Bushfires, a global pandemic and that lurking feeling of impending doom...
Updated: Oct 13
During this last year or so, for the most part, Australia really has felt like one of a handful of ‘lucky’ countries again. After some initial uncertainty , our leaders have mostly heeded the advice of experts and even shared the stage of press conferences with Chief Medical Officers and scientists. Despite state-based conflict and all the distress that comes from the many lockdowns that have been endured, Australia is maintaining admirably low levels of mortality from this virus which, at the time of writing has claimed the lives of more than four and a half million people around the world.
How have we done this? By mobilising all our resources to coordinate rapid, science-backed responses to a global crisis. Lockdowns are hard, but this strategy has arguably saved the lives of tens of thousands of us.
This is, at least as I understand it, exactly how things are supposed to work. As new information comes to light, decision-makers take advice from experts and adapt the response accordingly. The experts stand alongside leaders as they address the people and provide data to support the decisions made and the strategies proposed.
As a STEM professional, it has been beautiful to watch. But I feel kind of angry about it, too.
Why? Because, we are grappling with another, much bigger crisis (and have been for at least the last 30 years). Like the pandemic, its impacts are global, and it requires a globally coordinated response. The crisis of which I speak is, of course, global warming.
Not that long ago, I wrote about global warming and why we should all be concerned. I outlined my intention to write frequently about the impacts of warming and the ways in which they are already impacting our daily lives. Somewhat ironically, amid writing part 3, I was stopped in my tracks by the most severe manifestation of global warming impacts I have ever personally experienced: the bushfires that ravaged Australia in the 2019-2020 summer.
The first fires started not far from my home in southeast Queensland, burning with such intensity they alarmed the entire country. Thanks purely to the direction of the wind on several crucial days, my home, family’s health and belongings were spared. Others in my community were less fortunate. But the season was only just getting started.
As the weather warmed, the fires moved south. In scenes of unimaginable horror, they burned through more than 17 million hectares of bushland, killing 41 people, destroying more than 3000 homes, and killing over a billion mammals, birds and reptiles.
These numbers are beyond devastating and were for me, so completely paralysing that I was unable to articulate how it affected me until very recently (suffice it to say I never did finish that blog post).
Back then, in January 2020, I started to think that perhaps a positive outcome of all this destruction would be that people - all the people - would have to start paying attention to this crisis. Perhaps me pointing out how warming temperatures were changing the availability of some of our favourite types of fruits and vegetables or wine in a blog was now moot in the face of such - impossible to ignore – carnage. Perhaps, finally, the global warming crisis would be catapulted to the front and centre of the minds of enough people to create real, tangible change. I prepared myself for the tide to finally come in.
But then – quicker than a tide – came a switch. Almost as indecipherable as the scale of the fires and the damage they caused, was the sudden and complete re-focus. ‘Coronavirus’ replaced ‘fires’ in both the media headlines and the minds of those same people who just weeks prior seemed converted, activated and determined. The tide rushed out again. I couldn’t believe it.
Again, not without irony, the response to the pandemic illustrated that we, as a nation, are absolutely capable of the type, magnitude and rapidity of response we need to address global warming. We were assured that even though the measures we take now will hurt, will have harsh economic impacts and will mean that we need to go without for a while, they will be worth it in the end – they will be better for most of us – they are necessary.
Australia does not lack the capacity to respond effectively to global warming. We appear only to lack the will.
If we fail to address the global warming crisis, so many things about our existence are under threat and far more than 4.5 million of us are at risk. We need to mount a serious, coordinated, evidence-based response to global warming, just as we have to this pandemic. It is needed – desperately - to prevent the most extreme of scenarios, in which life for our children and grandchildren looks very different to the lives we’re enjoying now. We need to avoid a world in which losing a billion animals and millions of hectares of our unique bushland each summer is ‘normal’. A world in which glaciers are a thing of the past, in which the tropics are no longer habitable, and the biodiversity extinction crisis is accepted.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently released the first instalment of its sixth Assessment Report (AR6) and it is nothing short of terrifying. Temperatures are warming faster than originally predicted and evidence of the impacts of warming are now clear in every region of the world. The report outlines clear targets that we need to reach in order to avoid a really different and difficult future.
The good news is that STEM professionals all over the world are working hard to find solutions and adaptations to help us innovate our way out of this catastrophe. We need those experts - climate scientists, modellers, mathematicians, engineers, ecologists, biologists and public health academics - standing next to politicians at press conferences, supporting tough decisions with sobering data.
We know what we need to do. We have the solutions. We just need to do it. Yesterday.