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    February 05, 2020 | 10:00 AM

    Stories of Smoke and Fire: How Five Australians Are Facing the Climate Crisis

    The climate crisis is here, and right now, in Australia, it’s speaking to us in the language of smoke and fire.

    The message it’s sending is clear to more Australians than ever before. If we don’t take urgent action to cut emissions, the combined impacts of climate change could make much of Australia unlivable.

    As international attention focuses on a fire that is fast approaching the Australian capital of Canberra, other fires continue to burn in several parts of the country. This unprecedented bushfire season has already razed a nearly unthinkable 10.7 million hectares (that’s an area over two times the size of Belgium), destroyed more than 3,000 homes, and claimed at least 33 lives. 

    Whether or not the Australian government will respond appropriately to the message this catastrophe is sending has yet to be seen, but if these five Australian Climate Reality Leaders have their way, the future may yet be saved.

    Read on to discover how Climate Reality Leaders in Australia are taking action at this crucial moment. (And if you’re interested in becoming a Climate Reality Leader too, click here.)

    Jim Minifie is an economist in Port Melbourne, Victoria, who attended one of the very first Climate Reality trainings in Melbourne in 2006.

    Like millions of other Australians, Jim is in the midst of a remarkable summer, one marked by, as he puts it, “smoke and dust and dismay.”

    The fires have been sweeping across the land since September of last year, threatening first one town, and then another, and then another. Many areas have been saved only by the skill and bravery of Australia’s volunteer firefighters – and other areas haven’t been saved at all.

    Jim describes “relentless blazes [that have] consumed our beautiful forests, including temperate rainforests that haven’t burnt before. . . Sydney has been swathed in smoke for weeks. Not just a haze: frank smoke just seeping into everything and even setting off smoke detectors on the worst days. My lungs hurt, but I’ve been quite safe, unlike many who have crowded onto beaches to escape the flames, or risked their lives to fight the fires.”

    Where there’s fire, there’s smoke. And where there’s drought, there’s – apparently – raining red mud.

    Jim explains: “Just last week, Melbourne was coated in a thin layer of red mud: winds picked up dust from the drought-afflicted inland areas of eastern Australia, transported it hundreds of miles, and deposited it in a rainstorm.”

    This is not the first sign of climate devastation on the continent – from coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef to massive kelp diebacks in previous years and the ongoing threats of drought, heat, and fire, Australia is no stranger to the consequences of our global fossil fuel economy.

    Jim reflects on how these disasters have never, by themselves, inspired the change that is needed. But rather than succumbing to defeat, he sees it as a call to sustain action long after climate-related disasters have disappeared from the headlines.

    “Now I understand that nobody else will fix the problem if we don’t stay engaged,” he says. “I think we have so much more to gain from strong climate action than we have to lose.”

    To keep the momentum going, Jim is planning to focus his professional work on researching what a low-carbon economy would look like in Australia. He also plans to step up his efforts to raise awareness about the crisis and push his elected officials to take urgent action.

    Ben Holt is an education officer with the NGO ErinEarth in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, and was trained just last year in Brisbane.

    Earlier this summer, some of Ben’s family members were caught inside of a house as a bushfire burned all around it. Everyone came out okay in the end, but the terror of that experience has not left Ben.

    “Now, as a result of recent events, if there’s a day in Wagga that’s over 35 degrees Celsius [95 degrees Fahrenheit], I mark it on my calendar,” he says. “And that means I’m not going anywhere on that day. I won’t be going to the pub, or meeting friends. I won’t be doing anything that will stop me from being called out to a fire. My mum lives in a rural village, my grandmother on a farm on the outskirts of Wagga, and myself in Wagga. On a 35-degree windy day, I feel like I need to be ready to go and respond to a fire. My level of alertness has gone up, and its influence on my lifestyle as well.” 

    But even through this, Ben holds steady, believing that it’s important to remain calm and to focus on constructive action in the face of endless reports of catastrophe. He’s already making plans to run a climate change awareness program in his local community. (Ben was recently named Wagga Wagga’s Environmental Citizen of the Year during the city’s Australia Day Awards.)

    >> Free download: Extreme Weather and the Climate Crisis <<

    Jean Christie, trained in Melbourne in 2015, recently found herself looking out from the tenth floor of a building at the University of Melbourne. She was there to lead a workshop about the science and solutions of the climate crisis. From her high vantage point, it was surreal to watch a horrible cloud of smoke seep across the sky, and she thought of the many people who were directly in front of those fires at that time, including those on the beaches of Malacoota.

    The smoke from the fires has been tracked from space, and has been seen circumnavigating the globe, darkening even the skies over South America. The smoke has at times made Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne the cities with the worst air quality in the world.

