Home TravelOceaniaAustralia What the Australia fires can teach us about forced migration and empathy

What the Australia fires can teach us about forced migration and empathy

by Ellie Hopgood

As I’m sure is the case with for anyone with a social media account and even a vague interest in current events, I have been following the Australia fires in earnest. There is no doubt that these fires are an abject tragedy, and should inspire at least as much global mourning and newly-galvanised action as Notre Dame’s fire last year, if not far, far more. Twenty-three people have died. Half a billion animals have been killed. 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere, which is more than most countries’ annual emissions, and half of Australia’s total emissions from last year. I like to think I would be as invested in this sad, scary situation regardless of where it was taking place, but this is happening in Australia, a country where half of my family and many of my friends live. It’s also a country to which I hold a passport, though the thought that that makes me feel more strongly about these fires is weird, given my feelings on nationalism in general. My friend in Sydney is sharing photos of the beaches she loves enveloped in smog, my grandparents are stuck inside due to the 40+ Celsius temperatures but unable to use their cooling systems because it floods the house with smoke and my aunt is looking for masks for her and my cousins. It’s sad and stressful to think of anyone being displaced – or worse, killed – by these enormous, roaring fires, but it’s especially nerve-wracking when you know that your family members might be, literally, in the line of fire. As climate change worsens, these extreme weather events will only become more frequent and likely, putting millions more people at risk (to say nothing of the millions of people who are already at a heightened risk from natural disasters, living on fault lines or in the USA’s tornado valley, and who deal with these fears every day).

Why is this happening? The short answer: climate change. The longer answer is the Australia is a very hot country already, and climate change tends to exacerbate weather events in all extremes. Wet places get wetter, hot, dry places get hotter and drier. Australia has been having an unusually hot summer, something that will only become more frequent as we pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that extra heat has caused plenty of things in the arid landscape to catch fire. The whole landscape is basically tinder – this summer has been the driest summer noted in 120 years, since records began – so the fires spread rapidly, soon becoming infernos that even the most skilled firefighters can’t combat. People are hoping for rain, but in most places, rain isn’t forecast for months. In many places, you just have to hope that the fires will burn themselves out.

Yes, Australia has always dealt with bush fires. In the context of the world’s diverse climates, Australia is a hot, dry place, and hot, dry places are vulnerable to spontaneous fires. But climate change makes these events more likely and more devastating when they do occur. Given that Australia’s summer temperatures are breaking records – and given everything we know about our changing climate – it’s probably not a coincidence that Australia’s hottest, driest summer on record has also resulted in its most dangerous, widespread infernos. And of course, we have barely begun to head into true climate catastrophe. Perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking of this as the hottest summer on record, but rather, the coolest summer for the foreseeable future. Each increasingly hot Australian summer will bring worse and worse fires, until… what? The country is uninhabitable? Until everyone has fallen victim to the fires or got the hell off that burning island?

As Bill McKibben outlines in his book Falter, climate change actually shrinks the world. Not the planet itself, this hunk of rock hurtling through space, but the area that is liveable for humanity. As the seas rise and deserts heat up, vast swathes of the planet will become unliveable. We will have the same exploding population, getting bigger every second, crammed into a much smaller area of land. It’s going to be a big change, not least because of the effect it will have on migration.

The politics of immigration have come to fore over the past few years, with rich countries turning their backs on refugees fleeing conflict and poverty. It has elicited dehumanising language from world leaders about “swarms” of migrants and stoked hatred among many, who boast about national pride, fortified borders and racist walls. Rich, Western nations have had the opportunity to reach out and help people in need, but most of them have turned their backs. The privileged world has made a powerful statement: if disaster strikes, in whatever form that takes, you’re on your own. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has always been wrapped up in racism, xenophobia and white nationalism, which I’m sure makes it easy for many to turn away from the suffering of those with a different skin colour and a different native tongue, full of hateful rationalisations. But what about when the disaster occurs in a predominantly white, English-speaking country? Suddenly, we have Australians fleeing from their homes – many of which then burned to the ground – and sheltering on beaches to avoid the flames. We are now seeing climate migrants with white skin and a strong home currency, people who might otherwise find it easy to choose to relocate. Jeremy Clarkson – I don’t know why Jeremy Clarkson is now offering climate commentary, but here we are – concluded his controversial column about the bush fires by inviting the Australians to move to the UK, even going so far as to say “come home.” Well, being invited straight back across the oceans is a kindness afforded to almost no one in times of stress, showing you how far an imperial legacy will still get you. But regardless, even if Jeremy’s up for the it, the UK government almost certainly wouldn’t be. Borders tend to be closed to refugees, which is easy for anti-immigration politicians to feel good about for as long as they think they will never be fleeing an emergency, an assumption these fires have upended.

Because of course, while low-lying island nations like Kiribati are particularly vulnerable to climate change, and countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria and Haiti are all likely to be hit harder than most places, it is not just developing nations that are risk from climate change. Miami, New York and Bangkok are all high on the list, as is Australia, obviously. We will be seeing millions of climate refugees over the next decade, from a host of different places, some rich, many poor. Perhaps this image of people who have historically been protected from the kind of things that cause displacement sitting on beaches, desperately needing somewhere to go, will wake everyone up to what’s at stake here. It’s sad that it might take a rich nation feeling the brutal impact of climate change and forced migration to do something, but maybe that’s where we’re at. How would you want the world to receive you in a time of crisis? While there are very real forces that protect some and marginalise others, that is no guarantee in the face of climate change. We should be treating others, forced to migrate for whatever reasons, as we would want to helped in a moment of true devastation. That is how we should be treating everyone, because, as Australia makes clear, it could be anyone. It could be you.

I have made a donation to the Australian Red Cross, which is supporting thousands of people in evacuation and recovery centres around the country, and to a GoFundMe dedicated to displaced First Nations Communities that need to rebuild. I have also made a donation to Choose Love, which supports refugees everywhere, as it is not just displaced Australians who continue to need support, though these other stories will see a fraction of the news coverage.

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