A Rocha UK’s Head of Conservation, Andy Lester writes about the recent Australian wildfires.
For those of you who have been watching the news since November 2019, you will no doubt have been moved and deeply saddened by the tragic pictures from Australia. Perhaps most telling of all was the shocking image of a kangaroo that had tried to escape the flames and found itself against a fence, where it perished. Then of course there were some more heart-warming images, such as the koala bear sharing a bucket of water with a pet dog who immediately fell in love with the furry friend and began licking it.
Whether horrific or heart-warming, the images tell a story of catastrophic destruction never witnessed before in Australia on this scale. Since 10 November 2019, an area the size of England south of a line from Blackpool to Bridlington has been burnt to the ground. Scientists estimate that upwards of one BILLION mammals, birds and reptiles have perished. Some species may have been wiped out completely. The population of the iconic koala has fallen to its lowest level ever. As of January 2020 the koala is ‘functionally extinct’, meaning that the population gene pool is now too small to withstand a sudden shock such as a virulent virus. Tragic news for the koala,desperate news for Australia and a devastating blow for creation.
Whilst all of this has been happening, the Australian PM Scott Morrison and wider cabinet have continued to deny the reality of climate change. At a recent press conference, during a temporary lull in the fires, Morrison repeated his familiar mantra that these fires, whilst a tragedy, happen frequently and that many of them were started by people. He made no reference to climate at all. And yet this year Australia has faced record breaking drought in the interior as well as the hottest ever recorded average temperature. On 19 December 2019, Australia recorded its highest ever average maximum at 41.9C (107F). Amazingly that beat the previous record by 1C, which had been set only one day earlier.
Many of us have pointed our fingers at Australia as a terrible example and aren’t we glad that the UK is so much better? What is happening there however is only a reflection of a much, much wider problem. The world’s love affair with fossil fuels is waning far too slowly: we are still, collectively, wedded to oil, gas and coal at deeply destructive levels. Australia in many ways just carries on responding to demands from elsewhere and argues that the coal they supply would have to come from somewhere so it may as well be them.
It is the same argument we can so easily use for justifying flying; “well the plane would be going anyway – so what difference does it make?” Or the classic excuse to drive, “well, if I went by train it would cost so much more!”
Until we reach a point where we are collectively willing to take a deep breath and take some significant and sometimes life-changing decisions,we will continue to mess around at the edges. The trouble as Australia has so vividly shown is that we love kicking the can down the road. But what on earth do we do when the road has run out, and we stand on a cliff edge instead?
For the billion animals who have died in Australia’s bush fires, and several dozen people, it’s too late. However, this year, with the key UN climate summit taking place to review progress since the Paris summit in 2015, there is a chance to increase our ambition and action in line with the now starkly evident climate emergency. And with the summit taking place in our country (Glasgow, in November), the UK has a particular responsibility to set high ambition, and lead the change.