Time for a New Narrative on Climate Disasters: Lessons from Australia’s Bushfires

Eva Perroni | 04.10.2020

The following is the first article from our newest series, Lessons from Australia’s Bushfires. This series will focus on the voices, insights and knowledge of Australian farmers and Traditional Owners who are on the frontlines of climate change

The Australian summer of 2019/2020 will be remembered as the summer that scarred the nation and stunned the world. As fires swept across large swathes of the southern continent charring ecosystems and landscapes, destroying homes and buildings, claiming the lives of more than 30 people and (a likely grossly underestimated) 1 billion animals, the world was presented with a daunting preview of the kind of chaos and devastation that climate disasters threaten everywhere.
The full impact of these fires is not yet fully understood and it will take some time before the economic, environmental and social costs of the bushfires can be truly ascertained. But as the smoke literally begins to settle and the extent of the devastation reveals itself over time, as people start rebuilding their lives and the Australian landscape slowly begins to regenerate, it is time for the global community to reflect on our collective, long-term responsibilities for the health of our planet and humanity’s future.

Many Australians have been subjected to severe and recurring climate-related disasters, from decade-long droughts to ruinous floods, tropical cyclones and storms to blistering bushfires. They have borne witness to the accompanying loss of property, livelihoods, ecosystems, animal and human life, maintaining a traditional sense of stoicism as they rebuilt and replaced what was lost. The latest spate of bushfires, however, was without parallel on several fronts, with affected communities left questioning the future and demanding recognition.

Australia’s political leaders continue to communicate the narrative that fires are uncontrollable in extreme weather. That devastating bushfires have been a natural part of the history and mythology of the Australian landscape for tens of thousands of years and continue to be an inevitable feature of the continent’s climate. What is dangerous about this narrative is that it occludes the mounting scientific climate evidence, the substantial number of ignored and trivialized expert inquiries and recommendations into bushfire management, and the local knowledge and experience of indigenous and farmer environmental stewards. When disaster is deconstructed, the enduring legacies of colonialism, underlying policy failures, and increasing environmental stresses are brought squarely into the spotlight, illuminating that there is nothing altogether ‘natural’ about Australia’s latest mega-disaster.

Continuing Colonialism

Sustainable and sophisticated land use and management strategies have been an integral part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ caring for the continent for tens of thousands of years. They deployed the thoughtful and deliberate use of fire as a land management tool with regular and wide-scale burning that required a sound understanding of local environmental and climatic conditions. A considerable body of evidence suggests that these Indigenous burning practices had a direct impact on limiting the intensity of fires under severe weather conditions. So rapid and ruthless was European occupation in the late 18th century, however, that it resulted in the socio-ecological disruption and dislocation of Aboriginal societies, land, law, and cultural practices. Much like stories of colonization elsewhere, British colonial settlers expropriated the land of Indigenous Australians through terrorism and genocide and ensured the erasure of their customary land values and practices from historical accounts.

It is against this backdrop of deprivation and displacement that the knowledge and practices of Australia’s Traditional Owners continue to be suppressed and ideologically ignored. Inadequate cross-cultural means to organize and communicate traditional ecological knowledge and practice continue to limit its effective inclusion in land management decisions. New forms of eco-colonialism, whereby well-intentioned environmental and conservation organizations leave little or no room for Aboriginal people to develop and implement their own land management solutions, constitute yet another form of marginalization and disempowerment. First Nations researchers and evaluators have drawn specific attention to the need to decolonize euro-centric policies and legislation and Western research methodologies that deny the voice, values, participation, and leadership of the world’s oldest civilization. While elected representatives may pay lip service to Aboriginal elders past and present, they continue to effectively deny their monumental work, across geological epochs, to maintain healthy and safe landscapes.

