As we prepare this edition of Tinteán, Australia is going through a crisis that makes part of the country seem like a war zone. Most of the editorial team live in Melbourne and have been spared the anxieties of the East coast fires, as well as those in South Australia and now the destruction in Gippsland and the border areas between the two most populous states. And this is not to mention Queensland, West Australia and Tasmania.
We are aware too of the air quality problems in Canberra and Sydney. ‘Forget Calcutta and Mumbai and Beijing,’ we are told, ‘Canberra has now the world’s worst air pollution.’ Please, don’t mention irony: this is not the time or the place.
We wonder what our families and relatives in Ireland think. Australia, we told them, is the land of sun and sand, of open verandahs and year-round barbeques, of winter footy and summer cricket. Now the beaches are for evacuation, the verandahs need protection from flying embers, umpires have to decide whether it is safe to start a game. Meanwhile, countries around the world are looking at us with a mixture of pity and scorn, both deserved.
The size of the devastation is usually put in numbers of hectares, figures that mean little especially to those brought up on acres. To give an idea, on January 5, the ABC quoted a figure of about 840 000 hectares lost to fires in Victoria – gone, burnt out, dead earth; that is an area bigger than Cork city and county, the largest in Ireland. Many individual fires would engulf an area half the size of a small Irish county. And let us remember that while it may be at its worst right now, it has been going on since August.
Australia is fortunate in having a long tradition of men and women who leave their paid work for extended periods to give time to managing the summer fire season. This may not be unique to Australia, but one of your editors confesses to having made a nuisance of himself more than once by asking if these people were really unpaid volunteers. If patriotism means anything, it is what is represented by these volunteers.
A 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body set up by the UN and the World Meteorological Organisation, said among other things that changes in climate would result in problems, ‘particularly increased deaths, disease and injury due to heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts’, highlighting Australia as one country at risk. That report and the science behind it should have led to serious changes in the way that all countries dealt with climate change; instead, it allowed cranks and charlatans to make their brief but loud arguments that what was happening was merely cyclical.
The science is clear: if we continue on our present path, then catastrophes like this are going to re-occur with increasing severity as the century wears on. While it is not the place or the function of a publication like Tinteán to comment on those who diminish or deny the role of climate change in what is happening, we strongly urge a plan for the future that prioritises science over economics. We are conscious that most of our readership is of a particular vintage, essentially the demographic responsible for what is happening to world climate. For that reason, we applaud the attempts being made by young people to take a lead in persuading world leaders that they have a responsibility to our little planet.
Meanwhile, we can only hope for a quick end to the fires and we wish our readers, particularly those living in the troubled areas, a less stressful remainder for 2020.