Why do we give Australia such a hard time?

January 7, 2020
Sustainable Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal

Australia is currently being ravaged by a wildfire crisis whilst the nation has consistently voted climate denying governments to power. The current one, seemingly ignored numerous warnings of the catastrophe that is now playing out. The Prime Minister, a former marketing manager of Tourism Australia who was sacked during his tenure, and who has admiringly brought a lump of coal to Parliament, went on vacation. The emergency services minister was also found holidaying during his region’s state of emergency.

There is some karmic irony in the last few major climate change exacerbated fires capturing the world’s attention finding place in the USA, Brazil and Australia; three nations that consistently refuse to take responsible action on climate change and only a few weeks ago together frustrated all efforts at the COP25 in Spain to take further action on the climate crisis.

Climate Analytics says if exported emissions were included Australia would leap from about 20 tonnes to nearly 70 tonnes a year per capita.

Australia, though a huge country, has a tiny population. The population alone does not have much impact on the world, and yet we here give it a pretty hard time. Now seems an appropriate time to outline why. Nearly every country on Earth can be furnished a terrible report card on environmentalism but Australia in particular deserves to be closer to the top of this list and for many people that’s surprising.

As one of the wealthiest nations on Earth – it holds the number one spot in the world for highest median wealth per adult (recently edging out Switzerland) – it has had the capacity and resources to do so much more. It also holds the honor of the highest mammalian extinction in the world, the biggest exporter of coal on Earth, it rivals Qatar as the biggest exporter of liquified natural gas, is the third-largest exporter of fossil-fuels in totality behind Saudi Arabia and Russia, has one of the highest per-capita footprints, is the only industrialized country on the deforestation hotspot list and one of its cities has the largest suburban sprawl in the world.

Researchers say Australia is responsible for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and could be contributing as much as 17% by 2030 if the pollution from its fossil fuel exports is factored in. That 5% figure comes from a combination of emissions from current coal, oil and gas exports (3.6% of global total) and domestic emissions (1.4% of global total). Planned fossil fuel developments by major companies would significantly increase the amount of coal and gas Australia sells and if the proposals go ahead, Climate Analytics estimates that by 2030, with only 0.3% of the global population, the country will be linked to about 13% of the greenhouse gases that can be emitted if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

As such an insignificant country population wise, Australia plays an enormously outsized political role. Another fun fact? With a severe lack of innovation, Australia was recently ranked as a simple economy – the only developed economy to be so – sandwiched in 93rd place between Senegal and Pakistan.

Australia is a huge country, with a tiny population, and a massively outsized impact on the world.

It was always going to be difficult. Australia is a settler-colonist state that began white settlement with a genocide. The stolen land of the Indigenous peoples who lived in Australia for 60,000 years – the longest living culture in the world – was never ceded and a White Australia Policy was in place until 1973 with official removals from policy finalized in 1978. To put that in perspective, we knew about climate change whilst Australia was still running a white only policy.

Nearly all human impact on Earth has had some consequence and it is no different with the First Nations people of Australia however the management of country was sustainable and as a world we have much to learn from these practises. First Nations people are on the front lines of the climate criss across the world and should be given the stage to lead conversations on this. These days 60,000 mine sites have been developed and abandoned. With many endemic species, and plundering destruction throughout, Australia is also taking at least six years to list habitats as threatened under national environment laws. A recent review found that more than 7.7 million hectares of habitat has been cleared since the introduction of the national environment act and that 93% of the land cleared was not referred to the government for assessment.

There’s a whole list of other issues we can add here that are rather depressing. Start with the crackdown on environmental protestors last year. The Great Barrier Reef dying (it was recently downgraded to a very poor outlook). Numerous towns have already run out of water whilst approvals for water mining companies are continuing in a drought. Australia has poor housing efficiency standards and only one in five houses are built to higher than minimum energy standards. Australians share the stage with America for the biggest housing in the world. Filled with crap. Russia and Australia are the last remaining OECD nations without fuel efficiency standards all while transport is one of Australia’s main sources of emissions and represented 21% of the total carbon emissions in 2016 (with the standards it could have saved its citizens $1 billion over just the past three years).⁠ Despite its wealth, it has sky rocketing inequality and one in five people are food insecure. And due to a whole raft of poor policies, the nation also has the slowest uptake of electric vehicles of all OECD nations.

