Saturday, February 29, 2020

In an attempt to answer the question many have asked me, ‘How do I feel, about the ongoing drought seriously affecting large areas of Australia, the catastrophic bush fires that have burned nearly 19 million hectares of land destroying an estimated 2,780 homes and nearly 6,000 other buildings, devastating farms, livestock, fruit orchards, crops, an estimate of at least a billion native animals and creating massive disruption to normal daily life.’ I feel a mix of sadness, anger, frustration, and bewilderment, tinged with some relief that I have not yet experienced a close fire. There is also a sense of guilt that I have not been ‘directly impacted by fire’.

Sadly, thirty-four lives have been lost. Given the ferocity of the fires, this number could have been higher. Many fires are still burning. The nightly news bulletins show the suffering of individuals and communities dealing with the severe droughts, catastrophic bushfires and extreme temperature records being created daily. The effects on people, families, communities, villages and small towns with in many cases long periods with no electricity, communications, food, water and the destruction on such a wide scale will take years to rebuild. The financial impact to the nation’s economy will be massive with already insurance claims for more than 750 million dollars. With all these challenges to our survival, the mental and physical welfare of people is of paramount interest and concern. It is these trying times that bring out both the very best and the worst in people.

Our economy is geared to extracting minerals including massive amounts of coal. We are one of the modern world’s contributors to the increase in greenhouse gasses. As a continent, Australia is a dry climate and the flora and fauna have evolved around bush fires with many plant species needing fire to generate new growth. Our indigenous people used fire to create new growth to attract animals for their food supply. These were regular, small fires which were local and ‘cool’ burning allowing the native animals the chance of escaping the blazes.

Were the drought and fires preventable? In reality, probably not but there is enough evidence to say that anthropogenic activities, human activities that cause damage (either directly or indirectly) to the environment on a global scale include human reproduction, overconsumption, overexploitation, pollution, and deforestation, burning of fossil fuels, to name but a few…

After nearly 75 years on this land I have seen in my lifetime, many changes in technology, lifestyles, land use and a fair share of fires and droughts. Through personal experience from working on the land, to being a land owner where you assume control over a patch of ground and with that comes the obligations to care for this land, preserve it for future generations and the extra responsibilities included occasionally becoming a bushfire fighter defending land against fire.

If we accept that climate change and natural disasters are linked, then rural Australians will be the ones suffering the destruction caused by our changing climate or 'new normal' weather conditions. As the impact of climate change worsens and the cities increasing neglect of the regional areas, the reliance on the rural economy for our prosperity will be sadly eroded.

One of the factors contributing to the massive firestorms in the country at this time is due in part, to bureaucratic decisions building over decades, incorporating huge areas of land into national parks and reserves where there has been no annual grazing for many years and minimal hazard reduction to keep the fuel load at a lower level.

Many voters know that climate change is real and important, and these people are saying that the causes should be addressed, and solutions found. This sentiment will likely strengthen. Fires and drought remind people that our high standard of living depends on nature, and that the very underpinnings of our wellbeing slip away when nature gets out of balance.
The drought and bushfire catastrophes have put climate change policy into the forefront of public concern. The drought impacts more on farmers than our city cousins, but with water shortages reaching critical low levels, this is impacting on the major cities. Perhaps 2020 will be the year when the political contest starts being over what specifically to do about climate change rather than whether to act. If ever there was a ‘nation building’ program, this is it.
My involvement with Farmers’ Dialogue began in the late 1990’s. From those early days the emphasis on the ‘slowly building green-house gas levels’ and the remedial actions necessary to combat these increasing temperatures, has been almost totally ignored, certainly in my country by those more centred on personal wealth than global health.

In closing - This is just one small voice from the wilderness. I long to see a chorus of dedicated changes being implemented for a sustainable future for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Phil Jefferys