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Governments have failed. We must save ourselves from the climate crisis

OPINION: After I lost my home, I realised we can’t rely on politicians. Communities must act to protect their future

Margi Prideaux
4 November 2022, 3.39pm
Forest devastated by wildfire at Cape Conran Coastal Park in Victoria, Australia

Interior Department / Alamy Stock Photo

News from the United Nations that there is ‘no credible pathway in place’ to limit a global rise in temperatures to 1.5°C is echoing across the world. Sameh Shoukry, the chair of the COP27 climate summit that starts this weekend, has warned that current geopolitics may cause even further slippage. The situation could not be more grave. While world leaders prepare to focus on negotiating pledges and loss and damage, more than three billion people already teeter on the cliff edge of losing everything because of climate change.

I am one of those teetering. Climate-driven wildfires destroyed my farm, my home, and more than 211,500 hectares (816 miles2) of the island landscape where I live during the continent-wide Australian ‘Black Summer’ of 2019/20, when wildfires devoured 19,000,000 hectares (73,359 miles2).

On the morning of 4 January 2020, with little more than our cars and our phones, we stood with ash on our faces and smoke in our hair, and a deep knowledge scar of the clear line between the wildfire and our changing climate. In the weeks that followed, we learned that our government had no plan or road map to lift devastated communities from the disaster. Our once-strong community shattered like exploding glass under thermal shock.

We expected to be protected by government adaptation – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long been loudly warning that this scale of impact was on our collective doorstep.

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But my community learned – an experience echoed in the disasters across the world – that our governments are not prepared to mitigate disaster, even as we near the critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and human health.

We now realise that we can no longer rely on the state to ‘rescue us’. While politicians and some activists continue promoting climate hope, survivors are living the long, hard, and often invisible stories of a breach of trust between governments and the governed in the face of climate chaos. Only communities – each with their own risks and their own path – can rationally, and radically, plan for survival.

Time is up. Farming is at risk, and many food-producing regions won’t make it. People’s health is collapsing from extreme stress, debilitating depression, and heat, smoke, and flood exposure. People are now 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather than in years past. Entire populations are vanishing, and biodiversity is being decimated.

People are now 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather than in years past

With pain and empathy, my community has watched the tragedy of government neglect, before and after climate disasters, play out again and again as Pakistan, Nigeria and Australia have flooded, wildfires have scorched dozens of countries, and extreme heatwaves have blanketed large parts of the planet. Ian Fry, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change has spoken of “an intolerable tide of people” harmed by climate change.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, has rightly said, “Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”

Communities must start urgent radical discussions about how to survive the next colossal disaster that threatens their wildlands, their crops and their homes; that risks transport and communications, or stops their income. They must recognise the only path forward is to take their future into their own hands; to audit their climate risks, assess their strengths, and plan, likely beyond the law, for their very survival.

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This might mean fire-breaks (the controlled burning of land to create a clearing that prevents a wildfire’s spread) where they have not been approved. It might mean critical water storage that has been ignored by bureaucrats. It might mean health infrastructure, or maybe roads and tracks carved through wilderness areas to give rescue access and suppress risk. Likely it will include food production that illegally squats on vacant government-owned land. It certainly means establishing communications systems outside of a government’s control. Like the climate protest movement, these are unmistakably radical, direct actions; collective work at a radically local level.

Governments have broken the contract. Communities must step deliberately into the radically local space and consciously adapt to facing a world with more apocalyptic wildfires, killer heat domes, catastrophic rain bombs, lethal floods and mudslides, deadly droughts, and violent sandstorms.

The time for pretty words, hollow targets, and the drip feed comfort of climate hopium is over. We must adapt to survive and save what we can before it is too late.

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