I am sorry that there are people who are in power … notably, of course, in the United States but also in Australia [who are climate change deniers], which is extraordinary because Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change. – David Attenborough

Emissions have been steadily increasing since the repeal of the short-lived carbon tax. They are slightly down this year not because of government action, but largely due to the drought and impacts there from. The government can now be repeatedly heard stating it will meet the Paris goals. It won’t. It will only do so using an accounting trick based off the Kyoto targets. Australia’s targets during that agreement were the weakest in the world. No other country is using this trick. And nature doesn’t care for Excel spreadsheets in creative accounting.

The country appears to have a political problem too. People have consistently voted for conservative governments and inaction. The problems with a two-party system are strongly on display and there are many issues in which it can be difficult to distinguish the two major parties from one another, at least to this European. There are variations within the parties of course, as there should be, but the policy positions in general support this view. Both parties seem generally happy to turn away refugees and torture them. Both support coal (and have done so even throughout the bushfires) and intensive agriculture. Both are run by two white men. The list goes on. And whilst you might decide one is more humble and calming than the other, there appears to be no inspirational leaders coming through the ranks (please let me know if there are though!). There are no Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warrens, Cory Bookers, Jesse Klavers, Jacinta Ardens, Sanna Marins or Zuzana Čaputovás to shine some light, provide hope and instill ambition from what I can see.

All this isn’t to say there aren’t also good actions happening in Australia. There absolutely are! It’s also a country full of entrepreneurs and people who care about the land. There are incredible people doing amazing things and creating a large swell of support. During this crisis thousands of people are coming together, launching appeals and donating however they can. Natural disasters tend to show the excellent side of humans. The country is increasingly full of small businesses producing ethical clothing, zero-waste stores, clean-up organizations and circular economy initiatives. Australia has also seen a renewables boom due to the desire of households and businesses. And a greater proportion of Australians than not believe in at least partly human-caused climate change (which is entirely a scientific fact but for a conservative land the increasing percentage is positive). The country however still seems to be engulfed. In flames, in floods, in drought, in a lack of political action and in a desire to vote for personal increasing greed rather than a future. Perhaps this will be the turning point. 

Watching the bushfires no matter where you are in the world is devastating. These bushfires are not normal. Normal bushfires can help to regenerate ecosystems. Normal bushfires leave little patches in the region for surviving animals to feed and grow. Normal bushfires aren’t creating their own weather patterns, many at the same time, and rushing ahead miles and miles on land that has been parched from drought for years. Nearly half a billion creatures are estimated to have perished or impacted. Numerous people have died including volunteer firefighters. One of the biggest shocks I’ve had is learning that Australia’s firefighting force is made up largely of unpaid labor. Unpaid labor is a backbone of capitalism. That system also creates the excruciating decision for people to defend their farms, their livelihoods, their homes, to stay instead of safely evacuate. Nobody should have to make those choices.

Australia is about to get a boot up the arse with the global post-2020 biodiversity agenda because the core part of that is stopping species extinction and Australia is doing dismally. It’s globally embarrassing.
– James Watson, University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society

The final irony in the bushfires is that Australia has long treated its international refugees horrifically, with contempt and abuse. It has repeatedly turned people away, run some of the most inhumane marketing campaigns you’ll ever find, prevented media reporting, created an environment of high suicide rates, denied healthcare and human rights to our fellow friends, and developed what can only be described as akin to internment camps. All whilst also helping to create or exacerbate some of the issues that displace people. Though there is no internationally agreed definition, these unprecedented fires have arguably caused Australia’s own first climate refugees. Evacuated by the same force that turns away legitimate asylum seekers from other countries (specifically, people of color), these refugees will be temporarily resettled wherever possible and assisted with numerous resources. What that says about a nation, I’ll leave to you.

