Australia is on fire. Who is to blame for the millions of acres burnt to cinder, the lives lost and properties destroyed, the almost half billion animals killed?Australia is a major producer and user of fossil fuel. Australia Energy Update 2018, from Australian Government’s Department of Environment and Energy (energy.gov.au), says coal, oil and gas accounted for 94 percent of Australia’s primary energy mix in 2016-17.
Sixty-three percent of electricity was generated from coal. Out of this, 11 percent was from brown coal, a source of energy environmental activists have long opposed due to its harmful health and ecological effects. Coal mining releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is one of the main causes of global heating.
Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia, brought a lump of coal to Parliament in 2017. He sang the virtues of coal and its links to Australian prosperity, and said: “Those opposite have an ideological, pathological fear of coal. There’s no word for ‘coalophobia’ officially, Mr. Speaker… but that’s the malady that afflicts those opposite.” Morrison, who critics say also cut funding for firefighters, was later seen enjoying his holiday in Hawaii as Australia went up in flames. Volunteer firefighters died trying to contain the massive fires.
Economic “growth” almost always leads to more stress on the environment, leading to worse economic conditions for people in the long run. The Australian economy grew by two percent in 2016-17 to reach $1.7 trillion. Energy consumption was 6,146 petajoules in 2016-2017 for 24.6 million people. To compare, Nepal with a population of 27 million consumed 428 petajoules in 2010. Assuming two million Nepalis are working abroad at any given time, and the population being roughly equal in size, an average Australian citizen uses 14 times more energy than a Nepali.
It is clear Nepal needs to increase its energy use if we are to run industries and be self-sufficient in articles of daily consumption. But does Australia need to reduce its energy levels? Is there a balance between the First World and Third World that could be struck, which puts us somewhere in the middle?
Australia also has large tracts of industrial farming lands which are saturated with glyphosate, a herbicide first created by Monsanto and now sold by Bayer. Glyphosate is used to desiccate crops after they’ve been cut. This means it’s an agent that dries out organic matter. Now imagine millions of acres full of grain and stalks saturated with this substance, drying out the land across an entire continent. How could it not catch fire?
Then there’s Bolsonaro’s Brazil, encouraging cattle farmers to set the Amazon on fire. Australia and Brazil are both in the Southern Hemisphere. In the map, they appear to be separated only by an ocean. In other words, they are upwind and downwind from each other. Without doubt, hot winds of Brazil’s Amazon fires played a hand in temperature increases in Australia. The firestorms look more like tornados than forest fires, which suggest heated air currents.
Last but not least, there’s eucalyptus. Although the literature assures us that eucalyptus is native to Australia, are there plantations that have been put together in neat rows by human hands which have dried out groundwater? In Nepal, this tree was introduced in the 80’s by the Australian aid agency. It quickly became known for depleting groundwater levels for miles around. A similar situation developed in India where eucalyptus had been planted in plantations. Is there human agency behind the reshaping of seemingly virgin land which created conditions perfect for water table depletion and drought?
Poignant photographs of children staring at dead koalas and kangaroos are making their rounds on Twitter. Many species of animals, birds and insects may never recover their population and go extinct after this cataclysmic event. For those who are children or in their teens, there is a sense of a world lost which can never be recovered.
Which is why it was enraging to see this tweet from Exxon Mobil Australia: “Stay safe and have fun this new year, from all of us at ExxonMobil Australia.”
One person responded: “Jesus Christ this is pure evil.” Another said: “Exxon needs to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Blood is on your hands. #GreenNewDeal now.”
And this may be the only way to respond to this apocalyptic fire which has devastated an entire continent. Can ecological crimes finally be taken to the World Court of Justice, as another Twitter respondent suggested? Are the actions of big corporations not leading to genocide in many places, with people being affected in mass numbers by climate triggered events?
In Australia, people are shifting out of homes and neighborhoods they may never return to in their lifetime. It will take decades for forests to revive and restore. Where will all these fire-affected people go? Who will help them rebuild their lives? Surely it won’t be the fossil fuel corporations who made billions of dollars in profit, but paid zero tax to the country.
A sobering note to begin the new decade with, but we must remember Nepal is one of the most climate change-affected countries in the world. Our people are also being displaced, through the slow depleting of glaciers, ice and spring melt in the Himalayas. Who is to blame?