Zali Steggall saw the future, and it freaked her out.
Born and raised in Manly, the barrister decided to bring up her children in the Northern Beaches too. She was up close when her local member declared, multiple times, that the "so-called settled science of climate change" was "absolute crap".
The 46-year-old has lived many lives; she'd dedicated her time as a barrister to commercial, sports and family law. In her past, she'd been a Winter Olympian. She saw the damage that certain actions - or lack thereof - were having on a future where her children could embrace the opportunities that came their way, as she'd been able to.
Like the slalom skiing Steggall was known for, technique and time charge hand-in-hand in the fight against climate tipping points. One wrong move would set the team back on the leaderboard, but instead of losing a medal, Australians would lose their land, their water, even their air.
This is not a race Steggall can afford to lose.
As soon as she unclasped Tony Abbott's grip on Warringah, the Independent MP began to work on her one big project. The Climate Act. In reality, it's called Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020. On Monday, it will be tabled in parliament. If passed, it will lock in long-term commitment to federal climate action, regardless of which party controls the Cabinet.
More than 100 organisations have signed a joint letter addressed to all Members of Parliament, urging them to support the Bill.
We are calling on all members of the Federal Parliament to consider and adopt this bill in the national interest. We must ensure that Australia has a comprehensive, bipartisan law to address the challenge of our times. If we get this right, we can ensure, a safe and prosperous future for all," the letter says, which is signed by companies including Atlassian, and Tesla.
Its ultimate goal is to mandate an Australia-wide Net Zero emissions target by 2050, facilitated by National Adaptation Plans and National Risk Assessments, Technology Readiness Assessments and an independent advisory commission. Steggall knows that after what happened last summer, and the more frequent and extreme natural disasters that it indicated will come, commitment to carbon neutrality is "long overdue".
The Black Summer scorched over 10 million hectares across Australia, killed 34 people and nearly three billion animals, and destroyed over 3000 homes and 7000 outbuildings. In May 2020, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements heard that 80 per cent of Australians were negatively affected by bushfire haze. A further 445 deaths and 4713 hospital admissions were related to the smoke. Otherwise inexplicable health conditions in newborns and pregnant women have been linked to the smoke's toxicity by doctors, with one woman's placenta reflecting that of a pack-a-day smoker's - even though she had never taken a single drag of nicotine.
Estimates in January 2020 placed the cost of lost income due to the fires between $1.5 and $2.5 billion, with some economists projecting all costs, including lost lives, property, income and injuries, to reach between $100 billion and $230 billion. The Coalition pledged an initial $2 billion to the National Bushfire Recovery Fund, with Scott Morrison vowing to "meet every cost that needs to be met".
Last week, the bushfire royal commission confirmed that climate change influenced the Black Summer's unprecedented extreme fire weather conditions.
Climate change can't strike the match, but it can prime the wick. Fire, for all its gravitas, is simple to satisfy; for mega-blazes to occur, all that is needed is a consistent fuel source that's dry enough to burn, weather conditions that favour fire spread and an ignition source, all of which the Black Summer had in droves.
With greenhouse gas emissions raising temperatures, which, when coupled with lower rainfall, creates the perfect weather and fuel conditions for fire to spread, catastrophic fire conditions are set to become more frequent and intense due to already "locked in" global warming over the next two decades.
Josh Frydenberg's October 2020 budget met every cost except that of climate change.
While $5 million was allocated for electric vehicles, and the 10-year $1.4 billion funding for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency was reiterated, $50 million was confirmed to develop carbon capture and storage, as was $52.9 million for the expansion of Australia's gas industry - signalling a move away from Net Zero by 2050, and, to Steggall, the Climate Act's necessity.
Meraiah Foley, 45, doesn't know what she would do if the Black Summer comes again. Between November 2019 and January 2020, Foley's 16.2-hectare property was hit by the Currowan and North Black Range fires seven times. Bordered by the Budawang National Park, there was no memory of that area ever having burned due to its high average rainfall.
By the seventh time their farm was hit, Foley had nothing left to give. NSW RFS was stretched thin, with the bulk of fire defence falling on the shoulders of residents and 'mosquito armies', equipped with MacGyvered, jerry-rigged car-slash-tractor-slash-truck-cum-fighting units. Fire does not unroll a doona when the moon rises, which meant that neither could Foley - for two and a half months.
"It just kept coming back and coming back", Foley sighed. "The fire came back across ground that had already been burnt, it was that hot and that intense and that relentless, nobody had ever seen anything like that."
Foley remembers praying for the wind to change directions and carry the fire away. But Braidwood is a community where everyone knows each other, which means that when you pray for the wind to change direction, chances are the fire would be pushed towards a loved one's property line. To have a clear conscience, insurmountable grief is not something you can wish on someone else.
Patrick Barrie, 61, struggled to breathe in Bega on New Year's Eve, when the sky turned from grey, to blood orange, to black, all before sunset. Originally from Sydney's Northern Beaches, Barrie moved to Bega 12 years ago for a change of scenery. Bega Valley is known for its lush surrounds, so when it singed, Barrie thought it was time to do something about it. Not all of the Bega community necessarily agrees.
On September 25, the Global Day of Climate Action, Barrie, the local Climate Action Mobilisation chapter and school strikers were met with blaring horns, sneers, jeers, and middle fingers. Bega's climate activists lined the main thoroughfare with signs saying "Fund Our Future, Not Gas" and "Ecology or Economy: Why Not Both?".
Those who were ignored or yelled at were considered lucky - some activists were getting death threats - and it's this point that has Bega's protesters confused. They were there when the apocalypse came, they choked on the smoke, they've expressed their fear of the upcoming fire seasons, so why don't they believe in climate change?
The intersection between climate science and emotion is, according to Blanche Verlie, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute, not to be underestimated or dismissed. While the science is, in some ways, basic, it also deals with complex issues that are hard to comprehend in ways other than fear. It's this fear that Carol Ride, founder and executive director of Psychology for a Safe Climate, has seen manifest as skepticism or denial; holding onto misinformation can be comforting to those that are overwhelmed with the thought of fighting something that's so troubling.
It's on a government level, Verlie muses, where denial, whatever the reason, is dangerous. Not acknowledging the problem doesn't mean that it'll disappear - rather, it ensures that in the future, instead of implementing well-planned strategies, rash decisions will have to be made to safely and adequately support people emotionally, economically and physically.
What's frustrating for Steggall is the fact that the Coalition could have stimulated and future-proofed the economy through long-term investments that don't raise environmental and health risks. Bushfire commissioners emphasised that minimising or avoiding risk is more cost-effective than a reactive response to disasters. Similarly, a report by Deloitte Access Economics warns that unless Australia addresses climate change soon, 880,000 jobs and $3 trillion could be lost by 2070.
To bushfire survivors like Foley, whose whole sense of safety and security has been compromised, vaguely gesticulating to the root cause is not enough.
This is exactly what Steggall is working to rectify, as she stands, with the support of Australian Business Council, Atlassian, the Climate Council, Australian Energy Council and WWF Australia, together with former United Nations climate chief, Christiana Figueres, Australian economist Ross Garnaut, American climate scientist Michael Mann and over 86,000 Australians, against the rhetoric and decisions enacted by those in government who "will be dead" when climate change reckons.
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