You’ve seen the wall-to-wall media coverage: photos, videos, sound recordings, tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts. It’s been going on for days. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, if you’re looking for something that explains what in the world is happening, or if you’re looking to help, you’re at the right place. Read on for all you need to know about the Australian fires. And find out how you can take action.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
“Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen,” writes Richard Flanagan, for The New York Times. How big are the fires? There are many misleading graphics going around, but if you remember the Amazon fires from last year, the Australian fires are much, much bigger.
Image credits: P.holm/AP, via ABC News
Various news sources have estimated the raging fires to have burned through anywhere between 12-15 million acres of land. But these abstract numbers don’t mean anything when taken out of context. So here’s some context to give you a clearer picture of what’s going on.
Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed, and they fear that some species of plants and animals have been wiped out completely. (Apparently, this number has jumped to 1 billion.) At least 25 people have been killed (including three firefighters), and there are fears of much more. In the worst-hit state, New South Wales (NSW), fires have destroyed more than 1,300 houses, forcing thousands to evacuate. NSW has declared a state of emergency, allowing for such forced evacuations to happen, along with road closures, and any other means to keep people safe. Crucially, this is the third time NSW has declared a state of emergency in as many months (the last two times happened in November and December).
In fact, the fires are so huge that the smoke is visible from space, and it’s creating haze in New Zealand, which is more than 1,000 miles away. The skies have also turned an eerie shade of dark orange. And speaking of air quality, in Canberra, the capital of Australia, which is usually buffeted against environmental contaminants (because of its geography and topography), choked on the world’s worst air quality on New Year’s Day. Air quality index readings above 200 are considered hazardous to death—and on that day, readings at one monitoring site peaked at 7,700 at 1am. In the day, they hovered between 3,400 and 5,000.
Back home after a 3am birth.
Smoke so thick and choking it filled the birth suite.
What future does this child – born on New Year's Day 2020 – face? Will it be as hellish as it seems in the dark hours this morning?#AUSTRALIANBUSHFIRES#ClimateEmergency#auspoI #2020NewYear https://t.co/NxKw5fEAJe
— Steve Robson (@DrSteveRobson) December 31, 2019
“The intensity, the scale, the number the geographical range, the fact that they’re occurring simultaneously, and the sorts of environments that are burning are all extraordinary,” said David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science and the director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania. “We’re in the middle of a war situation…mass evacuations, the involvement of the military, hugely exhausted firefighting campaigns, it’s difficult to explain.” The worst part? The fire season is far from over.
What’s that? “Fire season”? Let us explain.
DOESN’T THIS HAPPEN REGULARLY?
Yes — but as Bowman points out, this season’s fires are extraordinary. Telegraph explains that the fires have been fuelled by “a combination of extreme heat, prolonged drought and strong winds.” As you may have read on the news, Australia is in the midst of a heatwave, with record-breaking temperatures experienced in recent months. And this spring has been the country’s driest yet: since records began 120 years ago. On top of all that, is the fact that the fires definitely have to do with the changing climate.
Experts say that because of climate change, conditions are hotter and drier. This extends the fire season and makes it much more dangerous. Specifically, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, temperatures have risen by more than 1°C since 1920, with much of the increase happening since 1950. And as you can expect, one degree makes a huge difference, especially when it comes to global warming and climate change.
But back to the point: this is a fire season, which means that it’s going to keep happening. In fact, the fires have been raging since way back in September. Officials say that the fires are also going to continue for months.
“Until the fires subside, the full extent of the damage will remain unknown,” Dr. Stuart Blanch, senior manager of Land Clearing and Restoration for WWF-Australia. “This includes the death of thousands of koalas. Along with other iconic species such as kangaroos, wallabies, gliders, kookaburras, cockatoos and honeyeaters. Many forests will take decades to recover, and the fires are worsening Australia’s extinction crisis.”
Cartoon credits: First Dog on the Moon, via The Guardian
WHAT’S THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE?
The New York Times writes, the government’s response has been “to defend the fossil fuel industry, a big donor to both major parties — as if they were willing the country to its doom. While the fires were exploding in mid-December, the leader of the opposition Labor Party went on a tour of coal mining communities expressing his unequivocal support for coal exports.”
Most infamously, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison went on a vacation to Hawaii. Yes, he really did. His nickname, #ScottyFromMarketing, explains why after he returned from his vacation, he chose to post pictures of himself with the Australian cricketers and his family. For months, he rejected calls for greater intervention, such as broad military deployment or the declaration of a national emergency, at least. He even said that firefighting was the responsibility of individual states. And on that note, he initially didn’t want to compensate the thousands of unpaid, volunteer firefighters (who are doing most of the work to protect the locals).
