Australia is burning to ashes, but will it matter?

For all their scale and horror, these fires may have no lasting political effect. After all, we’ve seen it before here in Canada.
Photo: BLMIdaho
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There are, it seems, events that occur but do not happen.

We have just passed through a decade filled with examples of large-scale disasters linked to the climate’s breakdown. Yet, insofar as they had any political effect, it is, chillingly, as though they never took place.

As I write this, uncontrollable wildfires have been burning in Australia for weeks, with a staggering toll: more than 30 lives lost, 3,000 homes burned, an estimated billion animals killed, and many species pushed closer to extinction. The images that have dominated media coverage are harrowing. Once-living ecosystems turned to ash inside annihilating fires. Rescued wildlife in recovery, eyes smoke-swollen, fur replaced with scab and scar. A young joey’s charred remains still caught in a too-unyielding fence.

What has gone largely underreported has been the impact of the fires on Australia’s Indigenous communities, which have included loss of cultural centres, ancient art and artifacts, and sacred sites. As Guardian Indigenous affairs editor Lorena Allam, a descendent of the Gamilaraay and Yawalaraay nations, put it,

“Some of these places have never burned, not once in my lifetime, let alone all at once. Like you, I’ve watched in anguish and horror as fire lays waste to precious Yuin land, taking everything with it – lives, homes, animals, trees – but for First Nations people it is also burning up our memories, our sacred places, all the things which make us who we are. It’s a particular grief, to lose forever what connects you to a place in the landscape.”

All of this is supposed to matter. But will it?

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison seems intent on ensuring that it will not, declaring that the country is already “carrying its load” on the matter of emission reductions. It isn’t. As his country burned, Morrison doubled down on refusing to implement carbon pricing or any other serious climate policy: “I am not going to sell out Australians based on the calls from some to put higher taxes on them or push up their electricity prices or to abandon their jobs and their industries.”

The grim possibility, particularly with the fickle newscycle already having mostly moved on, is that for all their scale and horror even these fires will have no lasting political effect.

After all, we’ve seen it before here in Canada.

Once The Beast ceased

In 2016, Alberta endured a terrifying wildfire nicknamed “The Beast.”

As it burned its way to becoming Canada’s most expensive natural disaster, you could be forgiven for predicting it would matter, that its sweeping and uncontrollable destructiveness would suffice to transform the national conversation about climate change so we might play our part in sparing others from similar wreckage.

The disaster was never permitted to have its full political implications.

Yet by the end of that year, the federal Liberal government would approve two new tar sands pipelines, and is now, not even four years later, considering approving a massive tar sands mining project. Meanwhile, in the very province where the fire struck, there sits a government that is deeply opposed to serious climate action, its premier cheering on that new project as “a wealth bomb ready to detonate.”

All as though the fires never happened.

As with the inferno in Scott Morrison’s Australia today, the disaster was never permitted to have its full political implications. When Elizabeth May, Green party leader at the time, tried to draw the link between climate change and the fires while they still burned, Prime Minister Trudeau was quick to criticize the analysis:

”Any time we try to make a political argument out of one particular disaster, I think it’s a bit of a shortcut that can sometimes not have the desired outcome. There have always been fires. There have always been floods. Pointing at any one incident and saying: ‘This is because of that,’ is neither helpful, nor entirely accurate. We need to separate a pattern over time from any one event. What we are focused on right now on is giving the people of Fort McMurray and the rest of Alberta the kind of support that they need right now and in the months and indeed the years to come.”

And once it was left behind by the newscycle and eventually stopped burning, The Beast would never again have the same potential to factor into our climate politics.

Disastrously apolitical

The strange temporality of climate change makes depoliticizing its disasters truly insidious. Because, unlike the threats our minds are evolved to trigger reactive emotional responses to — the low growl of some unspied creature in the tall grass at our backs, or the sight of enemies amassing too close by — the threat of climate change does not really feel imminent, except in the moments when its disasters arrive, and only if we are allowed to recognize them, right then, for what they are.

These are the moments that responsible political leaders would leverage in order to make policy align with what the science calls for. This makes them the same moments that political elites committed to a stifled climate response have to downplay; once the threat no longer feels imminent, when it feels more remote and abstract, it can be more easily deprioritized.

Activists with #BlackLivesMatters did something similar, solemnly and repeatedly naming those murdered by police.

And depoliticizing disasters can be done in a number of ways. While Morrison is pushing the narrative that Australia is already doing all it should, Trudeau did so by exploiting a problem of science communication. The hesitance to link a disaster to climate change until an attribution study is conducted often plays into the wrong hands or means having to delay talking about it until the emotional and political salience of the disaster has already dissipated.

If these disasters can be so easily depoliticized at the moment when they have their greatest impact, what is there to do to make sure they matter?

The name of disaster

We see one possibility already playing out. Even when they fail to stir action in governments, disasters spur movements to pour the potential of those moments into programs pushing for more ambitious climate action.

But there might be a second way to keep these events in mind, even when their moment has passed, a tactic that repeats across contexts — a sign, perhaps, of its power.

In the wake of a mass shooting, the satirical news site The Onion publishes the same piece: “ ‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens.” Alone, the piece reads like a grim refrain on futility. But reprinted again and again, it has become a quietly angry record of the accumulation of ignored, unanswered loss, a testament to the depths of a system’s unaccountability.

Activists with #BlackLivesMatters did something similar, solemnly and repeatedly naming those murdered by police — Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice — to prevent their deaths from becoming events that occur only to cease to have happened.

We see this, too, in Thomas King’s 2014 novel The Back of the Turtle. Having developed a destructive defoliant for an agribusiness and chemical conglomerate, scientist Gabriel Quinn attempts to come to terms with his role in contributing to “The Ruin,” an environmental catastrophe that has destroyed a First Nation’s reserve and its coastal bay ecosystem. The Ruin becomes for him the latest in a long, largely forgotten, and unanswered pattern of industrial violence visited on the undeserving: Chernobyl. Idaho Falls. Chalk River. Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Rokkasho. Lanyu. Renaissance Island. Bhopal. Grassy Narrows. Church Rock.

In a short while, the newscycle will leave behind the Australian fires for good, and we will not be able to feel the same intense emotions as we did watching them happen in almost real time. And so we must ensure that they take their place in unforgetting memory as still another instance of the wrenching injustice and loss perpetrated by a system that ever more urgently needs to be changed.

Katrina. Haiyan. Harvey. Irma. Maria. Kenneth. Idai. Great Barrier Reef. Ok Glacier. The Beast. Bramble Cay melomys. Australia 2020.

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