Australia is on fire. An entire continent – virtually the size of the United States – is in the throes of an environmental disaster. Lives are being lost and livelihoods are under threat. Rural communities are hardest hit, but urban populations are also badly affected. By now, we’ve all seen graphic images of the devastation, including heart-wrenching pictures of badly burnt, desperately thirsty koalas and other iconic Australian species.
It isn’t only native wildlife that is affected. Within the wider tragedy, smaller dramas are unfolding. We have just learned from one of our partners in Australia that several captive-bred Sumatran tiger cubs at a small zoo in New South Wales narrowly escaped incineration. With a mere 400 of these magnificent big cats left in their native forests, the loss of even a single individual – wild or otherwise – would have been a massive blow.
But the takeaway message, surely, is that this unfolding catastrophe is not just jeopardising the future of Australia’s unique wildlife – and undermining vital conservation programmes that are helping to safeguard critically endangered species from elsewhere.
We are witnessing a climate crisis of global proportions, and the raging bushfires are merely the latest – and, to date, the most arresting – manifestation of that planetary emergency. This has been a cataclysm waiting to happen for many years, a scenario repeatedly predicted by a long line of climate experts – and repeatedly brushed aside by successive governments.
In other parts of the world too, the consequences of climate inaction have been all too evident: unprecedented forest fires in Siberia and the Amazon; Venice flooded by the highest tides in 60 years; extreme weather events killing and displacing thousands in Mozambique, the US and Japan; not to mention the piecemeal – but cumulatively devastating – impacts on biodiversity, human health, food and water security.
There is little doubt that 2020 will be a pivotal year for the planet. It is vital that we capitalise on the momentum created by the actions of global movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. But the clock is ticking.
The longest UN climate conference in history has just ended in deadlock, with key countries (including Australia) seemingly content to kick the climate can further down the road. The disconnect between the images of a continent in flames and the intransigence of those in power could not be starker. This was another missed opportunity. And we’re rapidly running out of road.
Our thoughts go out to our friends and partners in Australia, but the tragedy unfolding there concerns us all. The human consequences of our failure to face up to the reality of climate change are there for all to see.