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The Bushfire Season Has Started —What We Learned Last Summer About Making Necessary Change

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It feels like just yesterday that Australians choked through a thick blanket of bushfire smoke as they made their morning commutes to work.

For months on end, the views beyond our windows disappeared — sometimes almost entirely, as red and black smoke replaced the blue skies we were used to waking up to. And that’s merely how summer felt for those of us who witnessed the bushfire’s effects from the safety of our cities.

For rural communities, the impacts were felt much, much harder. Rural towns packed essentials in a hurry and left everything behind. Communities sheltered where they could, hoping against all odds that their homes and business would be spared.

Farmers and property owners, those who weren’t so lucky, are still now rebuilding after losing their homes to uncontrollable flames. And they’re preparing for the possibility it could all happen again.

When the bushfire season eventually came to a conclusion, over 17 million hectares of land had been burned, more than one billion mammals, birds and reptiles perished, 3,094 houses had burned to the ground, and 33 people tragically died.

While bushfires have always been a part of our Australian summer, Dr. Jenny Newell, project manager of climate change initiatives at the Australian Museum, says the 2019/2020 bushfire season was anything but normal.

“The longer, more intense fire seasons we are now experiencing in Australia are not normal,” she tells The Latch.

“Climate change is creating extreme heat, extreme drought and very dry vegetation and soils across a large part of Australia. This all creates more dangerous bushfire conditions than in the past.”

Dr. Newell says the climate conditions of 2019 played a large role in the catastrophic nature of the fires, but that the extreme weather conditions were not isolated to that year. She, along with countless scientists, who are backed by years’ worth of research and reliable data, know temperatures have been climbing steadily for years.

“2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record, but the overall temperature has been rising steadily in Australia and this is not a natural cycle — it is because of greenhouse gas pollution creating a ‘blanket’ in the atmosphere, trapping in heat.

“Heat is a real problem for us. In fact, more people died in the heatwaves before the fires than in the fires themselves.”

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Haunting scenes from the 2019/2020 bushfire season in Australia. Image: Getty Images

Devastating to witness, though heartening to see the community come together, a number of inspirational stories were launched off the back of the bushfire season.

Estimates say almost $500 million was donated for bushfire relief while initiatives were launched across all industries to support homeowners, farmers, small businesses in affected areas, and those who had felt the impacts most.

But while donations, acts of kindness and generosity were undoubtedly helpful for pulling those affected through trying times, ultimately, we must understand that it’s not enough to simply cope with the aftermath of these catastrophic events. Because Australia, and the world as a whole, needs real climate action. It’s the only way forward.

“We can all take action to help stop temperatures rising,” says Dr. Newell. Below, she outlines three ways you can take action today to help fight against climate change.

1. Join the fight

Do the work to educate yourself on the effects of climate change and impacts humanity is having on the planet. Then, join the fight for Planet A.

There are a number of resources you can look to across all mediums: books, television, documentaries, you name it. You may find it unsettling to be faced with the realities of the climate crisis, but education is an important step to understanding climate change, and further to this, helping others understand too.

“The key thing is to not turn away,” says Dr. Newell. “We need to join in. We can join action groups supporting the firefighters; for instance, and you can sign up with Emergency Leaders for Climate Action.”

2. Support clean energy resources

“We need to move quickly away from burning coal, gas, and oil. These are driving climate change and worsening bushfire conditions,” says Dr. Newell.

“The coal and gas industry workers have supported this country for a long time, and now we can all support the next exciting energy industry: renewables. Renewables are now cheaper, cleaner, and can, in fact, give us more energy than we need, become a new energy export and provide huge numbers of jobs.”

Start right now by switching your home energy provider over to a green energy group like Powershop, and approaching your workplace or business about doing the same.

3. Look to solar energy

Australia has the highest solar radiation per square metre of any continent and is therefore one of the best solar energy resources in the world. Utilising solar energy is one way we can help reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

“Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gas pollution, so we need to reduce that pollution for our own sakes as well as others’,” says Dr. Newell.

“Australians are pretty canny and, recognising our sun resources, people are putting solar panels on their rooves faster here than anywhere in the world. Currently, one in five homes across the continent are already enjoying the lower energy bills and self-sufficiency that solar panels bring.”

4. Protect the environment

“We must help protect forests and wetlands, which are crucial for drawing down the greenhouse gasses that are causing us to heat up,” says Dr. Newell.

Start small by always disposing of your rubbish responsibly (we’re talking about recycling correctly and starting a compost bin) to ensure your trash never ends up in the wrong places.

Make a donation to groups that are actively working to preserve forests and wetlands, combat deforestation.

5. Offset your emissions

You may have thought to offset your emissions while travelling by plane via the checkbox at the end of the checkout (still, only around 1% of travellers actually do this, which is abysmal). But while offsetting your emissions on flights is important, you don’t need to travel by air to do this.

You can make donations at any time to offset your personal carbon emissions, made via car travel and like, through companies like Greenfleet and Atmosfair. Offsetting groups like these invest your money in offset programs, which may involve the planting new trees, forest conservancy, or investing in sustainable energy sources like solar and hydro energy.

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