Our whole hearts go out to everyone in Australia. Our arms are ready to wrap up anyone affected. These things are terrible. They’re awful. They’re indescribable. They’re painful and they’re helplessly overwhelming. I will beg one thing though. Vote better. Participate. Take action. In Cambodia the entire country is hamstrung by an impossible political process of which there is currently little hope. In Australia there is a choice. There is a choice to take action. There are smaller parties who can push the two primary ones. There needs to be an enormous swing of public pressure.

Below I’ve listed a number of Australian organizations and bloggers doing excellent work and some answers to common questions on the bushfires.

Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite. Every nation gets the government it deserves. – Joseph de Maistre

Australian Environment Links

Of course! We want everyone to go on holidays. But you can’t be the leader of a country during a months long disaster and head to Hawaii to chill on the beach. Especially as a Prime Minister who holds the record for the least sitting time in Parliament in a that same country’s history. Scott Morrison also went on holidays in June – to Fiji. In Australia he earns $549,250 as Prime Minister. The tax payers who provide that need to actually have the PM around when there is a national crisis. It’s part of the job and also why you get paid a whole lot. The same goes for the NSW Emergency Services Minister who went to Europe to holiday while the state burned and declared a state of emergency. We wouldn’t accept this from a CEO of a company, we shouldn’t accept it from a government. 

P.S. The artwork by Scott Marsh on this is wonderful. Thank goodness for humor and activism. 

Absolutely. They’re imperative to a healthy ecosystem there. But these aren’t normal. What isn’t normal is the length of the seasons, the droughts, the frequency, the scale and intensity – and places like rainforest. These are climate change exacerbated causes and need to be addressed. Fire season started early, a few weeks ago Australia broke the hottest day across the country twice – first recording an average temp of 40.9C and breaking it again at 41.9C (107.4F). The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO says Australia has warmed by 1C since 1910 and temperatures will increase in the future.

Easy answer, no. The Greens have never been in power in Australia and can’t make these decisions. Hazard reduction burning is becoming harder to do, as per fire chiefs, due to the decreasing window of time to conduct these – largely because of climate change itself. Back burning is also a dangerous activity to do and if the weather changes can quickly end up out of control. And hazard reduction requires money and apparently the services need much more of it to do the job. Lastly, some fires this season have have burned through areas that had been subject to hazard reduction.

The Greens consult scientists and First Nations people first and say they want “an effective and sustainable strategy for fuel-reduction management that will protect biodiversity and moderate the effects of wildfire for the protection of people and assets, developed in consultation with experts, custodians and land managers”.

More from the Guardian:

Hazard reduction is the management of fuel and can be carried out through prescribed burning, also known as controlled burning, and removing trees and vegetation, both dead and alive.

Hazard reduction is carried out by fire authorities, national park staff and individual property owners who can apply for permits to clear areas around their buildings. Coordination of activities happens through local bushfire management committees. There are 120 committees in NSW.

The claim of a conspiracy by environmentalists to block hazard reduction activities has been roundly rejected by bushfire experts, and experts say it is betrayed by hard data on actual hazard reduction activities in national parks.

In the last full fire season of 2018 and 2019, the National Parks and Wildlife Service in NSW told Guardian Australia it carried out hazard reduction activities across more than 139,000 hectares, slightly above its target.

Read the full explainer.

Approximately half a billion animals have been severely impacted. That figure does not include insects, bats, or frogs. This number comes from Chris Dickman, a biodiversity expert at the University of Sydney.

Just today, it was advised about half the koalas which had been introduced and then bred on Kangaroo Island have likely perished – an approximation of 25,000 koalas.

It’s important to remember animals that may not have immediately perished may still as there is little habitat left for them to survive in with no food to eat and water to access. 

As per Vox’s excellent explainer:

There are two reasons to believe that the true loss of animal life is actually much greater than the estimate. First, the 480 million number applies to NSW alone, and the bushfires have since spread to the state of Victoria (our note: they were previously in Queensland and are also ravaging South Australia). Second, the authors of the 2007 report “deliberately employed highly conservative estimates in making their calculations,” according to the statement.

