Disaster Down Under: Australia’s Climate Inaction

Written by Braedie Atkins, GLOBUS Correspondent

Recently, it has become difficult to ignore Australia’s distinct lack of commitment in regards to tackling climate change. During the most recent United Nations Climate Change conference, COP25, in Madrid, Australia was found to be lobbying to carry its credits across from the Kyoto Protocol, to contribute to its emission reduction targets for 2030 in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. One could question, with this distinct lack of motivation to meet their national goals, whether it is Australia’s federal-state system that is holding it back.  

During a visit to Perth, situated in Western Australia, last December, it was impossible not to realise how vulnerable the land and people are to the increasing heat and risk of bushfires.  I felt I witnessed climate change in action. During the end of my first week, there were four consecutive days of forty-degree heat in Perth, an unprecedented level since 1933, until a mere 4 years ago in 2016. Moreover, during evenings in the city, I couldn’t avoid the smell of smoke coming from the bushfire in Yangchep, fifty-five kilometres north of Perth. The two pictures below of the bushfire risk signs were taken a week apart. Yet, December only marks the beginning of summer with the most intensive heat expected in February. Plus, the bushfires on the West coast do not even compare to the bushfires repeatedly making it onto national and global news, with emergency declarations being announced for bushfires approaching Sydney in New South Wales. 

During a visit to Perth, situated in Western Australia, last December, it was impossible not to realise how vulnerable the land and people are to the increasing heat and risk of bushfires.  I felt I witnessed climate change in action. During the end of my first week, there were four consecutive days of forty-degree heat in Perth, an unprecedented level since 1933, until a mere 4 years ago in 2016. Moreover, during evenings in the city, I couldn’t avoid the smell of smoke coming from the bushfire in Yangchep, fifty-five kilometres north of Perth. The two pictures below of the bushfire risk signs were taken a week apart. Yet, December only marks the beginning of summer with the most intensive heat expected in February. Plus, the bushfires on the West coast do not even compare to the bushfires repeatedly making it onto national and global news, with emergency declarations being announced for bushfires approaching Sydney in New South Wales. 

Figure 1 and 2: Fire Danger Rating Signs by the Shire of Serpentine Jarrahdale. Ranking increased from ‘High’ to ‘Severe’ between the 9th and the 16th of December 2019. Image: Braedie Atkins 

It was bizarre to witness people going on business as usual with the heat and bushfires being seen as unavoidable, inalienable truths. The lifestyle of the citizens seeming to be set in its ways, adding, quite literally, more fuel to the fire. With most people owning cars, every highway corner is home to one or multiple petrol stations. Within days of being in Australia, I was told by numerous people that ‘no one walks here, everyone drives.’ Moreover, meat is such a large part of the average Australian’s diet, with barbecues being a food staple, and meat production and processing occupying over half of the country’s landmass (The Conversation, 2015). 

Climate change is not considered a salient issue by many of the Australian population. This results in minimal pressure being applied to local and national government. To give a few examples, Transperth, the local train line coming out of the city, is poorly connected due to the lack of demand for new stops. What is more, the state’s population growth of up to 90,000 each year increases the demand for new real estate, leading to never-ending land clearing, deforestation, and increased vulnerability to further bushfires. Western Australia is thus caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they must deliver change in order to meet their national emission targets. On the other, you have citizens’ demanding housing, jobs and, ultimately, the upkeep of their lifestyles. 

However, some initiatives are popular among residents. However, these tend to be more heavily related to the cleanliness of environments, as opposed to reducing emissions. Notedly, people can receive 10 cents per glass bottle that they return to stores to be recycled. A similar scheme used to be in place in the UK before the onset of the plastic packaging revolution in the 1980s. Moreover, there is a nation-wide recycling code whereby plastic packaging numbered 1-7 is recyclable. Admittedly, this is something the UK must adopt, as recycling rules and regulations need to be overhauled and nationalised. Similarly, beach cleaning and marine conservation are also very successful, with rubbish being a rare sight on coastal landscapes. 

I cannot help but question why there is a negative correlation between residents wishing to keep beaches clean, but not willing to swap to public transport or, heaven forbid, cut down on the meat in their diets. A day at the beach cannot be ruined by the sight of rubbish poking out the sand and returned on the backshore by the swell of the waves. Conversely, a lifestyle that is free from restrictions and convenience is much more difficult sell.  

However, an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality might work in a country like the UK, but not in a country prone to droughts, heatwaves, and bushfires. This short-sightedness will be a significant barrier for Australia when meeting its global targets for emission reductions. Therefore, Australia recently need to change their attitudes, or these catastrophic bushfires may instead have to act as their wakeup call. 

Header Image: Photo by Philippe Wuyts on Unsplash

References

Bray, H., Ankeny, R. (2016) It’s complicated: Australia’s relationship with eating meat. The Conversation. (Available from: https://theconversation.com/its-complicated-australias-relationship-with-eating-meat-67230) [Accessed on 19 December 2019] 

Packham, C. (2019) Ring of fire: Australian state declares emergency as wildfires approach Sydney. Reuters. (Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-bushfires-idUSKBN1YM2KN) [Accessed on 19 December 2019] 

Wahlquist, C. (2016‘Perth heatwave: temperatures climb above 40C for fourth day in a row.’ The Guardian. (Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/feb/10/perth-heatwave-temperatures-climb-above-40c-for-fourth-day-in-a-row) [Accessed on 18 December 2019] 

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