If you are in or close to the bush, leave now. If you choose to stay, we may not be able to save you. Save woollen blankets to wrap yourself in if the fire comes. If you are trapped in your car, face the oncoming fire, close windows and doors tightly, and get down below window level.
Towards the end of last year, a friend and I sent each other emails full of the thoughts you try not to give voice to. If we were going to be preppers, where would we choose to live? If we bought a block of land in the country, where would we buy? Personally, I’ve always been keen on East Gippsland. The conversation continued. Should we be more concerned about rising sea levels, drought or bushfire? Were we planning on growing vegetables? Keeping chooks? My friend worried about what to say to their children. How bad could it be, we wondered. Bad, we decided. When it happens, my friend added, it’s going to happen quickly.
We live in different parts of Australia, and the places we chatted about were spread up and down the eastern seaboard, across the high plains and around my neck of the woods: Victoria. A few months after these conversations, almost all our imagined safe havens had been burnt beyond recognition. What a delusion it was that we—that any of us—could dodge what was coming. Our houses were on fire through summer, and now we are hunkering down in them—if we are lucky enough—as a pandemic grips the entire globe.
To drive through Victoria or New South Wales in the last days of 2019 and the first of 2020, to turn on the radio, was to listen to a litany of places as broadcasters listed towns and areas in imminent danger of incineration. This was followed by instructions, like the ones above, on what to do if you lived in those places. The air was full of smoke, the wind whipped and the temperature sat above 40°C. It was like driving through a furnace. There were more people on the roads in those conditions than there should have been, trying to find a way home after being evacuated from camp grounds and holiday houses; in the mountains and by the beach.
Countless acts of bravery took place over those days and weeks. One that stays with me is of firefighters being ordered to abandon their post—a small town hall full of vulnerable people—but instead choosing to stand their ground and save both the hall and the people inside it. However, public recognition of such bravery is muted, because governments—particularly the federal government—fear that any discussion of the situation that rural Australians faced this summer will devolve into a conversation about a lack of funding and resources. As recently as 10 December 2019, as the bushfire crisis worsened, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was rejecting repeated calls for more help for firefighters. There were 85 fires burning across New South Wales at the time. ‘Our actions on climate change are getting the results they’re intended to get,’ Morrison said.
Well. The results apparently intended were bushfires that destroyed 12 million hectares, killed more than a billion animals (more if you take into account starvation since then), took 33 human lives (with more than 400 additional people believed to have died due to smoke exposure), burnt at least 3000 homes, and will cost the nation untold billions of dollars in lost infrastructure.
As my colleagues, family and friends watched fire and hail destroy—or at least modify—years of research, as they evacuated homes, stood on beaches under blood-red skies, fought fires, and breathed in some of the poorest-quality air in the world for days and weeks on end, I found myself thinking of the people of London during the Blitz. Then I realised our First Nations people have suffered knockout punches like this for 250 years now.
‘It’s a relentless march of black towards the coast,’ East Gippsland resident Kylie Miller said to me in January. ‘It won’t stop until the black reaches the coast … I’ve never felt so threatened in my life. I don’t mean my personal safety. I mean this entire sense that everything you thought you knew is gone. There’s knowing and there’s knowing. It won’t stop. You save your house, then the fucking thing comes back a week later.’
I also spoke to Joshua Puglisi. He lives in Marlo and used to work at Cape Conran National Park, a landscape that has an almost mythical place in my psyche since multiple visits there as a child. When describing the weeks of fire that moved through and around where he lived, Puglisi told me things I hadn’t known: soil rich with peat staying on fire for weeks and months; what it’s like to have to wake up several times a night to check the perimeters of the land you live on in case the fires had reached them. As he spoke, I thought of what it must be like to go into battle. That sense of living on the edge, of boredom punctuated by spikes of adrenalin and danger. Both Miller and Puglisi had stories of people losing houses inland, moving to the coast to get through the rest of the fire season, and then fighting to save that ‘safe’ place as well. The year 2020 seems determined to make us humans understand that there is no safe place.
This essay was intended to be about the bushfires, but I find I am pulling and tugging at the fabric of it to incorporate the devastating impact of this pandemic—there is almost no way the writing process can keep up with the rate of change. But although I spoke to Miller and Puglisi and the others interviewed here before the pandemic, their words and stories still ring true. COVID-19, this new fucking thing, is going to keep coming back until we find a vaccine, just like the fires and other disasters are going to keep rolling in.
