
This essay will, of necessity, be impressionistic. The fires in Australia in the last six weeks or so have been so vast, so complex, and so terrifyingly new in their scale and ferocity, that all a member of the general public is left with are ... impressions. Facts are hotly disputed. News is garbled. Political agendas abound, and they skew people's reportage. People take sides, and seem incapable of getting out of their trenches once in them.
Certain facts, however, bear repeating, as they are undisputed.
New South Wales has officially been in drought for three years. The last three years have been the driest on record. We have family in rural New South Wales whose gardens have turned to dust. Farmers in their hundreds are just shooting their animals, or weeping over their inability to grow crops, and walking off the land. Great swathes of rural Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland are drier than at any time in recorded history. On top of this, the heat. The mind-numbing, seemingly never-ending heat. 2019 was New South Wales' hottest year on record.
The political debate is split between those who figure this is the inevitable result of untackled climate change, and those who say "well, Australia is a rugged place with a history of fires, drought and floods et al." What very few have said is that both points of view have validity. We have always existed "on the edge". But the climate indicators are now unmistakeably trending all one way. And what is now blazingly clear is that in the driest continent on the planet, this means earlier fires, and worse fires. Fires that now seem inevitable.
What is also clear and undisputed is that the Australian fires show us starkly what happens when climate change impacts the unwary or the ill-prepared.
Despite the heroic efforts of the emergency services and fire-fighters, many of them volunteers, and some of whom have paid for their service with their lives, Australia was and is quite unable to effectively fight fire fronts running to hundreds of miles, on 40 degree days, across four states, with high winds, and without the equipment or the personnel to finish the job.
And whilst they may have left the headlines as their immediate ferociousness has dimmed, the fires are still burning, and three American contractors were killed just yesterday when their "water bombing" plane crashed in bushland.
There is so much to tell you, dear colleagues, that it is hard to know where to start. The affect on the nation's psychology has been profound. Almost everyone knows a family touched by fire, whether that be people directly impacted - injured or worse, or lost homes and towns - or simply people inconvenienced, forced to sleep under the stars - if you could have seen them through the smoke - holidays ruined, children terrified, and hundreds lifted off beaches on naval vessels. Everyone knows people who were forcibly evacuated from the holiday locations their families had travelled to for generations, driving circuitous routes home to avoid incineration.
Something of a Dunkirk spirit has grown up - vast sums of money are being raised for those whose lives have been turned upside down, and a grim determination to survive is on everyone's lips. A sense of the seriousness of this affect is that after most newsworthy events, gallows humour usually surfaces in off-colour jokes that everyone enjoys, despite themselves. But not this time. No jokes. When half your country is impacted, it's no joke.
That's not to say that politicians are not the butt of jokes. Politicians are always fair game in Australia. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison, until very recently the hero of the unexpected Liberal-National election victory, disastrously miscalculated and failed to return from his family holiday to deal with the crisis, and even refused to reveal, for a while, that he was on the beach in Hawaii, and was roundly castigated as a result. It may yet prove to be a fatal wounding of "The Prime Minister for Hawaii", as he was immediately dubbed. When he did return, his tin ear was again demonstrated when he visited fire-ravaged towns and insisted on shaking hands with people who clearly wanted nothing to do with him, and engaging with fire fighters who simply delivered him trenchant and swear-word laden on camera criticism of the country's lack of preparedness. And later, incredibly, he visited Kangaroo Island in South Australia and was delighted no-one had died. In fact, two people had. He corrected himself in due course, and said he meant fire-fighters. Worn out, Australians just lopped 10-15% off his opinion poll ratings, and - reflecting his past career before politics, and his apparent incompetence and lack of gravitas in a crisis - promptly christened him #ScottyFromMarketing. The sarcastic tag has stuck, and will haunt him.
Some politicians came out of it moderately well, but the political class as a whole is even more distinctly on the nose than it usually is. Australia, which prides itself on being a rich and capable country, has been shown to be largely helpless in the face of such challenges, hoping and praying for cooler weather and rain. Of that we've had some, but everyone knows it is likely to be just a temporary respite.
Increasingly, what we have endured in recent times starts to look like "the new normal", and it has introduced intense fear and introspection in the population. It's not just in "the country", as everywhere outside the major cities is universally called. Australia's cities have also been inundated with smoke, ash, and dust. Last week, my home town of Melbourne had the unhealthiest air quality in the world. People scrambled to buy face-masks, which rapidly sold out. The alternative was to stay indoors, and set cooling and heating systems to recirculate. Smoke haze became so common it was hardly worth commenting on after the first few days, until it became so bad that people couldn't see the end of their gardens. The blanket of choking smoke lay thickly on the cities hundreds of miles from where the fire fronts actually were.
