Satellite image of bushfire smoke over Eastern Australia, December 2019. Photo:  Wikimedia Commons Satellite image of bushfire smoke over Eastern Australia, December 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As the wild fires rage, Laura Morales gives a personal view of the situation in Australia

Australia is experiencing an unprecedented event: wild fires are devastating several parts of the country on a terrifying scale. The response of the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been utterly inadequate. In a press conference on Sunday morning, he assured the Australian people that they could be confident their government would protect them and work to rebuild their communities. Such a reassurance — from a Prime Minister who abandoned his country for a luxury Hawaiian holiday during the fires and has not taken any substantial action to address climate change — has been met with extreme scepticism and sharp criticism.

Several months ago, I decided to visit my family in Sydney. The idea of breaking the British winter in half was extremely enticing and I looked ahead to the trip with anticipation. This changed in November, when news about the fires started to pop-up in my social media. At first, I was not too worried: wild fires are normal in this part of the world. Yet, soon after my brother sent me a photo of Coogee beach in Sydney. It looked apocalyptic. Smoky dark skies in the middle of the day, merging with the water in a sad, undefined blur. Strangely, there were people in the photo, breathing the toxic air, lying on the beach as if it were a normal day.

I landed in Sydney on the morning of December 23rd. All the passengers on the plane had been eager to look out the windows as we descended. The captain had announced that Sydney would be smoky on our arrival and the curiosity was too much. Sydney was smoky. There was a clear separation between the clouds and the smoke as we descended. When the clouds finished, there was only a carpet of greyness hanging over the city. The lower we flew, the more imperceptible the curtain became, to the point that it was hardly noticeable when we landed. It looked like a normal greyish London day. But such days are not normal in this part of the world, not at this time of the year.

I’ve been here for two weeks now, and there have been some beautiful days, in which forgetting about the fires was relatively easy — days in which the sky was blue and sunny, days in which the absence of smoke and the ash made it easy to ignore the hundreds displaced and the hundreds of millions of animals burned to a crisp. There have also been days in which smoke and the ash choked the whole of Sydney. Yet, even then, the holiday season in Sydney has remained in full swing: business as usual.

And then there was New Year’s Eve. A while ago my sister hired a little boat to see the fireworks from the water — ‘the only way to see the fireworks’ according to many Sydney locals. As the big night drew closer, rumours circulated that the firework display might get cancelled. With no possibility of a refund for the expensive boat hire, we floated out from Pyrmont Bay on the last evening of the year, heading straight to the bridge to get a good spot. I was surprised to see the number of boats already on the water when we arrived. There were hundreds, large and small, from tiny kayaks to commercial boats carrying hundreds of people.

The closer it got to midnight, the more boats arrived — and so did smoke from the fires. The sky on the right side of the harbour bridge was clear and blue, whereas the sky on the left side was grey and smoky. At one point, my brother approached me and said: I will lose all faith in humanity if the fireworks go ahead. He was right, the lack of understanding and sensitivity showed by the ridiculous display of wealth and power was heart-breaking. We both hoped for a night without fireworks. Being on the boat in such a beautiful setting was already, in itself, an amazing experience. There were not one but two fireworks displays that night. At 9:15 pm ‘the family fireworks’ began. They lasted 8 minutes and were spectacular. The show repeated itself at midnight on the dot. The midnight fireworks were equally spectacular and lasted a bit longer. During those 13 minutes, I nearly forgot about the world and the suffering just beyond Sydney. For the thousands staring up at the sky that night, it was a moment of euphoria.

As we made our way back to the port, there were boats all around and hundreds of people partying at the water’s edge. This was a city completely disconnected from the struggles of their fellow men and women less than a few hundred miles away. I just couldn’t really understand what people were celebrating. There were two Australias that night. The Australia suffering at the hands of one of the worst climate catastrophes ever, and the Australia ignoring them. I wanted to shout out: don’t ignore the struggles of your compatriots! Your empathy and solidarity are needed now more than ever. Climate change is going to get us all. White privilege won’t save you from this one.

When I have spoken to locals here, a few have dismissed climate change as the main cause of the fires. They blame the government for preventing Australian Aboriginals carrying out the ancient practice known as cultural burns to prevent wild fires. Aboriginals have used fire for a long time to manage the land. To carrying out cultural burns they use accumulated knowledge of the land and the wildlife living in it. After cultural burns there are fewer flammable plants on the land. I understand why locals defend Aboriginal practices. Aboriginal knowledge must be integrated into fire prevention strategies, but it would be a mistake to view this as the only solution to the problem. The fires destroying Australian forests have no precedent and the scientific consensus points towards climate change as the main trigger.

Saturday was the worst day since the fires started. Up to fourteen fires burned at an emergency warning level, simultaneously. The flames reached a 70-metre-high— that is five metres taller than the Sydney Opera House. Since the fires started thousands of homes have been destroyed, at least 25 people have died and many more are still missing, more than half a billion animals have died, more than 5.5 million hectares of land have been scorched, and massive dislocation of people has taken place.

The Australian summer runs from December until February, so the worst may be yet to come. Several fires are still burning out of control and many more animals are expected to die.  Although wild fires have long been part of the Australian experience, a scientific consensus tells us that the impact of climate change will increase the number and intensity of wild fires. The Prime Minister has finally begun to get involved, deploying 3000 members of the Australian military to aid rescue, recovery and rebuilding operations.

The fires have been widely reported across the globe and fundraisers have exceeded their targets. But this is not enough. Deep change must be demanded. A profound transformation towards a sustainable way of living is the only way forward. Showing sympathy on social media or sending money simply won’t do. Environmental disasters like this one will become more frequent and more intense if we don’t fundamentally change the world’s economic system.

Today I visited the Parliament of New South Wales at Macquarie Street in central Sydney. I was excited to see Extinction Rebellion in action. They are holding a vigil in front of Parliament this week demanding that the government declares a Climate and Ecological Emergency. When I arrived, I was surprised to see four people in front of Parliament. Just four. Extinction Rebellion Sydney is holding a few more events during the week that I am keen to observe, but right now it is clear the movement is lacking support.

These raging fires have been long predicted and should be met by our own rage — rage at the destructive and irrational system which organises our lives. The inconvenient truth is that there are no solutions that do not involve transforming or transcending capitalism. Yet governments continue to prioritise profit over people. The Australian economy is heavily dependent on coal. In fact, it is the largest exporter of coal in the world. The Prime Minister has said that Australia’s climate policy won’t change, although it has been ranked as one of the worst-performing countries on climate change policy internationally.

As the fires continue to rage out of control, I think about why this is happening and the daunting tasks ahead. Who is responsible for this tragedy? Will the government manage to fully support the recovery of all of those affected by the fire? Will this tragedy be sufficient for the Australian government to change its climate policy? Will the situation need to get worse before a Climate and Ecological Emergency is called? Will the economic system that is destroying our planet ever change?