Analysis: Amid Australia’s Conflagration, Can Rural Communities Inspire a New Response?

Australia’s federal government is silent about the root causes of the nation’s cataclysmic bushfires. Rural communities might be the places that provide the innovation and inspiration needed to make a change.

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For the first time in a long time, we woke this morning to cloudy skies and the sound of rain. 

Not the heavy tropical storms we usually get at this time of year, but rather a gentle drizzle. It has been an extraordinarily dry summer in Australia, and 2019 was officially our hottest and driest on record. Only now are there signs of the monsoon forming in the tropical north, and the hope of decent rain in other parts of the country. Sadly, it will come too late for the 28 people who have died and the dozens of rural townships decimated by Australia’s worst-ever bushfire season. 

A yacht sails past a burning woodchip mill as the wildfires hits the town of Eden, New South Wales, Australia, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. The wildfires have destroyed more than 2,000 homes and continue to burn, threatening to flare up again as temperatures rise. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Back in September, our Sunshine Coast community in Queensland’s south-east was one of the first affected by the fires. The normally lush, sub-tropical vegetation was tinderbox dry, and a small grass fire in the beachside community of Peregian quickly flared out of control. A dozen homes were lost as gale-force winds carried embers for miles. Incredible images from inside the firestorm were a portent of things to come. 

Four months on, at the mid-point of summer, the Peregian blaze hardly registers as a blip in what is acknowledged as Australia’s worst-ever bushfire season. The scale of the fires is unprecedented, with the destruction of an estimated 25 million acres, 13 times larger than the record-breaking 2018 California wildfires. More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed. Thousands of head of livestock have been lost, and an estimated 1 billion native wildlife have died. There are fears that whole species have been wiped out. Hundreds of fires continue to burn across the country — only big rain can put them out. Thick smoke is choking cities and towns. When rains do arrive, freshwater supply will be under threat of contamination from ash in the run-off. The fires have already pumped an astonishing 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — the equivalent of the combined total annual emissions of the 116 lowest emitting countries. The saturation media coverage and evocative images of massive fire fronts, burnt out homes and injured wildlife captured global attention. Food production, transport, health, the economy — everything and everyone is feeling the effects, and people are wondering what is around the corner. 

Australians are no strangers to drought, heatwaves and bushfires. Communities are used to several days of extreme heat culminating in a stormy change bringing cooler temperatures and relieving rains. The difference this season is that the heatwaves are longer and hotter, and the storms that follow are dry. The lightning and wind just spark new blazes. It’s also happening in several states at the same time. 

Specialist firefighting teams and equipment that used to be shared across the country as needs arose are stretched thin. The fires are also generating dangerous and unpredictable new weather events including fire tornadoes with winds capable of flipping a fire truck. Terms like “megafire” have entered the lexicon as already massive fire fronts join up on a previously unimaginable scale. The nightly weather forecasts now include information about the smoke haze. The world has changed. 

There had been no shortage of warnings that an apocalyptic fire event was on the horizon. A group of former fire chiefs had been calling for climate action and First Nations leaders were offering advice on sustainable land management practices. A 2008 government-commissioned Climate Change Review even predicted that bushfire seasons would be longer and more intense by 2020. It all fell on deaf ears.  

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, a national crisis was rapidly unfolding. Amid growing calls for action and leadership, the federal government seemed determined to do nothing. Then in a scenario reminiscent of George Bush’s ill-fated absence during Hurricane Katrina, prime minister Scott Morrison left for a family holiday in Hawaii. At the time there were more than 100 fires burning across New South Wales and extreme temperatures had been forecast. Morrison, a former advertising executive, was best known for an international tourism campaign based on the controversial slogan “Where the bloody hell are you?” It didn’t take long for the Twittersphere to latch on. Morrison’s approval rating is now in free fall. 

source: Lara Worthington / twitter

In stark contrast to the inaction of the federal government, state fire authorities and local communities had been preparing for this fire season for many months. If not for the heroic efforts of thousands of volunteer rural firefighters in communities across the country things would be much, much worse. Whilst the loss of 28 lives is tragic, the 2009 Black Saturday fires resulted in 173 deaths on a single day. Many lives have been saved. 

Volunteer firefighter Ash Graham goes on a patrol of the village of Nerrigundah, Australia, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, where he has been camping out after losing his house and his dog when a wildfire ripped through the town on New Year’s Eve. The tiny village of Nerrigundah in New South Wales has been among the hardest hit by Australia’s devastating wildfires, with about two thirds of the homes destroyed and a 71-year-old man killed. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

The response to the disaster by local communities across the country and around the world has been truly extraordinary. Communities have connected and mobilized in every way imaginable — from providing emergency food and accommodation, carpooling stranded holidaymakers, to raising money. The arts community has played a big part on lots of fronts. A Facebook fundraiser created by comedian Celeste Barber has raised a phenomenal $50m just on its own.

The big question now is whether the astonishing display of empathy and action triggered by the effects of climate change can be harnessed to address the causes of the climate crisis? Whilst the federal government is now throwing big money into recovery and rebuilding programs, it still refuses to commit to addressing the climate crisis and reducing carbon emissions. The focus is on responding to the effects of climate crisis whilst continuing to ignore the causes. 

In much the same way that gun policy has plagued the US, climate policy is proving to be an “Achilles heel” for Australia. The federal government’s new rhetoric is about resilience and communities “adapting” to what Scott Morrison is calling “a new normal.” With the reality of the climate crisis now irrefutable to even the staunchest denialist, this policy shift looks like an attempt to keep real action on climate change in the “too-hard basket.” Morrison’s commitment is to protecting mining industry jobs and keeping energy costs low. Carbon emitters, it seems, are safe to carry on unabated. 

In truth, it seems both of Australia’s major political parties are beholden to powerful media and mining interests. In the same week that Scott Morrison left for Hawaii, opposition leader Anthony Albanese was touring Queensland rural communities to assure them of his support for coal mining. Morrison’s mantra that Australia is only responsible for generating 1.3% of global CO2 emissions conveniently ignores the reality that we are the world’s biggest net exporter of coal (32% of global exports in 2016) and responsible for massive CO2 emissions across the globe. 

All too often it is our rural communities that bear the brunt of natural disasters like bushfires, drought, storm, and flood. Indeed, it seems that adapting to, and overcoming adversities like these have become an intrinsic part of the rural identity. Equally, the direct costs of addressing the climate crisis by reducing our carbon emissions and transitioning to renewable energy seem to fall more heavily on the rural communities. Despite this “double jeopardy,” rural communities are often the source of the innovation and inspiration that leads to solutions to these most challenging of problems. It’s in the spirit of the volunteer firefighters who simply refuse to give up.

The ‘normal’ in which we all now live presents a whole new order of local and global challenges, but how we respond is really up to us. If we can’t rely on our national governments to disentangle themselves from their corporate ties and actually deal with the crisis we currently face, maybe it is time for a community-led approach based on local action and global connectedness. The experience of the last few weeks shows us that we have all the tools we need to take a swing at it. Maybe we can work out how to sustain the empathy, generosity and ingenuity that rises to the surface during times of crisis. Maybe we can learn to listen to the advice of climate scientists, firefighters and the leaders of First Nations cultures who have lived on this land for millennia.

Maybe we can make these things part of our new normal.

Norm Horton and Sarah Moynihan are executive directors of Feral Arts, a community arts and cultural development company based in Queensland, Australia. Disclosure: Sarah Moynihan serves on the board of directors of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

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