Read the full article.

Generally these weren’t it seems though arson appears to have always been a problem in recent times. The fires on Kangaroo Island started with lightning strikes. According to the Premier of Victoria, no fires are confirmed to have been deliberately lit. Many fires spread quickly from spotting, their own storms and ferocious winds. 

Even if a fire is started from an act of arson climate change plays a role in what happens. Drier and hotter conditions make it easier for the fire to spread for example. 

Probably but not immediately. There are an estimated 329,000 koalas in Australia. It hasn’t been going well for these adorable creatures for a long time.

According to conservation biologist Martin Taylor, koalas were on track to be extinct by 2050 in New South Wales if current land clearing rates continue. This was prior to the fires. A guestimate of 25,000 koalas have perished on Kangaroo Island. In New South Wales, an estimated 8,000 koalas, or a third of the total population in the area, have died.

They are under threat from habitat loss, deforestation for agricultural and urban development, food degradation (increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has diminished the nutritional quality of eucalyptus leaves) and chlamydia. Most Koala habitat is on private land, so retaining koala food trees like forest redgum, swamp mahogany and tallowwood will help increase the amount of habitat they have.

Extending corridors between areas of koala habitat will give them safer ways of moving between their trees too, meaning they can spend less time on the ground where they are most vulnerable to being hit by cars or attacked by dogs. This is a conservation effort people in Australia can really get behind that hopefully also gets many more to explore deforestation and urban development along with native plants that are so important. The government should also probably try protecting koala habitat. Most of it is not protected. Surely it won’t let the iconic species go extinct?

You can help koalas here and here.

A lot of international attention has suddenly starred on these fires and has raised a significant amount of money. It would be incredible if this happened for the climate and humanitarian disasters in every country. Cambodia, where I spend a lot of time suffered through brutal conditions this year (it was devastating). We had a 40% harvest in our region and ran out of water. It was ridiculously hot. Zimbabwe suffered through a major drought…and cyclone. 

Moreso governments, particularly the wealthiest in the world like in Australia should be accounting for this and implementing political action that mitigates the worst of these outcomes. Those same governments should be assisting lower-economic countries far more.

We would encourage you to donate to your local climate activist groups, support businesses who support the environment and human rights and ensure you are active in your regional and nationals politics. So many social enterprises, effective charities, volunteers, bloggers and activists are underfunded. This needs a collective world movement that’s sustainable and long term so we enact strong change.

If you’d like to contribute to the Australian emergency, cash is the best giving option if you have it. We would recommend donating to Indigenous groups and under served communities. There is a GoFundMe for First Nations communities affected by the fires. You can also contribute to Wildlife Rescue (WIRES) doing important work and support other endangered species and the koala

We know that overconsumption is fuelling many of our environmental problems. There are also numerous campaigns to buy from the affected places (we’ve listed some above). Is this a sustainable strategy no matter where natural disasters occur? We definitely support buying from small, independent shops. We support ethically made goods. We support creativity, art, preserving local cultures and seeing communities thrive.

But consuming what you don’t need doesn’t help. If you have been looking for something please do buy from affected areas, social enterprises and businesses doing the right thing. If you’re looking for a gift, please do the same. Please recommend your friends to the brands also. But please don’t buy if you don’t need it.

Not right now. Many are in the midst of utter devastation and aren’t able to accept visitors. Once they are and if you’re local to these states or were heading to Australia, please do! Australia’s personal transport is a nightmare for the climate goals but the public transport infrastructure is largely terrible so driving long distances, like America, is understandable. Pack well, do what you can to minimize your waste, grab your family or friends and drive away. The larger problem around this is systemic and you can’t do much about it right now. You can choose to holiday in these regions though and spend money on experiences. These towns deserve visitors with hearts like yours.

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Written by Lis Dingjan

Lis is the founder of Nowhere & Everywhere. With a background in law, international development & service design, she is a passionate advocate of human rights, climate justice, eating from the ground, exploring deeper, giving back a little more than you take and designing better systems. Lis spends a significant portion of time in the field in rural Cambodia.

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