Quotidian Climate Catastrophe

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Screen shot from RFS’s fires near me visualisation. Blue means the fire is contained. No yellow or red is good. No fires at all would be better.

My sister is texting to find out how we make the niece scrambled eggs. I ask Scott how and text his response. Outside the sky is grey and the AQI is at 155. Unhealthy. We’ll be doing our walk in the evening when the smoky air is supposed to clear. Though we were supposed to wake up to clear air. The AQI projections are sometimes wrong.

The niece rejects the eggs. My sister didn’t have butter and used olive oil instead.

Butter is better, I text her. Our father chimes into the group family chat to agree: Butter is absolutely essential for eggs!

Tomatoes, lime, sorrel, sage and marjoram from our garden.

Coincidentally I made me and Scott scrambled eggs this morning with ingredients I picked from our small garden on the deck wearing my P2 mask and the eggs, cheese and butter I bought from farmers at the Eveleigh Street markets. Last Saturday was the first one of 2020. Lots of the regular vendors were missing.

Overnight a firey died in Victoria. The good news is that most of the fires are under control. The temperature dropped here in NSW. There’s even been some isolated rain. No where near enough. The bad news is that under control doesn’t mean put out. There are still hundreds of fires and it’s due to get hot again in a few days. It’s possible more firies will die. The vast majority of them volunteers.

How many weeks are we now into the worst bushfire season Australia has ever seen? I’ve lost count.

The fires started in September in Queensland and New South Wales, but it didn’t seem worse than usual then. Except that it was September. Though the year before the fires started in August. The fire season starting in spring seems more normal than in the middle of winter. Fires burning in ever state, though? That’s new.

Me wearing a P2 mask on our deck.

Living in an ongoing climate change catastrophe is starting to seem normal. We wake up, check the Fires Near Me app and then the AQI and the government health warning to see if we can go outside without masks. Hey, NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment,1 could you please make an AQI app for us citizens of this fine state? Though we don’t really need the apps, turns out if you can smell smoke, the purifier needs to be on, and so does your P2 mask if you venture outside. Next we check the bushfire coverage online and on TV and radio.

Then I text the folks I know most directly affected to find out how they are doing. Have you been able to go outside down there in Canberra? Have you got an air purifier yet down there in Melbourne? Have you managed to convince your asthmatic teen daughter to wear a mask?

A friend is in Kangaroo Valley. So far she’s been lucky. But she’s not taking chances, she and her partner are down there doing everything they can to make their holiday home more fire proof and removing anything they can’t bear to lose. She rents it out to folks over the school holidays and weekends during the rest of the year. She cancelled some of this summer bookings and had folks irate at her even after she pointed out how close the fires are. She and her partner plan to retire there.

Checking the AQI has become routine. As it is for many around the world. In Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Urumqi (China), Noida (India) New Dehli, and Belgrade (Serbia). The majority of the cities in this hour’s worst AQI cities are in China and India, but then there’s three South Korean cities sneaking in, oh and Canberra, right here in Australia. It’s spent quite a lot of time at no. 1 on this list. Sydney held that honour on 19 November.

On the scale of the horrible things that are happening here in Australia this season, we’re doing fine. Being confined to home and having to run an air purifier and wear P2 masks does not compare with being burnt out and losing friends and neighbours, being in the middle of those utterly destroyed landscapes. But it’s not about the bad air, it’s not even about the fires, it’s about climate change. What we humans have wrought upon ourselves and what we now must reckon with.

Because we are all living in a climate change catastrophe. The smoke from here effects NZ. The emissions from here helps raise temperatures and sea levels and drown our many island neighbours, who we then don’t give nearly enough aid to. Living (dying) in a climate catastrophe is normal.

Until this bushfire season, I was one of the insulated ones, knowing climate change was real, but not being affected by it in a big way. I’d seen bushfire skies. Smoke had come into the city a few times, but this? Nancy Cushing, an air pollution historian, writing for The Conversation says,

The New South Wales government’s Air Quality Index data has shown that since late October, days when the index was higher than 100 – signalling exposure is unhealthy – have outnumbered clear days in Sydney, Newcastle and the Illawarra.

If you’d’ve asked me, I would have told you that most days we’re fine here in Sydney. A few really bad days, but on the whole, fine. In my defence, my part of Sydney hasn’t copped the brunt of it as often as they have in the west and south of the city. But it’s also me minimising what we’re going through.

We know this isn’t normal. We talk about it daily, but we also can’t quite believe it’s happening, still happening. It’s January. This unbreathable air started in November.

