Why business as usual is so scary

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Shortly after Christmas Day, the sky disappeared. It was only then that I realised I’d always taken it for granted. The sky, and the air. I’d always taken the air for granted too, and now it was hazardous.

The Australian Parliament house is hardly visible behind a dense smog. (Photo by  Daniiielc/Getty Images)

Like many parts of Australia, my hometown of Canberra had a truly terrible summer. Surrounded by bushfires, and sitting in a geographic bowl between mountain ranges, the city filled with smoke and choked on it for months.

The smoke filled the air with fine particles that are dangerous to human health because they penetrate deep into the lungs, can trigger or exacerbate chronic disease and respiratory problems, and have been linked to increase mortality. Concentrations of PM2.5 — the smallest and worst of these fine particles — are measured in terms of 10 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), with up to 25 µg/m3 considered low risk, 40 to 106 considered ‘unhealthy’, and 250 to 500 considered ‘hazardous extreme’.

From mid-November to late January, Canberra’s PM2.5 levels mostly hovered between 50 and 100, and a for a few terrifying days in early January they sat just below 1000 — so high an official rating didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, bushfires in surrounding areas burned out of control, incinerating everything in their path.

All of this was bad enough, but the thing I struggled with the most was that, for the most part, life just went on as normal. Yes, some people wore PM2.5 masks. Yes, there was a run on air purifiers and weather sealing tape. But, apart from those ‘beyond hazardous extreme’ days when many places shut up shop, not a lot changed and, honestly, I couldn’t get my head around it.

 

'All of this was bad enough, but the thing I struggled with the most was that, for the most part, life just went on as normal.'

 

On one such ‘normal’ day, I caught the light rail into the city to go to work. As we disembarked, the air was thick with smoke haze and the sun was small, dim and red. I walked through the haze in a crowd of office workers wearing masks and felt as though we had all stepped into a new reality – a dystopic future that had already become our present.

When I examined my reaction, I realised that on some level I was expecting all of this horror to make a difference. I know it was naïve, but I even hoped these bushfires might act as a circuit breaker and force our government to accept the need for more serious climate action.

Then, on 29 January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison extinguished my naïve hopes by appearing at the National Press Club to reassure us that the government is focused on ‘keeping our economy strong’.

He went on to stress the importance of adaptation and resilience, because ‘when it comes to practical safety of people living in bushfire zones, hazard reduction is even more important than emissions reduction.’

Although the Prime Minister did acknowledge ‘the need to take action to reduce global emissions, to mitigate the risk of climate change’, he defended the LNP’s existing ‘balanced and responsible emissions reduction plan’, because anything else might risk damaging the economy.

On the one hand, this past summer has absolutely demonstrated the need for us to adapt to the reality of a changing climate and to do everything we can to make communities and our environment more resilient to the heat, the droughts and the increasingly frequent extreme weather events. Given that we have already locked in worsening climate change, focusing on adaptation and resilience is common sense.

On the other hand, it is utterly chilling to hear our Prime Minister emphasise adaptation and resilience in a context in which he is refusing to take serious mitigation action.

Warming the climate to +1 degrees celsius has already ushered in a new reality of heatwaves, severe droughts, and catastrophic fires that start in Spring and burn for months. We are currently on track to reach +3 degrees celsius by 2100, which will lead to sea level rises of between 1 and 2 metres, extreme heatwaves, a significant drop in food production, and many more bushfires and extreme weather events.

Are we happy to just adapt to these extreme outcomes? Shouldn’t we be doing literally everything in our power to reduce these risks?

The other day, my daughter casually mentioned that her personal future wasn’t worth worrying about since ‘the world is literally going to explode.’ She said it in such a matter of fact way, and it broke my heart.

She’s not alone in feeling anxious, even nihilistic, about the threat of climate change. Children all over the world are experiencing ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘climate depression’.

And, yes, I know that alarmist language doesn’t help, and that helping her to combat feelings of powerlessness by taking some kind of action does. But, honestly, explain to me how that works when the air is literally hazardous, the sky has disappeared, and our Prime Minister is telling us to adapt because the economy is more important than mitigation?

