When friends asked me why I left my job as a reporter in Beijing to move to Sydney, I would always point upwards.
“The sky,” I’d say.
In a country like China where so-called unpolluted “blue sky days” are rare, clean air, as I saw it, was a luxury.
Over the last six months, however, that luxury has vanished. Smoke from the worst bushfire season in recorded history has bled into the skies of Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. From my studio window overlooking Sydney Harbour, I can usually see pretty bobbing sailing boats; for days at a time this summer they have been reduced to blurred stains barely visible through a dirty hazy fog.
Worse, I felt the hazardous pollution – as in Beijing – burning my eyes, my lungs and, I suspected, my heart.
As the world turned its eyes to Australia, the fires appeared to be a prescient warning of what might happen in a post-climate change world: think extreme weather events, large-scale ecological destruction, and mass human displacement. To Australia – nicknamed “the lucky country” for its natural resources, endless sunny days, beauty, and prosperity – that realisation has come as a blow.
“Seeing one of the richest societies in the world rendered close to helpless as fire swept across the country was shocking,” notes Leo Barasi, author of The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism. “And it’s another sign for people in high-emitting countries that climate change won’t just come for the polar bears if emissions don’t fall fast.”
Here, on one of the driest continents on earth, bushfires serve a purpose: to clear away the old for the new. Yet this season’s fires were extreme. By January, they had destroyed 8.4 million hectares across the country. It is estimated that half a billion animals have perished. According to UK-based website, Carbon Brief, the Australian fires have released more CO2 into the air than the annual emissions of over 100 countries combined; and Canberra, the nation’s capital, became for a time the most polluted city on earth due to bushfire smoke.
As David Bowman, a professor of environmental-change biology at the University of Tasmania, told The Atlantic: “This is our Gallipoli; this is our bushfire Gallipoli.”
Yet if there is one upside to such apocalyptic scenes, it must be, surely, that this is the wake-up call needed to spur on real change. The question is: will it?
Australia has built its wealth on coal, which remains the country’s second-largest export after iron ore. Its role in global emissions is far from stellar. Australia puts out just under five per cent of global emissions, despite the fact it only accounts for 0.3 per cent of the global population. The economic cost of moving away from fossil fuels is not one, so far, the government has been willing to shoulder.
“While Australians have heard for a decade about the cost of policies to reduce climate change they are about to discover that the costs of not reducing climate change are even higher still,” the chief economist of policy think tank The Australia Institute, Dr Richard Denniss, says, adding: “If one degree of warming gives us weather like this, the three degrees of warning that the government says we are one track for will likely make our major cities far less liveable and attractive.”
Despite this, many psychologists believe that climate change apathy – a sense that individuals alone cannot make a difference, so why bother – is one of the largest problems facing mass action towards climate change. Simone Brookes, conservation manager at the Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley resort, a nature retreat badly affected by the fires which has only just reopened, told me: “A lot of people are overwhelmed. As a result, they feel powerless.”
Feeling powerless, ultimately, makes people lose motivation – as does the suspicion that they are acting alone, while others around them continue to greedily consume, regardless of the larger cost. And there is some truth to the fear that individual actions won’t, despite the best intentions, end up mattering.
“Most people concerned about climate change have very little if any idea what they can do to combat climate change,” says Dr. Mark Trexler, founder of climate change website The Climatographers.
Ask the average person what they are doing to combat climate change and they will say recycling or conserving water or reducing their carbon footprint and buying carbon offsets.
“Neither of which will meaningfully impact climate change,” says Trexler. “They’re not necessarily bad things to do (assuming people are buying real offsets – a huge assumption), but they simply can’t scale to impact climate change.”
Indeed, one of the largest barriers preventing any large-scale attempts to mitigate climate changes are human being’s own brains. Our brains have evolved for millennia to satiate immediate needs such as finding shelter, a mate and food, as well as avoiding danger. As such, we are designed to focus on the present – and we tend to view climate change as a far off risk to be dealt with by future generations.
Other biases not working in our favour include optimism bias (the belief that things will get better) and “patternicity” (the tendency to find patterns in meaningless noise).
“We’re so busy arguing about whether last year was warmer than the year before that we don’t talk about where we’re ultimately headed under a 2, 3, or 4 degree scenario,” argues Trexlar. “If you buy into climate science, it doesn’t really matter whether last year was the warmest year ever, what matters is that the whole system is shifting in ways that will create all kinds of problems since the last 10,000 years of human evolution have occurred within a basically unchanging global climate.”
Yet, taking individual responsibility – as a person on the street or a government leader – means facing some hard truths. As Nsikan Akpan wrote in an article for PBS last year: “No one wants to believe their daily activities are responsible for a global disaster that has already turned millions of people into climate refugees and killed scores of others.”
Denniss, for one, believes that the government in Australia can – and should – make real changes to avoid another bushfire season like the one we have just had.
“They could invest more heavily in renewable energy, batteries, public transport and energy efficiency. They could stop approving new coal mines and gas wells. They could introduce a levy on carbon pollution, or on fossil fuel production, and use the proceeds to fund bout the transition and preparations we need to make,” he says.
“Or they could keep telling themselves what a great job they are doing and blame environmentalists for the bushfires. My money is on option two.”
With experts such as Trexler insisting that “we’ve barely started to see the physical impacts of climate change that will manifest in the coming decades”, what we do next matters.
For me, drumming that message home this summer, was a photograph on the front page of The Independent newspaper. In it, a vast, towering column of smoke rises above the continent. “This is what a climate crisis looks like,” ran the headline.