James Bradley, writing in The Guardian, points out that we’re not alone:

Overseas the story is the same. In the middle of last year, fires spread through the Arctic, igniting not just grassland but boreal peatlands dried out by unusually high temperatures in the region. In Brazil fires destroyed nearly 10,000 sq km of rainforest, prompting warnings from scientists that the Amazon is now close to a tipping point, beyond which its collapse will be unstoppable. In March Cyclone Idai left more than 1,300 people dead in Madagascar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Indeed one report by British charity Christian Aid suggests the changing climate amplified the effects of no less than 15 major disasters in 2019, while in July last year the UN warned climate change is now causing an average of one disaster a week.

I’m ashamed to say that despite all the apocalypses around the world, it took this bushfire season, here in Australia, for me to truly take in that the blasted future climate change hellscape is already here. It’s impacted my entire life without me fully realising. This despite my friends around the world, who’ve been affected by other climate change disasters: fires in California and Brasil, floods in Queensland, extreme cold weather events in the USA.

I kept on living my life, planning for a future that somehow would be not that much different from what my life now: writing novels, getting on planes to promote them, getting on planes to visit family and friends. At a minimum, every year for more than twenty years now, I have flown back and forth between Sydney and New York City once a year.

That’s a lot of carbon emissions.

I would even say to people with a straight face that I had a pretty low carbon footprint, flying aside. I mean I pay offsets! Surely that makes it okay? A few flights a year can’t be as bad as someone who drives a car every day, can it? Turns out the answer to that question is complicated.2

I recycle! I walk or take public transport everywhere. Only riding in taxis in emergencies. I rarely put the AC on and always have it at a reasonable temperature so it doesn’t have to work too hard. In NYC there’s no turning on the heat because the building does that in a super efficient low carbon way. Lately I’ve been even more virtuous: only buying vintage or circular economy clothing, reducing the plastic in my life. I’ve even given up liquid soap!

All while flying at least once a year. It is to laugh.

The aviation industry is one of the biggest carbon emitters. On 11 September 2001, only military planes flew in the USA for several days. All other aviation was grounded. Scientists were able to use that data to see the effects of aviation on mainland USA. When the planes weren’t flying, high and low temperatures narrowed across the USA. On top of carbon emissions’ long-term damage, there are immediate effects of aircraft contrails that we only barely understand.

Those of us living with a climate catastrophe, think about it every day. On the family group chat today we’ve been trading photos of how smoky it is outside and my dad just texted that he and mum have now donated to the Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities.

We’ve all been hearing the reports that a lot of the relief money and goods are bypassing Indigenous people and this one that an Elder was actively turned away from an evacuation centre by a racist. First Nations communities around the world have been living with climate catastrophe brought on by invaders for generations.

If we–and by we I mean all of us folks who know climate change is real, who have lived through unbreathable polluted air, terrifying floods, rains, fires, cyclones, hurricanes, muds slides, unbreathable air etc.–downed tools and became full-time climate activists, clogging the streets all around the world outside our houses of parliament, our seats of government, demanding real change, demanding we clean up polluting industries, switch to renewable energy, phase out fossil fuels and earth-destroying agricultural practices, clean up our waters, ground all unnecessary air travel, pour money into better, cleaner train networks, bring back international sea travel–if we did that in our millions, we would see real change. It would happen.

Hell, our prime minister, Scott Morrison has started to say that he and his government might possibly maybe change their carbon emissions targets. Presumably from the current magical numbers–where Australia doesn’t have to do anything and carbon emissions keep climbing–to real targets. I’m not holding my breath though. But he’s definitely frightened that if he doesn’t do something he’ll lose the next election. Or be deposed as PM as soon as parliament returns. Whether by those in his party who want more done on climate change or the extremists who want nothing done. His first poll numbers came out. They weren’t good. Unfortunately, it looks like the government is merely changing its strategy. They’re still going to do next to nothing to curb emissions, but they’ll no longer deny climate change is real while doing it. Yay?

We international community of the millions, who know that climate change is real, won’t quit our current jobs in huge numbers to make this the central cause of the rest of our lives. We should, but we won’t. I’m deeply grateful to do those of you who already have or about to. We need you climate change activists!

I won’t because I have a chronic illness. In my last essay I said I’d go to the climate protest here on Friday. I didn’t make it.3 Fortunately, thirty thousand others made it.

I wouldn’t even if I was healthy. I’m not an organiser. I’m not, in all honesty, any kind of doer. I watch and I research and I write. I can bear witness. I can document it. I can donate money. I can go to protests. I can watch in awe and support the people who do give up everything to save our planet.