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a human rights specialist. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: The Australian Parliament house is hardly visible behind a dense smog. (Photo by Daniiielc/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, bushfires, climate change, air pollution

 

 

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Wonderful writing in EurekaStreet by CristyClark, a fellow Canberra resident and parent. She has put into words how horrible those days were in early January - and that was before the huge Orroral fire and its spinoffs at the end of January destroyed our local NamadgiNational Park , burning more than half of non-urban ACT land, and came to threaten some of our homes at the edge of the suburbs directly. I have a historical comparison to suggest in answer to her question, how did we go on operating as normal in a place where we could not see the sky anymore, where we knew we were being poisoned by the very air we breathed? How did decent people go on living in German cities under the Nazis, or in Moscow during Stalin’s Great Purge? Answer: people cope as best they can, they pretend life is still normal and that they and those dear to them will somehow be OK, that the axe will not fall on them. We Canberrans have had a foretaste this terrible summer of such future environmental and political dystopias. I hope we heed the warning. Tony Kevinl
Tony Kevin | 14 February 2020


You make some good points about Scomo Cristy and the LNP obviously cant see the wood for the trees. We could do plenty to combat climate change. Adopt a new version of the old Bradfield scheme (currently being touted by Qld Nationals to win back power). "The Bradfield Scheme, a proposed Australian water diversion scheme, is an inland irrigation project that was designed to irrigate and drought-proof much of the western Queensland interior, as well as large areas of South Australia. It was devised by Dr John Bradfield (1867–1943), a Queensland born civil engineer, who also designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Brisbane's Story Bridge. The scheme that Bradfield proposed in 1938 required large pipes, tunnels, pumps and dams. It involved diverting water from the upper reaches of the Tully, Herbert and Burdekin rivers.These Queensland rivers are fed by the monsoon, and flow east to the Coral Sea. It was proposed that the water would enter the Thomson River on the western side of the Great Dividing Range and eventually flow south west to Lake Eyre. An alternative plan was to divert water into the Flinders River." Snowy 2 has blown out to 5 bn. Bradfield estimate cost 9 bn.
francis Armstrong | 14 February 2020


Thank you Cristy. You describe very scary facts that have arisen because of the bush fires. All would have to agree with you that PM Scott Morrison's reaction to this hellish summer is totally inadequate and is bordering on criminal irresponsibility. It sounds as though his utterances have been coined by advertising wordsmiths who totally fail to understand the environmental problems we face. And the fires have shown us that it is not just the members of homo sapiens who are at risk. The other living things in the Web of Life have also suffered terribly. In addition waterways, soil and air have been further polluted and food production has been hindered on a large scale. I feel very sorry for Cristy's daughter along with other young people like her when she feels despair at the situation. I remember many young people having similar feelings during the 1970s and the 1980s because they thought there would be nuclear war. Tragically, the leaders of the current LNP Coalition Government are very slow learners and will continue to fund coal, fracking , gas an other fossil fuels. We ignore these alarming signs at our peril. One positive sign, however, was listening to some who were LNP supporters declaring that they will never vote for the Liberal or Nationals again. Another one is the fact that there are huge demonstrations by striking school students demanding climate action. Hopefully, the voting pattern will change markedly when they are eligible to vote.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 14 February 2020


The Insurance Companies are signalling that premiums will increase because of fires and floods. That is an economic cost to people. The Prime Minister tells us they wont take any action that increases costs or impacts on the economy. The irony is that doing nothing will increase peoples insurance costs. Perhaps insurance is part of a different economy.
Barry Watson | 14 February 2020


