Maybe this Christmas we should take some time to reflect on our roles as custodians of this planet. As my country burns and temperatures soar into the 40s, I find myself feeling deeply saddened by the horror that surrounds this summer and what it means to our current and future environment; the flora and the fauna as much as the impact on humanity.
This week we are reaching temperatures at which some species simply suffer terminal heat stress, they drop dead. Flying foxes or fruit bats are a highly visible example. The bats live in colonies, so a heat effected colony can suffer loses on an catastrophic scale during a heat event like the one we are experiencing at the moment. Why should we care? Aside from the fact that these are an intelligent, social animal, they are a key pollinator, essential to the ongoing health of our forests. The loss of pollinators is catastrophic for any environment. Birds too are likewise effected and is not uncommon to see them on the ground struggling with heat stress. Providing water in your backyards has never been more important. Birds and bats are not the only species susceptible to heat stress they are just the most visible.
The bush fires this season have been nothing short of apocalyptic. The ongoing drought has resulted in a fire season which started earlier, with drier forests it has burnt more intensely and destructively, over much wider areas than in previous seasons. The extent of the damage has further impacted on the ability of Australian forests to act as carbon sinks with the combined effect of fire damage and on going drought looking to have even further negative impact on Australia’s ability to manage carbon emissions. Traditionally bush fires were considered carbon neutral, that is not expected to be the case this season, with fires proving more destructive, completely sterilising some tracts of forest. Much Australian flora needs fire to regenerate but complete destruction like we have seen this season may not allow for normal regeneration, added to this is the expectation the ongoing drought will contribute to limiting re-growth, thereby reducing the ability of forests to act as carbon sinks. Rain forest that has never burnt before has now burnt and the destruction there is likely to be long lasting with extremely slow recovery.
The loss of fauna goes without saying and I won’t dwell on the tragic horror of wildlife loss in the fires this season, koalas are the most visible example, you only have to look at ABC or BBC news sites to see horrifying images. Pollinators other than bats will also be heavily affected by the fires and the heat, bees will be amongst the losses of the fire season. I am concerned also that many species who traditionally have the ability to ride out fires, through burrowing or their ability to hide in hollow trees will simply not be able to survive in the extreme intensity of some of these fires but this is not something on which I have a great deal of knowledge so I won’t comment further. To be honest I am avoiding reading too much on the fires, I find it intensely depressing. Climate change may not cause fires but climate change does make fire impact more severe and this fire season is like nothing we have ever seen. I am not young, I am not naive, I am educated and well informed and my heritage is rural rather than urban, I know the country has changed greatly in my lifetime and it disturbs me greatly, we have failed in our obligations to care for the very land that nourishes us.
Meanwhile government continues to ignore the climate challenge and continues to defend fossil fuel industries at the expense of supporting and developing green industries. Not to mention the sad lack of support for emergency services and parks and wildlife services. In the last week there has been some change of tone in the national debate but I feel cynical about any commitment by this government to really address the issue and accept the mantle of stewardship and all that it means.
The thing that distinguishes us from other species is the fact that we are the custodial species of the planet, it is not our role to simply exploit but rather our duty to take responsibility and to care for the earth that sustains us. Now is the time to reflect on our responsibility, to be informed and to engage with the public discussion, to be leaders not followers and stand up for our future and the future of our kids, our environment, our country, while we still can. We should be inspired by the leadership shown by the former emergency services chiefs who attempted to alert the government to the looming disaster before it occurred and take steps to mitigate it and who continue to speak to the issue of climate change and climate related disaster: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/17/hugely-disappointed-emergency-chiefs-to-hold-bushfire-summit-with-or-without-pm . These people and the kids that have defied convention, opinion and public pressure with rolling climate strikes are heroes, as are the current volunteer and professional emergency service personnel who despite exhaustion and personal loss are continuing to deal with the current horrors.
I am not without hope, adversity brings out the best in people, lets rise to the challenge that faces us all and accept the responsibility we all face.