Smoke Signals: Reflections on Australia’s Climate Crisis from Afar

Like most Australian schoolkids of my era, I learned a love poem, an ode to our harsh and beautiful land. It was penned by a homesick Australian returned to England’s green and pleasant hills, and the second stanza is the poetic anthem, repeated in airline ads, tweaked for book titles, inscribed in expats hearts. I love a sunburnt country / A land of sweeping plains… it transports me instantly to the grey-blue-greens of eucalyptus bushland.

In fifth grade, always one to play with words, the first lines came back to me, flipped in intent: I burned my sun-loved country / I swept away her plains. With every bushfire, this version resurfaces unprompted, a subconscious voice for the sadness and fear I feel for the wild country of my youth.

Having lived most of my adult years overseas, I have been detached from the daily evolution of Australia’s culture, economy and political landscape, both the good and the bad. I was absent as the nation became more diverse, as the indigenous owners of the land were recognized, and as Melbourne blossomed as home of the world’s leading coffee shop culture. I was also away as the global financial crisis unfolded, property prices skyrocketed, and foreign investment boomed. My knowledge of Australia is cemented in the era when I left, and the politics of my new home is consuming — exhausting — enough that I haven’t kept up with the current prime minister, the political parties and the issues of the day.

But the news I haven’t escaped is climate news. Internet news feeds alert me to the worst crises: massive bushfires, devastating floods, coral reef collapse. Calls home add familial context: Lake Boga, where I spent my childhood mucking around on boats, completely dried up in 2008. Marysville, scene of a family vacation, was destroyed by explosive fires on a 2009 day so hot I checked three sources before I believed it. And the tales from home gathered political context too: my mother’s friend’s husband photographed naked to protest Adani’s coal mine, my friend working to avert large-scale blackouts that left South Australia in the dark. I get snippets of an incomplete story.

As one of the few Australians most of my friends know, I become an interpreter, adding perspective to the little news that makes its way into global headlines — the parochial reputation of the U.S. news machine is well deserved. I contextualize the devastating Black Saturday fires by describing Melbourne as the Portland of Australia; cloudy, drizzly, occasional hot days but rarely breaching 35C (95F), inconceivably reaching over 45C (115F) that day. I describe how Australia is the size of the Lower 48 states (mainland America excluding Alaska), but the highest mountain ranges are half the height of the Rockies and on the wrong side of the country to create the weather to make the interior fertile, leaving two thirds like Nevada.

I viewed the news and shared stories through the dated lens of the country I left. I’m realizing that in some cases, my perspective about both climate and the politics of climate is just plain wrong. A few years ago, I told friends at a dinner party how climate change wasn’t denied in Australia because the stark reality of extreme weather made it beyond debate. I talked about how the political system was so much saner because there was less corporate money in politics, shorter election cycles and, with mandatory voting, no need to rile up extreme views to convince people to come to the polls. I spread what I now know is a myth: that the ends of the political spectrum were not as far apart in Australia, the political stances less skewed by business interests.

The most recent fires tearing through New South Wales and southern Queensland prompted a late-night news binge. Usually, such efforts are fact-finding missions: where are the fires, are they under control, are my friends and family far from harm? But this time, after hearing a former fire chief’s impassioned warning about fire risk following his time at the fires that recently ravaged the Californian counties near my now-home, I fell into the rabbit hole of listening to the politicians and political commentators putting a spin on the unfolding tragedy. While my family had talked about the devolution of political discourse, it was shocking to realize that the divisions are every bit as deep as in the United States and the climate truths are as deeply cloaked by political language as over here, the talking points taken from the same playbook. My naïve idealization of a better system came face-to-face with incendiary comments about ‘greenies’ being responsible for the fires and diversionary thoughts-and-prayers rhetoric.

Saddened by the politicized arguments about rural firefighting budgets, fearful for not only the wide brown lands but also for the families that call it home, the rest of the poem’s stanza came to me, laced with blame. I finally heard who owned the voice, the tense first person in this version of the poem: the politicians denying the cause of the devastation, avoiding the action that could temper it:

I burned my sun-loved country,

I swept away her plains,

Mined rugged mountain ranges,

Wrought droughts and flooding rains.

I sold her children’s future,

Inflicted cruelty,

My beauty is your terror

My climate policy.

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Prefer sun over shale, clean over coal, forks over knives, words over wars, wit over waffle. Climate communicator. Aussie in US. MBA, MS Sustainability, LEED.

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