A Kangaroo rushes past a burning house in Lake Conjola, NSW, where bushfires are raging. Photo: Matthew Abbott/Panos Pictures

 

We Aussies like to refer to our home as “the lucky country,” but for the last few weeks, with bushfires raging wild, unyielding, relentless— it has seemed anything but that.

Every day we are witnessing horrifying images of families displaced and homes destroyed; of entire towns crowded onto beaches under blood red skies; of the gallant efforts and immense bravery of volunteer firefighters; of koalas and kangaroos injured by the great flames, searching desperately for water.

The eyes of the world are on us as we endure, in real time, the blistering and catastrophic effects of the climate crisis. In fact, some observers have said Australia is the “canary in the coalmine” of global heating.

We have yet to know the full cost of this national emergency, but the numbers so far are almost too much to bear—at least 28 people are dead, including three firefighters, and the BBC reports more than 6.3 million hectares have burned. That’s more than twice as much as the 2019 Amazon and 2018 California fires combined.

Endangered animals

Ecologists at the University of Sydney and WWF Australia estimate that more than a billion animals may have been affected. This includes many species already endangered before the fires began.

The picture from the air is almost equally appalling. Satellite images show the smoke plume is so large it’s reached New Zealand, which is more than 2,000 kilometres from Australia’s east coast.

The air in Sydney and Melbourne, our two largest cities, has become as poisonous as smoking cigarettes.  

We have bushfires at this time every year, of course; they are a vital part of maintaining our forest and bush ecosystems. But we’ve certainly never seen anything like this.  

The combination of extremely high temperatures—in mid-December we recorded our hottest day on record—and a very dry spring have created an inferno. Make no mistake—this is not usual; we have never seen this before and we simply don’t know how it’s going to play out.  The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has said the fires are so intense, they are creating their own weather systems.

And ‘fire season’ has just begun.

What is happening in Australia right now has shocked me to the core. The fires are not far from where my family lives. There is a real sense of hopelessness. Seeing the grief this causes is something you’d never wish on anybody.

Feeling connected to my homeland and seeing it so quickly destroyed is devastating.  

I grew up surfing on the Gold Coast in Queensland where I was fortunate to be surrounded by nature, pure and untamed. Our beaches are simply the best, and the state is home to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world, and one which is already being devastated by the intertwined effects of global heating.

Australia's nature is precious

I’ve never taken my natural birthright for granted. I know that nature is precious. It’s one of the reasons I decided to become an Ocean Advocate for the UN Development Programme. Australia’s nature is particularly precious because our diverse and incredible ecosystems are unlike anywhere else on Earth.

The frustrating thing is that we know what the world needs to do to fight climate change. The science on this is clear. As reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we must ensure that global temperature rise does not go beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. We must cut global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. We have little time to take the decisions needed to get to that point. The challenge is great, but it is not impossible.

The bushfires can provide an opportunity for Australia to step up and lead the world on climate action. Nations need to band together. The earth must be put first; nature and humanity must re-align. Our home is on fire and in Australia the alarm is ringing. Loudly and clearly.

We—every one of us—must step up our efforts and do everything we can to prevent the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis. Our future is at stake.

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