« En Australie, nous devrons faire le deuil de l’avenir » (on Australia’s devastating bushfires)

(Published in Le Monde, 10 January 2020)

It feels like the apocalypse has come. A national catastrophe is unfolding, with each day bringing new shocks. ‘The sky was on fire.’ ‘So fast and so angry.’ ‘It was like a warzone.’ These are some of the words used to capture the ferocity of the firestorms by those fighting them.

The wildfires have been burning now for two months, across a landscape already parched by drought and trees wilting under premature heatwaves. The forested area razed so far is six times larger than that of the Amazon fires in 2019. An area the size of Belgium has been reduced to ash.

The south coast of New South Wales, packed at this time of year with families on holiday, has been evacuated as one town after another is razed. In Victoria, thousands have been trapped on a fire-ringed peninsula and the navy has been mobilised to rescue them by sea.

It’s been estimated that 500 million animals have died already in New South Wales alone. Koala colonies have been wiped out. Foxes and feral cats wait at the firefronts for small mammals and reptiles to flee into their jaws.

Canberra, so far spared the flames, has for weeks been blanketed by thick, choking smoke blown in from the enormous fires to the east and southeast. For many days the capital city has had the highest pollution index of any city in the world, higher than New Delhi and Beijing, with pollution often ten or twenty times higher than the level deemed hazardous.

Saturday was the hottest day since records began, reaching 44°C in Canberra. In Penrith, on the outskirts of Sydney, the temperature reached a crushing 49°C, so extreme it takes the breath away merely to think about it.

These fires are freakish. Firefighters with long experience say they’ve never seen anything like it. We don’t have the concepts or experience to grasp what is happening. Those who are not fighting the fires, or providing support, watch the images mesmerised. Bushfires in previous summers have provided a spectacle to be watched safely from loungerooms in the cities. But not this time.

The spectacle has become a beast rampaging across the country. The firestorms create their own weather as they roll through the forests. Those who stay to defend their homes from an oncoming firestorm tell of towering walls of flame raining embers, setting everything alight. The roar is like a freight train and the animals are screaming.

Australians who have been taking notice of the world’s climate scientists are looking on with dread. This is what we have feared would happen; but we expected it to take another two or three decade before it felt like the apocalypse. The future has arrived, and we are filled with trepidation for what the years ahead will bring.

It’s too awful to feel vindicated. Yet it’s impossible to suppress an incipient rage against the political leaders and coal lobbyists who have only pretended to take the scientific warnings seriously or dismissed them as fantasies.

These fires are sending us a message. “This is what the Earth does when humans burn fossil fuels and make the planet hotter.”

We’ve been told for years that, among wealthy nations, Australia is the most vulnerable to the impacts of a warming climate. Yet the Australian government is dominated by climate science deniers who will not concede that the infernos are coming more often and with more fury because of global heating. It has stood in the way of deeper cuts to global carbon emissions and is actively encouraging the development of the huge Adani coal mine in Queensland.

I used to believe that only catastrophes manifestly caused by climate change would break through the psychological walls of denial. But I was mistaken. It’s now clear that the deniers would sooner see the whole country destroyed than admit they have been wrong. Their houses could burn down, their families incinerated, and still they would find a way of denying the evidence of climate change.

Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison, who was forced by public anger to return from a holiday in Hawaii as the country burned, is deploying all of the skills he learned in his previous profession as a marketing executive to blame factors other than climate change.

Early in 2019, twenty-three former chiefs of fire and emergency services formed a coalition and sought a meeting with the prime minister to warn him of the impending calamity and the need to prepare. The extremes are now far more extreme, they say, and they are frightened.

But their meeting requests were ignored.

So what now? Once the fires have burnt themselves out and the nation begins to pull itself back together, it’s hard to know how the trauma will express itself. There will be gratitude for the firefighters who fought to the point of exhaustion. There will be help for the traumatised and determination to reconstruct shattered lives.

But we can also expect an outpouring of disgust at those political leaders who failed us so utterly, and a surge in activism demanding change.

Beneath it all we will be mourning. Mourning for those who have died, for the communities destroyed, for the magnificent forests lying charred and silent, and for the uncountable birds and animals incinerated or starving to death because their habitat is gone.

And we will be grieving for something harder to define, the death of the future. These fires, like climate change-induced disasters around the world, are fracturing our ways of thinking about the world. Somehow, we must begin to imagine a new kind of future on a warming Earth, one that is increasingly unfriendly to human habitation.


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