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Australia’s Apocalyptic Summer

photograph of smoke on horizon from Australian bushfire

Summers in Australia are always hot. During the break over Christmas and New Year tens of thousands of people are abroad, traveling to holiday destinations up and down the coast. Mallacoota on the east coast of Victoria, is one small seaside town among hundreds whose numbers swell with holidaymakers at this time of year.

In Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve of 2019 an escalation in Australia’s month-long bushfire crisis gave rise to truly horrifying scenes when thousands of tourists and locals were forced to flea and shelter on the beaches as bushfire ravaged the town. As the sun rose on December 31, the sky was glowing orange. Some observers described the scenes that followed as Armageddon. At around 9am the sky blackened, to the visibility of midnight, and for the next four hours those who had fled to the waterfront huddled as fire ripped through the town and burned forest virtually up to the water’s edge.

The devastation wrought on this small town was so severe that all roads in and out were, and remain at the time of writing, closed. Advice for those still trapped in Mallacoota is that roads may not be reopened for up to two weeks. Many thousands of people remain on the beachfront. The Australian Navy have sent a vessel to collect just under one thousand people, an operation which is currently underway at the time of writing. This was just one town, similar scenes were repeated up and down the south east corner of the country.

Tens of thousands of people are, at the time of writing, attempting to evacuate coastal towns in Victoria and New South Wales ahead of a weekend during which even more dangerous conditions loom, as temperatures are set to rise to up to 44C (112F) in places. Many are trying to exit areas already hit by fires, with highways closed, and stores running low on food and petrol supplies dwindling.

Emergency services are struggling to cope. Three volunteer fire-fighters have been killed in extraordinary fire conditions. One fire-fighter was killed when a cyclonic weather system created within the fire overturned an 8-ton truck. Where previous fire seasons have seen large-scale disasters, they are normally single events. Never has there been a situation like this with multiple emergency level fires burning simultaneously in every state.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and has always been fire prone, but this is different. After three years of severe drought, the air and the land is so dry that it is literally combusting. We are in no way prepared or equipped to deal with the scale of this event, which has overwhelmed emergency services. The descriptor we are hearing over and over again, from emergency workers, is “unprecedented.”

This is the very outcome climate science has been warning about for at least 2 decades. And, more recently, this is the hellish scenario that a group of fire and emergency chiefs have been trying to warn the current government about. Back in April 2019 a group of former fire chiefs tried and failed to get the attention of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, in order to warn that the coming fire season would be the most severe the country has ever seen by a long way. The Prime Minister refused to meet with them. The reason is that the Australian government does not want to talk about climate change.

I wrote a several articles for this publication in 2019 about the climate emergency, examining the issue from different ethical angles. I emphasized how dangerous the situation is becoming, and how urgent is the need to act. I discussed Australia’s inadequate climate policy, the current government’s refusal to acknowledge the problem and its addiction to the coal industry. I wrote about the new generation of civil disobedience and community mobilization in the face of government inaction and the moral case for nonviolent disruptive tactics. I have argued there should not be a moral conundrum here, and in my most recent piece I noted that moral arguments seem simply not to be working.

Yet nothing has prepared me for the severity, the shock, of what is happening here right now, and even with what I understand about the Morrison Government’s intransigence, yet I am still shocked by its lack of empathy and understanding in its response to the crisis.

The Prime Minister refuses to call the crisis ‘unprecedented,’ saying that we have always had fires and recalling smoke in Sydney when he was a child. This belies what everyone else acknowledges: that it is totally outside our past experience of the bushfire season. Morrison cheerfully suggested that Australia is ‘the best place to bring up kids’ while picture after picture emerged of children fleeing holiday houses, or worse, picking through the wreckage of their own family homes; of melted bicycles, pools filled with ash and kids playing on swings wearing masks to filter out the hazardous air. He has counseled people not be anxious and doubled down on his blithe defense of Australia’s climate policy. He continues to suggest that the cost, to the economy, of a more ambitious climate policy is greater than the the cost of inaction:

“…our policies remain sensible, that they don’t move towards either extreme, and stay focused on what Australians need for a vibrant and viable economy, as well as a vibrant and sustainable environment. Getting the balance right is what Australia has always been able to achieve.”

