In March this year, I sat on the summit of one of my favourite hills, Mt Blowhard, and watched the fires just to the south, which were in the Dargo River valley and burning up onto the Dargo High Plains. Already a mosaic of burnt and reburnt forest, now characterised by the grey trunks of burnt trees, I knew that this would be another wave of impact on these mountain forests. Some parts of north east VIC have now burnt more than three times in a bit over a decade. Scientists warn about the loss of alpine ash and snow gum if the frequency of fire continues to increase.
In April I walked into the headwaters of the Mersey River valley in central Tasmania. The 2016 fires had burnt long sections of the valley. What had been closed forests of silver wattle and pomaderris, with a sparse overstory of white top ash, was now a mad blaze of bracken and dead trees, with the next stage of coloniser understory plants, like the guitar bush, starting to emerge. These damp eucalypt forests harbour emerging rainforest, with species like Myrtle Beech in the understory, waiting to close in the canopy as the wattles age and die. These trees are easily killed by fire and recover very slowly.
A bit later I heard a news story about bee keepers in Tasmania who were on the brink of bankruptcy because the leatherwood trees hadn’t been able to produce much nectar this year. The rainforests were so dry the Leatherwood flowers were ‘wilting’.
Everywhere you look, it’s the same story. Each taken on its own could just be a co-incidence. Yes, we’ve always had fires in the mountains. Yes, we’ve always had times of drought. But taken collectively, and seen through the lens of climate change science, it is clear that the world we know is changing before our eyes.
Earlier this year I was in the central Rocky Mountains of Colorado where, in some ranges, up to 80% of the spruce was dead because of beetle infestation, which is linked to climate change (warmer winters mean the beetles aren’t killed off). I remember reading a quote from the manager of a small ski resort, who said this was simply ‘the hand that mother nature had dealt us’. The level of outright denial, especially from people whose livelihoods rely on healthy landscapes, continues to bewilder me. In some ways, this obstinate denial in the face of overwhelming evidence, is as depressing as the damage of climate change itself.
Those of us who are paying attention are living in a world that is getting steadily poorer. The famous ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote that if you study ecology, the price you pay is to ‘walk through a world of wounds’. Once you see it, you see it everywhere.
The greatest threat to the mountains we love is climate change – it is driving hotter, drier summers and longer fire seasons, it is reducing snowpack and shortening the ski season. It will start to drive species that rely on alpine habitats into extinction (just look at the impacts of this summer’s drought on bogong moth populations and hence mountain pygmy possums). The Alps are the headwaters of the key river systems in the south east and less rain equals less water downstream.
Climate change can feel overwhelming. It’s a global issue that requires a co-ordinated global response. It can feel pointless to do anything. There are big wheels moving, and each of us are just small cogs in a massive system of politics, cause and effect. We are also already locked into substantial warming, and hence impacts, because of previous greenhouse pollution. Some days it can feel hopeless.
We also know that we can head off climate catastrophe. But time is short if we want to do so. This means a radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions at all levels – from the individual to the global. This is primarily about politics, about us breaking the power of the fossil fuel companies and the conservative climate change deniers who block action to reduce emissions. Remember that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. They’re making vast profits off us and they want us all to continue with ‘business as usual’ so these profits can be sustained. They have consistently shown that they will not transform voluntarily. They have to be forced to act.
So, while we need to take action in our lives, we really need to apply political pressure on those who are causing the problem and blocking action.
Don’t get depressed. Get active.
‘The cure for depression is action
Every one of us has to step up and do what you can, according to what your resources are.’
- Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia
Here’s a few ideas
Federal election – oh crap. What now? Australians decided to re-elect a party that is controlled by climate deniers. Now the federal ALP have effectively stepped in the same camp by approving the massive Adani coal mine.
The next three years will be tough. Lots of destructive things will happen, and we are likely to lose some existing protections of wild places.
Now is not the time to accept defeat. Now is the time to raise our voice and be smart and strategic in how we campaign.
Support one of the climate change or environmental groups. If you can, donate. These groups are up against huge corporations and need all the help they can get. Generally, the grassroots, community based groups give you the best return on your donation. I work for Friends of the Earth, and I know FoE does a lot on very little, if you feel inspired to donate.
Tipping Point (a FoE campaign) continues to support the development of a thriving grassroots movement opposing new fossil fuel projects.
Lock the Gate continues to work with regional communities and traditional owners to oppose coal and gas projects.
Protect Our Winters (POW) is mobilising the winter snowsports community to get active on climate issues.
Extinction Rebellion is a new and growing movement that is seeking to mobilise 3.5% of the population to achieve system change and respond to the climate emergency we find ourselves in.
Don’t fund the companies who are funding climate change. Check the Market Forces website for the banks and superannuation funds that still invest in fossil fuels and how you can shift your money to the most ethical investors (top left corner: ‘Fossil fuel money’).
Support renewable energy. If you don’t already purchase renewable energy for your home, workplace or community group, this is a really practical thing you can do to reduce emissions and help drive investment in renewable energy. Check the green electricity guide for ideas on the best options.
Hassle the resorts. If you ski or ride in resorts, then ask your local hill what they’re doing to reduce their carbon footprint. The first and most obvious action is to shift their lifting and snow making operations from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Look them up online and send them a message, saying you ski/ ride there and wonder if they have shifted to 100% renewable energy yet.
Let people know. Mobilise your friends. Then push them to do more. People trust their friends and family and are more likely to listen to you then the media. Get them to post a selfie in their favourite place and remind the government that they want to see meaningful action on climate change. Or ask them to sign this open letter, and use this hashtag #PlacesWorthProtecting
Those flights do matter. For many of us who love to travel, our flights can be the single biggest contribution to our ‘carbon footprint’. Flying less really is a meaningful way to reduce emissions. Check this interactive map which will tell you what the carbon impact of your flight is. Check this interesting piece on the environmental impacts of flying.
Get out amongst it. Remember to get out into the places that feed your spirit.
‘It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. Explore the forests, encounter the Grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome place’.
– Edward Abbey
[PHOTOS: Gondwana still lives! Heading in towards Cathedral Mountain, central TAS, April 2019]