We need to ask what underpins all this. The answer is unchecked expansion and development. Capitalism has a lot of explaining to do, and colonialism has been revealed as a system that doesn’t just destroy the lives of first inhabitants but threatens the lives of those once advantaged by it. To quote Jeff Sparrow in a recent article in the Guardian, ‘Capitalism pits humanity against nature. It will destroy both, if we let it.’ Climate change is one of most devastating symptoms of this excess. ‘The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected … It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.’
I wrote versions of this essay in which I earnestly referred to evidence supporting my statements about climate change and quoted research on its impacts. But others have already done this hundreds, if not thousands, of times. The evidence is all around us. We all know something is wrong. We feel it when we try to escape the heat on 45°C days, when we breath in smoke, when we’re approached by wild animals desperately needing water. We know it when our livelihoods evaporate overnight, when we are told to isolate, shelter and be socially distant. People are dying in the streets. They are dying without being held by those they love. They are dying in their thousands, potentially their millions. You know this.
• • •
There is much that is significant about the summer just gone, but one moment worth reflecting on is the day that a group of angry residents of the recently devastated town of Cobargo called the Prime Minister of Australia an idiot, then told him to piss off. ‘You’re not welcome.’
We need to consider the meaning of welcome. We need to think about the Welcome to Country that Australia’s invaders, my ancestors, neither sought nor, on the occasions it was offered, understood. About how that set us up to become the kind of country we are. A nation that’s been riffing on denial and forced handshakes since Captain Cook landed in 1770.
On the opening morning of the National Climate Emergency Summit in Melbourne, in February this year, the queue stretched along a city block. I attended a session on the response of First Nations peoples. ‘Welcome,’ said activist and Djok woman Jacqui Katona, ‘to the emergency.’ Her point was one that has been hiding in plain sight: people came to this land and took what they could from it without waiting until they understood it, without listening to those who have been living on and with the land for millennia.
In a country that only apologised to the Stolen Generations in 2008, where treaties have never been signed and massacres never acknowledged, where the Uluru Statement from the Heart was rejected as recently as 2017, it isn’t surprising that we are in denial about this also: planet Earth is on track for between 2°C and 4°C of warming. Two degrees will mean that bushfires are up to eight times more likely than they were in 1900. Four degrees will mean that Australia, as we know it, will no longer exist.
I say it isn’t surprising, but I confess that I am, in fact, surprised. Stunned by the free fall of recent months. By the ferocity of the bushfires. By the number of deaths around the globe as COVID-19 takes hold. The rate of climate change is rapid and escalating, and our responses have been as slow as a glacier—as slow, perhaps, as a species evolving.
It’s for this reason that CSIRO’s Dr Michael Dunlop suggested to me that what we do about climate change isn’t so much a scientific question as a question of governance. ‘We need a shift in the social and political basis of decision-making,’ Dunlop argued, before talking to me about developing our capacity to be strategic, to accept failures, to respond radically to a complex and unprecedented set of environmental pressures. Dunlop and his colleagues have been developing a framework to encourage people to try and balance what knowledge they can to bring to bear on a particular situation—to help figure out what is technically possible—with the values they share as a community and the rules that constrain or encourage particular actions.
So, for example, farmers may discuss the need to plant different crops given what they know has a better chance of survival in a drying, warming landscape; they are being innovative with water use, some are growing shelter belts and reconfiguring native vegetation, some are grazing different breeds of cattle. Conservationists are weighing up where they should invest their resources if it’s not possible to prevent what is going to be a rolling series of extinctions. They are considering the options given the fact that the ecosystems they have been working with may never return to the pristine wildernesses they once were. By extension, you could argue that mining companies and other large corporations need to accept they might need to invest funds, and skills, in different ways, and to accept lower profit margins.
It would be naive to suggest this is easy, but the point Dunlop is making is that it is harder to reach agreement on a solution than it is to find one. We have answers to many of the questions confronting us. Those answers are local, various, already researched and not impossible to put into place. The issue is how do humans change the way they operate? How do they build on their capacity for collaboration? Collaboration is a social skill, a survival skill in fact, that our society seems to be losing.