I can offer no further analysis of these remarks. The country is burning and the whole world should take a look in our direction, because this is what the cost of inaction really looks like.

Eventually economics will catch up, and the economic costs of global warming will overtake those of the transition to clean energy and carbon abolition. If such considerations are the only factors that can motivate some leaders (like Morrison) then how long that takes will determine how much worse this gets.

What is certain is that it is going to get worse, and soon such events, in Australia and elsewhere, will indeed no longer be unprecedented.

Saving Animals in Emergencies: The California Wildfires

Photograph of two men and a dog standing in a burned structure

California is facing some of the most devastating fires that it has seen in years. Camp Fire, Woosley Fire, and Hill Fire spread over Paradise and Los Angeles, CA destroying more than 125,000 acres and counting. As families are being forced to leave their homes, the question arises for many: “What do we bring, what do we leave?” Unfortunately for many, this becomes a question of what to do with their pets and other domesticated animals.

Local shelters and relocated farms are options for families to move their dogs, cats, horses, and other animals. When local shelters become full, citizens have sought out local law enforcements or agencies that protect animals. One such agency is Ride On, a therapeutic horsemanship program owned by Abigail Sietsma. Sietsema and her father worked relentlessly to address emergency calls to rescue horses from barns amid the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire. The executive officer of Ride On, Bryan McQueeney, described the rescue process as a form of art. “You have to really control the energy of people around you,” he says. Horses are able to pick up on when people around them are anxious and it can make an already dangerous and time-sensitive situation that much more difficult.

Emergencies like the California fires make it difficult to protect the lives of humans and animals alike. McQueeny says, “Human lives take priority but Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control, which has set up centers in safe areas, is collaborating with fire and sheriff departments. As of the latest update on Saturday night, the agency had 591 horses, ponies and donkeys in its care, along with llamas, pigs, goats and even a tortoise.” With all of these resources going into protecting the lives of the animals, it begs the question, do we have a moral obligation to help them in emergencies?

According to virtue ethics, emotions are key in ethical decision making. Humans are typically emotionally attached to their pets or farm animals in some way. Therefore, it is ethical to spend the resources to save them in emergencies.  Some would even argue that it would be negligent to leave them alone to die. Animals, for the most part, are dependent on humans to help them and according to the ethics of care, with this relationship, there is an obligation for humans to help out their loved pets. It is considered virtuous, responsible, and compassionate to look after and go out of the way to care for animals in times of need. This belief, that it is good to rescue animals, is socially praised.

Along with being socially praised, the rescuing of animals has been found to unite communities. McQueeny describes the phenomena: “I have been around a fire in a horse area, it is amazing to me how the equestrian community rallies. It’s complicated, it is hard, but I am always impressed that the horse community will jump in. They will move heaven and earth to make sure these horses are taken care of.” The rescue of animals unites communities and gives them hope in situations where hope can seem scarce.

However, all of the time and energy that goes into this rescue isn’t always the most efficient option. Not to mention, some animals like horses take up even more resources to feed them, clean them, and house them once in safe environments. One may argue that we should value human life and use the resources allocated to horses, for example, towards helping the people who have been displaced from their homes. Some animals, such as a pet cat, are easy to relocate, but larger pets like horses or wild animals in zoos create many additional challenges.  

The LA Zoo has recently faced the problem of what to do with their zoo animals. Smoke in the surrounding air makes it hard for animals to breathe and increases the risk of disease. However, precautionary measures to move the animals isn’t always the best option. Moving animals can be more dangerous because moving them away from their familiar habitat increases the risk of disease and death. The most that the zoo staff  can do in these cases is to establish evacuation plans for fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes and move animals only if necessary.

If the resources are available, saving household pets and animals would be ideal for many families. Yet taking the extra time to relocate animals in the fire adds additional risk to the family members and more smoke exposure time. The animal rescue personnel even risk their lives to go into the fire zones to save them, but despite their heroic reputation, the California fires make us reconsider: should we bring our animals or leave them?