Australia in 2013

The Australian summer of 2013 has been one to remember, and it might turn out to be one that marks a moment of change across the face of our sunburnt and flooding country.

I spent most of the Australia Day long weekend digging trenches at a property belonging to some friends of mine next to Warrambungle National Park,. They had been hit by NSW’s worst fire in a decade two weeks ago. Around 50 people lost their homes in that fire, and those lucky enough to still have their home are surrounded by a landscape that may be permanently altered.

Walking uphill with the 200-metre-long pipe that we’re laying to get the water-supply reconnected at Tibuc, there’s no relief from the sun, as many of the trees on higher ground have lost all their foliage in the furnace. If you walk closer to the gully, the sweet smell of burnt Cyprus pine is replaced with the foul stench of death. There are three wallaby corpses within 30 metres of each other in the gully. They must have tried to shelter from the heat and flames in the cool of the drainage line, but there was not enough to protect them. There are other signs of death: an eastern rosella lies on the ground, apparently unburnt. Did it drop out of the sky because of the intensity of the heat and the lack of oxygen?

Our hosts are Peter Thompson and Meg Leathart. Meg works up at the education centre in the National Park. They’re funny, humane and intelligent people who are intimate with the landscape in which they live. This Australia Day weekend, they are feeding and housing sixteen as we help restore their fresh water supply from the spring that emerges from the mountain behind them. Over dinner, talk turns to climate change and the bush surrounding us. We talk about predictions that the wet forests of northern NSW will give way to open woodland, and how and if the Warrumbungles, at the junction of different ecological influences from north, south, east and west, will recover, alter and evolve in a changing climate.

After two days with mattocks, shovels and pipes, but no phone reception, we head home to Newcastle and pick up the news that more big wet is falling and rising on south east Queensland. Talk on the grapevine is about how our ideas about extreme weather need to change, since parts of south east Queensland have now had three or four “1-in-100-year” floods in the last five years. It rings true with how people have been talking about fire, and the need to change the way we think about that too.

I can’t help thinking about the coal industry. The bare black hills of Coonabarabran are visual reminders of coal, but I don’t need that to bring it to mind. Working, as I do, in a campaign to stop the expansion of export coal from Australia, the coal industry is never far from my mind. Coal exports are Australia’s biggest contribution to climate change, but in spite of this, they are on track to double in size over the next fifteen years.

I wonder often what the industry’s prominent defenders think and feel when they hear Foreign Minister Bob Carr describing climate change as something we are “inflicting on ourselves because of our colossal addition to fossil fuels,” or hear Nicholas Stern lamenting that he underestimated climate change, saying  “this is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential.”

For myself, I feel anguished when I hear these things, but more and more clear of purpose. Having worked this weekend till my hands, arms and back ache, I’m starting work again today putting heartache aside, and tackling the coal expansion head on, because we no longer have the choice. If you want to join us, put your name to the statement, and get involved in the campaign: http://bit.ly/LetsTalkAboutCoal