Jack Pascoe, a Yuin man and a research manager at the Conservation Ecology Centre, wrote an article on the uses of fire in bushfire management, in which he makes points that are similar to Dunlop’s. ‘The conversation that we need to have to address this deeply complex problem must be given the time and space it demands and it must be approached with open minds. Most importantly we must remain civil to each other, consider carefully each other’s expertise, experience and values and finally avoid the temptation of accepting poorly considered kneejerk reactions that will inevitably fail our planet, our ecosystems and our communities.’
But instead of talking about how we can work together, most of our leaders create divisions between the communities they represent. They are defensive. They protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of their constituents. Punitive language is the order of the day. I asked Dunlop if he felt the failure of leadership exhibited by the federal government in the wake of the bushfires was a problem, and he said that he didn’t consider it to be the main one. ‘The agents of change we need may not be formal leaders,’ he told me. ‘We need to work in different ways. Key people buy in. They just get it. They become the leaders. This is how the real world works.’ The bottom line was, he elaborated, that ‘we need to be willing to engage with the idea of dynamic systems. We need relational empathy. We need humility and curiosity.’
• • •
If you are in or close to the planet, leave now. If you choose to stay, we may not be able to save you. Save alcohol swabs to wrap yourself in when the virus comes. If you are trapped in your house, in your street, in the park, anywhere at all, turn your back on the oncoming virus and close your mouth. Do not touch your own face. Do not touch the faces of those you love.
A colleague emailed me the other day, as the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic were sinking in. ‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.
‘A bit like I am expecting a dragon to turn up on my doorstep,’ I replied, ‘and I’m preparing to do battle.’
Some of us have been doing battle for years. ‘Increasingly after my speaking events,’ writes climate scientist and author Joëlle Gergis, ‘I catch myself unexpectedly weeping in my hotel room or on flights home. Every now and then, the reality of what the science is saying manages to thaw the emotionally frozen part of myself I need to maintain to do my job. In those moments, what surfaces is pure grief.’ To quote James Button in The Monthly, we are:
floating on a once gentle stream that has turned into a stronger river, long aware of a distant thrumming gradually getting louder—until, all at once we have swept around a corner and been tossed into rapids, oars useless, some people shouting, others still enjoying the view, and no one at all clear what lies beyond the next bend.
I’m going to add some other metaphors into the mix. We are lemmings leaping off a cliff. We are soldiers going up and over the trenches in Gallipoli. A third metaphor I considered as I wrote drafts of this essay in January was that what we were going through was akin to a plague, but by the time I’d finished my draft this no longer counted as a metaphor.
Plagues—of insects, of disease—have been assaulting our trees, our crops, our fauna, and over the years they have led to the deaths of millions of humans. Indeed, plagues were another thing colonisers brought with them to this country. Even before Europeans arrived in the Melbourne area, up to one-third of the population of the eastern Australian Aboriginal tribes had been killed by an epidemic of smallpox that spread down from Sydney. Other illnesses also took a rapid and significant toll.
Australia has changed almost beyond recognition since invasion. More than 25 million people live here now. Just before the fires took off, I read that of the 826 species of Eucalyptus (my particular passion), almost one-quarter were considered to be threatened with extinction. ‘Eucalypts in their native range of Australia faced threats from human land use, especially agriculture and urbanisation,’ the International Union for Conservation of Nature said. ‘As keystone species, [eucalypts] define the landscape of the entire Australian continent, and are culturally significant to its First Nations people.’
If you don’t have trees, there are a whole lot of knock-on effects. John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, reported that ‘it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise—with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.’
Logging and deforestation contribute to global warming: it makes fire more likely (and it also makes the emergence of new diseases—disease that will affect humans—more likely). On 22 January this year, the clouds were so full of dust that it rained mud. When the sun came out and the rain dried up, all of Melbourne was covered in a fine dust. Other cities have had similar events. The red heart of Australia is spreading thin across this land.
Close to 3 billion hectares of the planet’s soil is degraded. In Australia, 360 million hectares of arable land have become eroded and salinated. That damage is due to deforestation, development, logging, chemical use, drought, the introduction of hoofed animals and consequent overstocking. Those animals, I should add, have been left to stand in unshaded paddocks in temperatures as high as 70°C, swept away by flood waters, starved in drought and exported, while alive, in unconscionable conditions. It’s certainly not a good time to be a non-human animal.