As she often points out, Greta Thunberg isn’t the only young activist in the world. Ridhima Pandey is one of many activists in India. Elizabeth Wanjiru Wathuti, Oladosu Adenike and Vanessa Nakate are activists from Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, respectively. All under thirty.

There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have climate activists doggedly fighting the most important fight of humanity’s existence day after day. There are activists who have been doing so since before most of us were born. The knowledge that industrialisation is making humans sick and changing the planet for the worse has been with us for decades.

But most people dealing with the peripheral effects of climate catastrophes, the bad air, dodgy water, the intermittent electricity etc. continue to live their everyday lives. They wear masks, boil water, only go outside when necessary. We humans are really good at adapting.

But we all have snapping points. The protests last Friday were full of folks who’ve never been to a protest before. For whom this bushfire season has been too much. Now they’re doing something: making their voices heard. There were folks there who lost everything in the fires. Everyone was angry.4

It’s hard to convey to people, who haven’t lived through an ongoing catastrophe, what it’s like.

I’ve had several texted conversations with friends overseas that kind of go like this:

Them: Are you okay? The coverage is terrifying! Is Sydney burning down?

Me: The fires are far. I’m fine. My family and friends are fine. We just have to deal with smoky air.

Them: Will you be evacuating?

Me: Lol. No. Does NYC or LA evacuate when the smog’s bad?

Them: How are you otherwise? Other than all this stuff?

Me:

I tend to put my phone down when that happens. I mean how do I answer that question? “How are you doing other than your entire country burning and the air being unbreathable for millions for months on end?”

But what I want to text them is:

NOTHING! THERE IS NOTHING GOING ON BUT FIRE AND SMOKE AND WATCHING ENTIRE SPECIES HURTLE TOWARDS EXTINCTION AND ETERNAL CLIMATE CATASTROPHE. WE’RE WATCHING THE WORLD END! WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM!?

But of course that’s not entirely true. This bushfire season dominates everything. It’s at the top of the news cycle here. We all talk about it. We donate. We volunteer. We wear masks. Use air purifiers. But we’re also living our lives.

Sometimes I’m watching the cricket, and being amazed by Glenn Maxwell, and reminding myself to get tickets for the women’s T20 World Cup in February, and eating ice cream, and not thinking about the bushfires at all, but then the commentators will mention what the latest bid for Shane Warne’s baggy green cap is, proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross, and there it is back again: this bushfire season.

We’re all in mourning for our country, some stage of it: shock, denial, rage . . .

This climate catastrophe, which is just one of too many. This country that I love, with obscenely high per capita carbon emissions, which is, right now, part of the problem, not the solution. And I read yet another article by a climate scientist looking for hope and finding tears and despair. Then I read Ross Garnaut’s book on how Australia could turn it all around and become a renewable energy superpower and I’m filled with hope again.

One of my friends has two daughters, who are becoming engineers, so they can work on climate change solutions. There are folks in the fashion industry inventing new textiles that have zero carbon footprint. I heard on a podcast that folks are working on future solar powered passenger planes. It’s theoretical now but in the future. Drones are being trained to plant trees on a massive scale. There’s a lot of people working on truly amazing solutions and ways to get the world to zero carbon emissions.5

There’s a lot to be hopeful about.

But the coverage of our fires and unbreathable air is off the front pages in the USA and UK. I’m not complaining. We got more attention and for longer than any other ongoing climate catastrophe because of koalas and kangaroos. Though I can’t help noting how many news organisations are giving way more coverage to the latest British royal family brouhaha than they ever did to our fires.

I get it. Royal soap opera is a lot more fun than glaring signs of the end of humanity. The bushfires are slipping from the focus of our news organisations too. The urgency to fix this will fade, here and in the many other countries who are also doing nothing to slow down climate change. Climate catastrophes are becoming normal, everyday, quotidian.

This is our world now. We have to fix it, but I very much fear we won’t.

  1. No conflicts of interests there, eh? []
  2. But basically if you drive a hybrid or an electric car, and you have passengers, then your carbon footprint is way smaller than even an occasional flyer. As for flying, long flights are actually better than lots of small flights, but they’re all terrible. []
  3. That was a bad day. Food became vomit. Migraine screamed. Muscles and joints decided to take a day off from functioning. []
  4. Well, except my seven-year-old niece. When I asked her about the protest the next day she said it was terrible. Too loud and too many people and she was tired and hungry and just wanted to go home. []
  5. You would not believe how many different ways I spell “emissions”. Is it actually even a word? []

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