    And the real health effects may not be fully known for years to come.

    Jean knew she was fortunate. “Even my very mild experience of the two days where the air quality in Melbourne was the worst in the world – I thought I was so lucky to at least have a safe place to be. I kept thinking I got off very lightly and felt guilty that I could even take a clean shower, and took shorter showers to try and save our precious water.” 

    Jean cares for abandoned and injured wildlife as a “wombat carer,” and has long considered herself an “environmental activist” in a country where many shy away from the label. She feels more convinced than ever that she must continue to sound the alarm. “I think people are beginning to realize that climate activists are right and we must take immediate action. . . People who previously weren’t aware of the extent of the destruction are now aware and starting to realize the situation is serious and they’re willing to take action.”

    She wants to begin working with her local council to declare a climate emergency, and to recruit local volunteers to help her get signatures. And she hopes to continue giving workshops and raising awareness.

    “I am someone who didn’t realize the extent of environmental destruction until she attended an information session a few years ago,” Jean says. “Even if you can give a few hours a month to helping an organization, you can make such a big difference.”

    Ivy Moore, who attended last year’s training in Brisbane, has no delusions about how bad things can get, and at just 17 years old, she’s ready for the world to start taking her future more seriously.

    Last November, the teen had to stay at school while a bushfire surrounded her family’s home in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. As she explained to CBC Kids News, she was “sitting in class and not knowing if [she’d] have a home to go back to.”

    In a video from the same source, she described watching the fires rip through the forests around her home, knowing that the wildlife inside were dying.

    The fire didn’t reach her house and everyone in her family came away safe, but the effects of the ongoing fires continue. “There's still smoke covering everything,” Ivy told CBC Kids News. “People just don't notice it. I’m breathing it in now and I didn’t even realize.”

    And Ivy knows that the crisis isn’t limited to this disaster. “I really hope that the world sort of wakes up to what's happening . . . Obviously these bushfires are affecting Australia now, but climate change is affecting everyone all over the world.”

    >> Learn more: The Climate Crisis and Your Health: What You Need to Know <<

    Jonathan Miller was trained last year in Brisbane, and is the director of the NGO Steady State ACT, an organization that looks at ways “the global economy can get back in harmony with Earth’s regenerative and remedial capacities.” He lives in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory).

    One of his brothers recently moved homes, in part to get away from a bushfire-prone region of Australia. Now, as a huge fire approaches Canberra, where Jonathan lives, the climate crisis is making it clear that it does not discriminate between urban areas and the bush this season.

    Jonathan is increasingly concerned not just about this season but about all of the seasons to come as the climate heats up in Australia.

    “I moved to Canberra 32 years ago, and the summers are unrecognizable when compared to when I arrived,” he says. “Whereas temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) used to be rare, they are now commonplace. Canberra appears to already have experienced over 1.5 degrees Celsius (almost 3 degrees Fahrenheit) warming over recent decades. The trend towards more severe bushfires, drought and high temperatures has profoundly affected how I feel about living in Australia; the future feels much more threatening.”

    One of Jonathan’s biggest concerns is the effect on the environment – a natural world that is being reshaped by this disaster. Over one billion wild animals are estimated to have died in this season’s fires, and the burning itself has likely emitted enough carbon dioxide to double the country’s national carbon emissions for the year, dramatically affecting future warming around the globe.

    As an avid outdoorsman, Jonathan knows just how precious our natural places are, and how they can be a source of restorative inspiration.

    “It has been important to find inspiration in the natural world around me,” he explains. “And to channel my feelings for the natural world back into activism, working with the wonderful communities of like-minded people, such as in Climate Reality.”

    Jonathan is optimistic that, more than ever before, Australians are ready to demand the urgent action that will be necessary to stop the climate crisis. “Perhaps for the first time, millions of Australians understand climate change not just as an abstract notion, but as something directly affecting them. They are experiencing firsthand the current drought, heat, and bushfires, not just through vivid pictures in the media, but in the day-to-day,” he explains. “This provides a profound basis for moving Australians to demanding strong climate action.”

    For his own part, in addition to running Steady State ACT, Jonathan is giving presentations, raising awareness, and writing to politicians. He also plans to start meeting with his local representatives to talk about the issue. And he’s hopeful that if others do the same, Australia may yet save itself.

    Despite the inadequate response of our national government to climate change, survey after survey finds that Australians accept the science of climate change and want strong action by our government. This gives me hope, as does the extremely high adoption of solar panels by Australians. I am encouraged, too, that major financiers worldwide are turning away from fossil fuel investments.”

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