Three of our native species—a bat from Christmas Island, an ‘uncharismatic rodent’ known as the Bramble Cay melomys, and a skink (also from Christmas Island)—have become extinct in the past decade. Another 17 species are likely to follow in the next 20 years—and these figures date from before the bushfires. More than 1800 Australian plants and animals are listed as being threatened with extinction. Others live on in captivity but are extinct in the wild. History suggests that species rarely return from this brink.
Animals aren’t just dying in fires or of starvation when they lose their habitats. ‘Mass extinction events are occurring that have been linked to global warming,’ author Delia Falconer told me in a recent (virtual) conversation. ‘The wasting disease that has caused a massive die off of starfish along the Pacific west coast and the mass die off of Saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan are just two examples. In both instances, the theory is that existing pathogens (a parvovirus and a strep bacterium, respectively) have been activated by the unprecedented warming of water and air. Why would we think we’re immune?’
Australian author Jennifer Mills, who has been living through the tragedy of the pandemic in northern Italy, spoke on Radio National about the experience in a way that felt inspirational. Some in her community were choosing isolation in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, even before the government insisted they do so. The community, as much as it was able to, led itself. She went on to describe what it felt like to watch Australians go through the same difficulties in comprehension as those in Italy who refused to lock down. ‘It feels a little bit as if you’re watching the climate crisis in fast forward,’ Mills said. ‘Each culture struggles to adapt to a totally changed reality and a changed way of living and to accept the fact that we’re all connected to each other in this way—that we share an atmosphere, we share an immune system, we share our breath with each other. That’s a profound thing to understand. Coming to terms with that reality is quite traumatic for people.’
Bill McKibben has also been making these connections. He clarifies why it can be harder to mobilise a response to climate change than to a pandemic. ‘The biggest difference is that there’s no enormous industry that gets rich off of coronavirus, so there’s not a built-in opposition to doing what needs to be done, and that’s always been one of the problems with climate change.’ I talked about this to climate change activist Lorna Hendry, who pointed out that corporations aren’t the only problem. ‘This is the tricky bit,’ she said. ‘The pandemic could kill me or my mother or my partner or my sons. So we do all the right things and persuade others to follow suit. But climate change might kill people we don’t know (in other regions) or that don’t even exist yet (future generations). So the motivators for the community are weaker.’
It’s not just a case of the responses to COVID-19 having parallels to climate change. Climate change makes events like the current pandemic more likely. Existing mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever have been on the rise. Loss of habitat forces animals and humans into closer contact, and the increased risk of viruses leaping between species gives rise to new diseases such as Ebola and COVID-19. As the World Health Organisation pointed out back in 2003:
For centuries humans have known that climatic conditions affect epidemic infections—since well before the basic notion of infectious agents was understood late in the nineteenth century. The Roman aristocracy took refuge in their hill resorts each summer to avoid malaria. South Asians learnt early that in high summer, strongly curried foods were less prone to induce diarrhoeal diseases. In the southern United States one of the most severe summertime outbreaks of yellow fever (viral disease transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito) occurred in 1878, during one of the strongest El Niño episodes on record.
If one thing is becoming clear as we lurch from one disaster to the next, it’s that some people, some animals and some environments are going to bear a disproportionate load. Tens of thousands of arts and hospitality workers lost their jobs within days of COVID-19 taking off in Australia. Agricultural workers and farmers have to keep crops alive in times of flood, drought and erosion. The tourist industry has been destroyed by the succession of disasters.
At the National Climate Emergency Summit, Professor Charlie Veron, who has been working with coral on the Great Barrier Reef for 40 years, described his current project. He is collecting specimens of coral so that, when the reef dies in the next few years, some coral species can be kept alive in tanks in the hope of a time and a place where they can be reseeded. Veron’s presentations, by his own account, used to be full of gags, but at the end of his talk, he said, ‘I’ve run out of jokes.’ Worse, ‘I’ve run out of optimism.’ His job had become the hard slog of saving what he could. During question time, a young woman stood up and addressed the panel, her voice shaking. ‘What are you saying to me?’ she asked. ‘Are you telling me there is no hope?’
Veron and the other speakers on his panel looked ashen faced as they considered their answer.
