When Daisy Jeffery was 17, she should have been studying for her final music exams at Sydney’s Conservatorium High School. Instead, she was leading a revolution.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Jeffery was of course also studying for her finals, it’s just that every hour of the day she had spare was dedicated to saving the planet.
While the issue of climate change took something of a backseat during the past 18 months as another global crisis swept the planet, it’s a problem that has come roaring back with a vengeance and Amazon’s new documentary, Burning, seeks to make it top of mind once more.
Jeffery is Australia’s answer to Greta Thunberg. Along with other young climate activists like Vanessa Nakate, Alexandria Villaseñor, and Domnikia Lasota, she makes up one of the key figureheads of the new band of teenage eco-warriors who won’t wait for climate action.
Invigorated with the fiery sense of injustice that only young people possess, Jeffery represents this new breed of Gen Z activists who refuse to stay silent while the planet burns and world governments mull over incremental solutions. Theirs will be the generation hit hardest by climate change and they know it. While their leaders might not be around to see the consequences of their actions, they will, and they’re not standing for it.
The Latch spent a blistering half an hour speaking with Jeffery about the new documentary and what it’s like being on the frontlines of climate action. Here’s what she had to say.
“Apathy is Not an Option”
“Literally, I was in the middle of stu-vac so I was studying in the library at like 2am in the morning on Thursday and I thought that the premiere was later in the month so I immediately booked bus tickets to Sydney and went to the premiere on Saturday,” Jeffery explains, relaying a perfect example of her twin commitments in life right now.
“I was expecting something incredible because there had just been this palpable understanding that we were making something really important.”
Burning covers the Black Summer bushfires in excruciating detail, giving viewers a true sense of the horror of an oncoming blaze complete with torched houses, fleeing animals, and a pitch-black sky at mid-morning.
Importantly, it also names the problem at hand, something the government was unable or unwilling to do at the time: climate change. It contextualizes the blazes that saw 3 billion animals either killed or displaced and consumed 46 million acres of land, some of which had never previously burned.
Burning rolls out all the heavy-hitters in the Australian climate action debate including, of course, Greg Mullins, NSW’s second-longest serving fire chief. Mullins plays a key role in framing the changes our country has undergone over the past few decades where fires such as these might have been seen once in a generation to where they can now be expected at least once a decade.
It’s a broad, sweeping piece of film that puts the last few years into a coherent narrative, with unrelenting fossil fuel extraction as the villain. There are cuts of Prime Minister Scott Morrison absconding to Hawaii, denying the dangers at hand, and demanding we extract more gas in response to the COVID pandemic.
Jeffery is similarly sweeping in her speech, rapidly shifting from one topic to the next like a woman short on time but long on problems. Problems that she wants to address.
On Australia’s recent performance on the international stage at COP26, she assesses as an “incredible mess.”
“In Australia, the federal government only put together climate policies because they were already experiencing significant international embarrassment. That is so disappointing to see. Also the revolving door of money in politics, particularly here in Australia, we have virtually no regulation on political donations. Half of all political donations come from 5% donors, I think. There is so much evidently rolling around in politics and the fact that the federal government tried to give the go-ahead a couple of weeks ago to anonymous political donations by allowing Christian Porter to not disclose who gave him a million dollars for a defamation case against the nation’s broadcaster. It’s not the first time this government has concerned me,” she said
Evidently, climate change is not the only target Jeffery has in her sights. Throughout our conversation, she mentions capitalism, the looming federal election, Indigenous rights, COVID, and the fact that one of the key people in the film has not yet been able to rebuild their house.
The sheer volume of complex issues that Jeffery wants to tackle is dizzying and sounds like the wish list of the broad political left who, it seems, has largely been devoid of idealism and vision in this country for some time. Many of the issues she mentions have been compartmentalised, compromised on, or simply put in the ‘too hard’ box. ‘Help us win the next federal election, then we’ll talk’ appears to be the message.
For the generation above her, much of that political fire appears to have gone out but it’s here on triumphant display as she rails against apathy and the consequences of inaction.
“I don’t think anybody in Parliament would be in a position where they would be agreeing to net zero by 2050 without that external shove. And I don’t think that that international pressure would have helped without the incredible push that we have seen, not only from young people now but from an intergenerational momentum and determination to achieve climate justice,” she said.
Hope is a key theme of her work. In fact, she’s written a book on it. She’s said before that it felt ironic to her, writing such a book when she herself felt so hopeless. Having attended COP25 in Madrid in 2019, she returned with a real sense of disillusionment at the mammoth task ahead of her, and all of us, and the fact that the process to save our planet appears to be being wantonly sabotaged by those in charge. Turning to people like her to inspire us seems at best demanding at worst selfish. However, although she doesn’t like the angle, she is aware that hope is what people need and that her actions and words can inspire it.
“I would love to say the whole wildly optimistic person, but I wasn’t when I entered the movement, and I’m not now,” she said.
“I’m disillusioned with most of us and our politicians, I’m disillusioned with the impact that the plutocratic class can have on democratic values and, I’m sorry, it’s gonna sound strange in print, but I’m just so pissed off
“The thing is is that we actually are not too late, and I know that everyone says that, but we’re really not too late on climate. And to choose apathy now is an active decision to basically let climate change run free.
“We’re already facing three decades of unmitigated climate change. Let’s not make it any more than that. We have a chance to turn the tables now and what we need is people to get out to the polls, we need people with any capacity to get involved, to help advocate for ambitious climate action and for climate justice.
“Apathy is not really an option. I understand though, but, like, I get it. It’s emotionally exhausting and, as a young person, I’ve only been involved with the climate movement for three years. We had 330,000 people out in the streets on September 20 in Australia in 2019, which is an enormous, enormous protest by Australian standards and we got no response from federal parliament.
“At that point, and many others, it felt like we’ve been going up against this titanium wall that we just can’t get through.
“But the strongest we are, and where we started to see those cracks in the wall appear, is when we’ve had this intense, intergenerational push by people of all backgrounds coming together to form this coalition, this force for change.
Jeffery reads her own cynicism and determination not to give up as “a realistic view of the future.” Abandoning climate action means surrendering everything to the oncoming disaster that will only get worse and that’s not something she is willing to do. She doesn’t believe Australian’s, when they really consider it, are willing to do either.
“We have a real chance to make a change,” she said.
“It’s just not going to happen with the current political players that we have in place”.
Burning is out now on Amazon Prime Video.