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What will it take for reality to set in?

Comment & Opinion

Edwin McGreal

They might be burning on the other side of the world, but that does not mean we should avert our gaze from the horrendous fires raging in Australia right now. Quite the opposite. What is happening there concerns all of us, all over the world, and it simply cannot be ignored.
Anyone who has ever been to Australia knows the country is subject to weather extremes. From the tropical north to the arid centre, to the temperate southeast and southwest, warm in the summer but often as cold as Ireland in its winter.
But visitors to the country – and the hoards of people from Ireland, from Mayo, who now call Australia home – will be all too aware of just how extreme, how frightening, how unprecedented and how out of control the bush fires sweeping the country now are.
An area the size of Belgium has been consumed by the fires.
People are fleeing for beaches along the spectacular east coast of this beautiful country, waiting to be evacuated by sea as so many road routes have been cut off. Many further inland are not fortunate enough to have such a route away, so they must sit it out and just hope for the best.
It ought to serve as a reminder to all the world of the dangers of the current climate emergency, of the potential for climate catastrophe.
But if the powers that be in Australia have been slow to respond – when they ought to have been to the fore, given the country’s climate – then what hope have we that other nations in the world will act differently, that they will show a smidgeon of the courage required?
We won’t hold our breath – something many Aussies have to do when they venture outside these days.
Last Wednesday, air-quality index readings in the country’s capital Canberra peaked at 7,700. A reading above 200 is considered hazardous.
One can only hope that Australia might be a tipping point, a wake-up call, a moment of clarity.
You couldn’t but be angry after reading the extraordinary column in The Irish Times last week by Matt Williams. The Aussie rugby coach, who has worked in Ireland and continues to contribute here as a pundit, was not talking about the oval ball in his weekly rugby column.
Headed ‘Scale of the catastrophe in Australia is like nothing I have ever seen’, his column put rugby in perspective: “Johnny Sexton’s knee injury very quickly drops down the list of important issues in your life, if flames are in your garden,” he wrote.
Williams’s anger was palpable. We live in a post-truth world. Never has it been easier to avoid and ignore inconvenient truths.
Williams was practically screaming his outrage. His panic. His sense of helplessness. He gave it to the Australian Government right between the eyes.
“Meanwhile our politicians continue to engage in culture wars on climate change, the drought, water management and our environment. In the face of such human tragedy common sense should have forced a bipartisan approach. Not in Oz.
“The custodians of the Lucky Country, on both sides of politics, are a bunch of weak, self-serving bastards.
“Fanaticism has placed so-called conservative free marketeers at odds against science, resulting in political inaction as the country literally burns.”
As Richard Flanagan said in a hard-hitting NY Times opinion piece this week, headlined ‘Australia is committing climate suicide’, there is a sense of ‘you reap what you sow’ about events in Australia, certainly with regards to most of its politicians.
“Since 1996 successive conservative Australian governments have successfully fought to subvert international agreements on climate change in defense of the country’s fossil fuel industries. Today, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of both coal and gas. It recently was ranked 57th out of 57 countries on climate-change action,” he wrote.
These are not myopic opinions, but hard facts.
You feel like screaming too.
This issue is so urgent it should surpass ideology and politics. It is so much more important than either of those things.
It is about leaving a world for future generations to inhabit. It is something we ought to all aspire to.
But too many world leaders nowadays are more concerned with self-preservation, and voters are too, even when it is not in their own interests. Brexit a good example of that.
‘I’m alright Jack’, and to hell to the rest. An apt comparison, with an Australia burning.
As Williams said, the Australian Government is asleep while the country literally burns.
Can enough of the world’s leaders say differently?
We are running out of time to act.