Policy Inaction and Prime Climatic Conditions

Over the course of the past century, the governmental response to bushfires in Australia has formed into a recurring pattern of what has been termed the ‘bushfire cycle’. This cycle describes the initial outpour of funding and donations to emergency relief efforts amidst outbursts of blame among levels of government, followed by protracted third-party inquiries that culminate in a long list of recommendations. These recommendations are then acted upon or ignored in varying degrees. The passage of time between each major disaster results in growing levels of governmental complacency, funding cuts, and agency paralysis, resulting in reduced levels of preparedness before the next major bushfire event. Scientists and political commentators believe this form of response has resulted in a gradual shift in fire management policy toward emergency fire suppression and response at the expense of longer-term fire prevention and fuel reduction. Why? The longer time frame between major fire events compared to the shorter election cycle allows political parties to pass the buck of emergency bushfire response onto successive governments while avoiding the costs associated with long-term land management.

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Effective environmental policy has also been thwarted by successive governments’ blind commitment to economic growth. When economic growth is used as the sole metric for measuring national success, it’s hard to deny that coal has played a major part in Australia’s winning growth formula; it’s fueled nearly three decades of continuous economic growth and allowed the country to largely avoid recession during this time. It should come as no surprise that coal holds a central place in the political-economic shaping of Australia’s approach to climate and energy policy. Australia is the largest coal exporter the in the world and thus backed by a powerful coal lobby that works to ensure the Australian government financially benefits from the fossil fuel industry. Climate action and transition to more renewable forms of energy has been largely paralyzed by these vested business interests and a climate disaster-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media. Even as the fires razed homes and habitats to the ground, the Murdoch-owned News Corp. spread the falsehood that arsonists were to blame.

Another mistruth frequently insinuated by this alliance is that it is impossible to reduce carbon emissions without sacrificing economic growth. This line of thinking stagnates any transition to more sustainable forms of economic advancement. Despite formidable wind and solar resources that could ensure Australia generates all of its energy from renewable sources, coal still produces 60% of the country’s electricity. Moreover, Australia is the third-largest exporter of carbon dioxide emissions via fossil fuel exports such as coal, gas, and oil. In the face of local and international criticisms that Australia is not doing enough to mitigate the effects of climate change, some analysts claim the current Morrison government is utilizing a “4D” approach to repress policy: deny (the mounting scientific evidence), deflect (to anything other than climate change as responsible), denigrate (climate change activists and advocates) and delay (taking action).

In many bioregions of the world, climate change has resulted in a warmer and dryer climate conducive to the start and spread of bushfires. Australia’s mean temperature in 2019 was 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than average, making it the warmest year since records began in 1910. Australian ecosystems and bioregions that have been historically nonflammable, such as wet eucalyptus forests, rainforests, and swamps, are drying out and burning. Continental-scale droughts have been endured for several years, while water levels in key catchment areas, such as the Murray Darling Basin, have been at their lowest levels in a decade. Coupled with record lows in rainfall and soil moisture, and the soaring temperatures and wind speeds of this summer’s weather, the conditions were prime for small fires to become major infernos across large swathes of the country. The CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, projects that Australia will continue to have a warmer climate, reductions in rainfall across several parts of the country, and more extreme natural disturbances. Sadly, this brutal Australian summer might be a preview of things to come more regularly in the future.

Time for a New Narrative

Thomas Berry once wrote, “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.” How can Australians, and the broader global community, tap into the tensions, opportunities and competing priorities of this complex bushfire catastrophe to craft a new narrative that guides us towards more sustainable, resilient, and equitable futures? What might an alternative vision for land stewardship—one that supports and inspires partnerships between grassroots organizations, regional communities, cities, global networks, and with life on the planet—look like?

One of the most powerful strategies for systems transformation is to spread the experiences, leadership, and insights of those on the front lines of climate and social change. By starting with their lived experience, innovative practices, and accumulated wisdom, we can build a transformative politics that replaces denial and denigration with dignity and compassion. Food First’s Lessons from Australia’s Bushfires blog series will elevate the voices, insights and knowledge of Australian farmers and Traditional Owners who inhabit the landscape and are on the frontlines of climate change. They offer complimentary, but differing perspectives on agriculture, nature, and society that are grounded in lived experience and grassroots, community-led solutions. It is the collective experiences, voices, and defined action of people from impacted communities, in Australia and across the globe, that will help shape the vision for long-lasting, impactful, and transformative change.

Cover image from robdownunder (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)