I too have been asked, in public forums, if I’ve given up hope. I have not. Before the pandemic, there was much talk of the impossibility of cutting carbon emissions at the speed we need to if we’re aiming for scenarios closer to 2°C rather than 4°C of global warning. And yes, it presents us with massive challenges. How do we manage our lands and our populations? How do we house people and how will those people move around? Where will our safe drinking water come from? How do we grow enough food for everyone?
Here in Australia, both the LNP and the Labor Party have been torn asunder by arguments surrounding the science of climate change for well over a decade. Those ministers who did accept the science seemed unwilling to address the policy implications. Fast forward to May 2019, and we have our fifth prime minister (one of them boomeranged) in 12 years, in part because of this impasse. Scott Morrison leads a government that has an appalling record when it comes to fudging the figures on any range of issues, including the reporting of carbon emissions. It’s as if their life is one exciting game of bingo. ‘We can win this, guys!’ But finding someone who’d describe themselves as a ‘winner’ these days is as likely as finding a healthy fish in the Darling River system, and if you do find them their names are likely to be Rinehart, Forrest, Palmer, Taylor or Joyce.
The recent bushfires finally forced Morrison to acknowledge the existence of climate change, but again this appeared unlikely to advance policies that reduced carbon emissions or protected the environment. Then COVID-19 came along. Suddenly, we have a government that says the science needs to be respected. Suddenly, the world population is discovering it can modify its behaviour—albeit reluctantly—because our lives are on the line.
This is the conversation that is being forced upon us. When the coronavirus crisis is over, the bushfires will return. New pandemics will appear. The droughts will continue. When journalist Tony Maniaty was interviewed on Radio National about living through the coronavirus lockdown in his small town in the south of France, he was asked whether he would come back to Australia. He thought not. ‘The virus is global, isn’t it? So where to go, and what to do, that’s hard to pick.’
Where to go? What to do?
I understand the COVID-19 pandemic is economically catastrophic and that the use of force to modify behaviour has long-term implications for governments with totalitarian tendencies. I understand that there might be a backlash against policies that prioritise the environment over economic growth once we’re through the coming depression. Nonetheless, I believe the conversations communities and governments are having all over the globe about what is necessary, and what is possible, are becoming increasingly expansive. We are, finally, changing our behaviour. So while it might not feel like this is the end of days, it’s the end of a way of living that assumed we could take, and keep taking, from the planet and from each other without dire consequences. And that, right there, looks like hope to me.
If you choose to stay, we may not be able to save you. Leave arguments behind for later, but accept that you may not be able to return to retrieve them. Wrap yourselves in memories of the people, animals and landscapes that you love. This will give you the strength you will need to draw upon. Do not be trapped by fear. Stand up and face what is coming. Look the future firmly in the eye. •
Sophie Cunningham is the author of five books, including City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest.
 Jeff Sparrow, ‘Coronavirus gives us a terrifying glimpse of the future—and highlights a chilling paradox’, Guardian, 17 March 2020.
 Damian Carrington, ‘Climate crisis: 11,000 scientists warn of “untold suffering”’, Guardian, 6 November 2019.
 Jack Pascoe, ‘Our first peoples already have a blueprint to remake the fire-ravaged land, it’s in our country’s bones’, Guardian, 21 January 2020.
 James Button, ‘The Climate Interviews’, The Monthly, March 2020.
 Graham Readfearn, ‘Almost a quarter of eucalypt trees found to be threatened with extinction’, Guardian, 11 December 2019.
 John Vidal, ‘Destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity are creating the perfect conditions for diseases like COVID-19 to emerge’, Ensia, 17 March 2020.
 David Lindenmayer, ‘Sustainable farming in the face of climate change’, Life Matters, Radio National, 16 November 2018.
 Anika Molesworth,‘Sustainable farming in the face of climate change’, Life Matters, Radio National, 16 November 2018.
 Jennifer Mills, ‘Writing in the time of coronavirus’, The Book Show, Radio National, 23 March 2020.
 Geoff Dembicki, Interview with Bill McKibben, ‘How the Virus Has Hit the Climate Movement’, The Tyee, 22 March 2020.
 World Health Organisation, Climate Change and Human Health: Risks and Responses, 2003, chapter 6, p. 16.