Our natural environment has been devastated. Perhaps half a billion living creatures have been destroyed, perhaps even more. Too early to tell. And anyway, it's not over yet. It's not so much the primary animals like kangaroos and koalas that ultimately matter. They should rebound. It's the unknown and unmeasurable destruction of insects and pollinators, which may inhibit the re-growth of natural flora, which will in turn inhibit the usual re-establishment of the food chain. Our native lands may well have been altered forever. In just one month.
Water catchments have been razed, which will lead to uncontrolled run off when it does eventually rain steadily, clogging and pollution of water courses, with its knock-on effect on fish and other water creatures.
Some have tried to lay blame for the fires at the feet of ecologists and "Greens" who have argued, it is claimed, that we should reduce "back burning" and removal of undergrowth to reduce the severity of any fires.
But that has been shown to be a furphy, a mis-casting of the truth driven relentlessly by the fossil fuel industry and the Murdoch media. Because, you see, it simply doesn't matter how much "fuel load" there is in the forests, when whatever is there is tinder fry, because it hasn't rained for three years.
In short, a more stark example of a sudden and massive climate catastrophe you could not imagine than this year's Australian fires.
And the rest of the world needs to take urgent note. Because in our case it was fires. In yours, maybe floods, winds, snow, or other phenomena. Or maybe, if you live on the edge of comfort like Australia, you may experience a bunch of them.
Australians have been deeply gratified by the friendship offered by the rest of the world. We are a reasonably inoffensive little nation - except perhaps on a cricket pitch - and this seems to have been reflected in the response of people from the great and good donating millions of dollars to the widow sending us her mite. And the money is desperately needed. The costs of these fires will run into sums that even one of the richest countries in the world cannot afford, and the money is needed now. Charities and governments will inevitably fiddle and faff around, but there is a great will to get the relief funds through to those who need them most.
But it won't end there. After we deal with the immediate effects, infrastructure will need to be repaired, there are massive restorative works required in the bush, and the disruption to our economy will be incalculably large. A fundamental re-think of where people live, and how we farm (we have one of the biggest agricultural sectors in the world) is already underway.
So please: send whatever cash you can to the many people trying to help. Hold jumble sales and raffles, or just send your pocket money. Persuade organisations with whom you have influence to donate. We really do need it.
But at the same time, turn on those climate change deniers who think that dealing with the problem is economic suicide and unnecessary, and ask them what they think the cost of NOT doing anything will be. Ask with fury.
We are. Because over here, we know what it will cost: it will mean reduced social spending, increased taxes, a budget out of whack for years, and an uncomfortable and unfamiliar reliance on the generosity of others. We simply didn't do enough to tackle climate change - Australians are the second worst carbon polluters on the planet per head of population - and now we're going to pay for it. Not just in pain, and social disruption, but in cold hard cash. Inaction on climate change is economic madness. Spread the word.
With changes, Australia will be OK. We're "tough as old guts" over here, to use that wonderful Aussie phrase, and we'll make it through, with a little help from our friends. But nothing will ever be the same again.
Two nights ago it rained - hard. People cheered on social media and down the phone to each other. Then we got up the next day, and discovered the rain had also dumped a huge dust storm on the city while we slept.
Having just spent a couple of days solidly cleaning our swimming pool and making it sparkle, my wife and I regarded our newly orange billabong balefully. A first world problem, to be sure, and apart from the cost in time and chemicals to clean it up again, hardly registering on the Richter scale of Australia's problems this summer. Until my wife quietly muttered "Some farmer somewhere is missing his field."
Quite. Across much of Australia, for hundreds of years the agricultural landscape has been denuded of trees to make room for livestock. But our topsoil is only about two inches deep. Below that, solid rock. And when that topsoil is all blown away, nothing will grow. Which is bad news not just for our domestic consumption, but we are a food bowl for much of Asia and beyond. And the hotter it gets, and the drier it gets, the more often it will simply just blow away, and the less we will grow. Farmers who are now carefully curating their land and re-planting native forest as fast as they can may not have time left to make effective restitution. And even if they do, will re-forestation simply create another problem, with more fuel for fires?
Do we, effectively, just have to abandon large parts of the continent?
That's climate change. Welcome to the new normal.
Stephen Yolland is owner of the consultancy Decisions Decisions, and partenaire at Magnum Opus Partners