The Orroral fire was caused by a military helicopter searchlight burning dry grass (a common summer occurrence). It was huge because most of the forest cannot be accessed by fire engines. Perhaps we need the military to devise a scenario in which the forest is full of guerilla hide-outs and to plan how to fractionate the region with intersecting vehicle trails so every part of it can be pacified. After all, they started the fire. And if there were actual terrorists launching rockets from within its fastness, they would soon be planning the very same thing. That would be adaptation, resilience and mitigation. A forest can be a curated thing. It doesn't have to remain in the traditional sense of a fenced-off area in which everything inside grows higgledy-piggledy.
roy chen yee | 15 February 2020


This is an extremely polarising subject and there is little likelihood your opinion or my response will actually shift anyone's views on the matter, so I will focus on one aspect of your article - eco anxiety in the young. You reference it as if it adds further weight to the urgent need for climate action. As if it has a legitimate basis that adults should accept and even validate. Step back and think about that for a minute. It defies everything we know about raising mentally healthy children into adulthood. This doomsaying and catastrophising by adults is creating a perfect storm of alarm in our children that boarders on psychological abuse - stop it. I'm greatful we have a PM that hasnt been bullyed into joining this chorus. The smoke has cleared, the rain has come, now let's have a rational debate and try and restore our children's faith in their future.
Matthew | 17 February 2020


Have to agree Matthew that the irresponsible destruction of hope in our children is the greatest threat to their futures. It is a diabolical form of child abuse.
john frawley | 17 February 2020


It is the children who are providing leadership. Adults are, in general, failing . Pope Francis stated in his address on January 9: "While not forgetting that young people look to the words and example of adults, we should also be well aware that they themselves have much to offer, thanks to their enthusiasm and commitment. To say nothing of their thirst for truth, which constantly reminds us of the fact that hope is not utopian and that peace is always a good that can be attained. We have seen this in the way many young people have become active in calling the attention of political leaders to the issue of climate change. .... The protection of the home given to us by the Creator cannot be neglected or reduced to an elitist concern. Young people are telling us that this cannot be the case, for at every level we are being urgently challenged to protect our common home and to “bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development”. Sadly, the urgency of this ecological conversion seems not to have been grasped by international politics, where the response to the problems raised by global issues such as climate change remains very weak and a source of grave concern. Read his full address on the Vatican news site: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2020/january/documents/papa-francesco_20200109_corpo-diplomatico.html
Joseph Fernandez | 18 February 2020


Cristy Clark is like me and my family, a resident of Canberra. Cristy, I completely agree with all you have written. We have journeyed together through this awful summer.My children are now mature adults with their own children. We discuss these events and my children and their spouses agree with me that something has to change, and fast. Interestingly, my brother, two years younger thinks Climate Change is not real! I grew up in the 1950's and 60's when the risk of a "nuclear winter" was very real. I remember as a 6 year old, expressing such fears to my mother, who was very concerned .She was able to allay my fears, and life went on. I don't think our young people will be any more badly affected by today's uncertainty than we were. As a climate scientist myself, I am very frustrated by the disbelief and inaction of ours and other developed world governments . Gavin A. O'Brien (FRMetS)
Gavin O'Brien | 22 February 2020


Your article and the responses to it raise a number of real life questions which need to be addressed, Cristy. I have no doubt climate change is occurring and that we need to take short, mid and long term action to contain and hopefully reverse it. We need a real plan. Some nations, like Germany, have a plan to transition from the use of coal in a relatively short period without causing economic havoc or major unemployment. Most of our political ecowarriors lack the common sense, economic nous and planning ability the Germans so obviously possess. They are often no better than professional scare mongers for their own political benefit. This is bizarre in the light of certain trends, such as that chronicled by Paul Garvey in this weekend's Australian, that solar power will be able to provide 68% of our peak electricity needs by 2023 at affordable rates. This and statements by Sir David Attenborough that positive things are being done about climate change, with real implications, cheer me and are very different to the nihilistic prognostications of the doom and gloom merchants, which I think is a major factor in causing 'eco-anxiety' amongst the young. What they are doing is encouraging Despair, which, in classic Christian Theology, is a Sin against the Holy Spirit. This is diabolic: it paralyses people and can lead to depression and even, in ultimate cases, suicide.
Edward Fido | 23 February 2020


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