Only on Saturday did he announce a call-up of military reservists, new aircraft resources. And only a week after he cut his trip short did he approve payments for the firefighters, for each of up to about $6,000 Australian dollars. As you would imagine, many Australians are upset (to say the least). On Thursday, Morrison visited Cobargo, only to be heckled out of town. “You left the country to burn,” one person yelled.
Image credits: Steven Saphore/EPA, via The New York Times
Perhaps more concerningly, Morrison has signalled no change in his government’s policies on climate change despite the crisis. According to Morrison, calls to end coal mining are “reckless” and taxes on emissions aren’t necessary. On New Year’s Day, he pushed back against international pressure for the country to do more. And he released the following personal message in newspapers across Australia. “Australians have never been fussed about trying to impress people overseas or respond to what others tell us we should think or what we should do. We have always made our own decisions in Australia.”
WHAT ABOUT THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES?
Perhaps you’ve not read about this anywhere on the news, but that’s why this is so important. Indigenous communities are very much displaced by these disasters. But we rarely talk about them, or include them in the conversation. In fact, both governmental and non-governmental efforts to assist and provide for them have historically proven to be disastrous and ill-informed. So Yorta Yorta community organiser and musician Neil Morris, a First Nations man, organised a First Nations-specific fundraiser that will offer emergency relocation costs, basic amenity and emergency relief costs, resettling expenses, refurbishment of damaged property, rental support, and replacement of vital items. Donate to the First Nations fire relief fundraiser here.
But aside from donating, it’s important to note also that perhaps we need to look to indigenous knowledge to help with disaster prevention to begin with and recognise their knowledge as legitimate too. Indigenous leaders have called for changes to current land management practices to help limit the fire damage in future years. They’ve been proposing to draw on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional practices. Some question the effectiveness of their practices. But so has the effectiveness of currently-used, “scientific” fire control measures, especially in light of climate change.
Ultimately, supporting indigenous peoples doesn’t just mean throwing money at them. We also need to include these traditional custodians of the land in the conversations moving forward. Which is something that all countries, not just Australia, can learn to do.
SO WHAT CAN I DO?
Using your social media platform to signal boost the issue is the easiest way to start. It doesn’t matter how big your platform is; you can talk about the issue anyway. This also happens to be free, and it’s one way you can impact people around you directly. Get them to start listening and even empower them to act. Asking someone with a huge following is a good next step, but it all starts with you.
Donating is an incredibly important and direct way to act: if you have the financial capacity to do so. But before you throw money at any organisation, check their credibility first. What are they doing with their money? Do they report on what they do regularly? Additionally, are many legitimate, more reliable sources (activists, locals, victims, etc.) telling you to donate to them? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of where you can put your money:
There are also many GoFundMe pages across various causes that you can support if you would like you to put your money behind specific communities, individuals, or causes, rather than bigger organisations.
Finally, take positive action by contacting your political leaders and telling them that you want a strong climate policy. Australian citizens can download this document to send to local members of parliament demanding change. Then get your friends and family to do the same.
REALITY CHECK, AND PARTING SHOTS
There are ways you can act every day, whether or not there is a crisis. During times of environmental crisis, we may be fooled into thinking that a crisis is the only time when we should act. When in reality, being an ally to the planet means that you can and need to take action every day. Vote for leaders who take climate action seriously. Strike and rally to pressure governments and corporations into doing better. Volunteer with community organisations, social enterprises, any groups in your local community that’s doing something for the environment.
And recognise that while this crisis has gained much media coverage, it is not the only crisis that is unfolding. At the time of writing, Jakarta is currently experiencing its worst floods since 2007, and Thais are being asked to turn off taps and shower less as a drought afflicts northern and central Thailand. This is not a competition, by any means, and we need to respond to every crisis appropriately. But we also need to ask ourselves why some crises make it to the top of the news and others… don’t.
David Wallace-Wells writes: “for decades now, in the U.S. and Western Europe, we have paid much, much more attention to even small-scale suffering by the force of natural disaster when it strikes parts of the wealthy west than we ever muster for those suffering already so dramatically from climate change in Asia and especially in the global south.”
“These fires are just one disaster, of course, and the planet has many test cases like it ahead. But it would be among the most perverse grotesqueries of climate change if it brought about the end of these kinds of global prejudices — not to be replaced with a sense of common humanity but a system of disinterest defined instead by ever smaller circles of empathy.”
Now that you know all of this information, what next? What will you do to help the Australian fires? How will you be an ally to the planet every day?
If you are in Singapore >> GITNB is doing a Fire Fundraiser at the end of the month, stay tuned for details via our Facebook event page.
Featured image credits: Getty Images via Gizmodo