FIRE, WATER AND GOVERNMENT

 

“Fire, water and government know nothing of mercy.”

Albanian proverb

 

by Gunnar Eigener

The climate emergency is becoming increasingly obvious, with weather events wreaking havoc both near and far. Increasingly uncontrollable and expansive fires continue to burn across many global regions. Heavy rains have brought flooding, endangering small communities. Droughts dry out forests and land, leaving livestock and livelihoods at risk. The demands of human society are taking their toll. Yet even as climate change finally takes its place at the top of the agenda for many countries, those who are the worst carbon emitters continue to fail in their duty to protect their citizens. Economy remains the priority for government domestic policies across the Western world and beyond. 

The Siberian fires started in July, recorded by NOAA as the hottest month on record. Over 2 million hectares have been burnt. Above the surface, trees and vegetation burn but are replaceable over a given amount of time. Below the surface is a different story, as peat continues to burn, emitting many times more carbon. There is no suitable infrastructure to put out these fires and they will continue to smoulder, warming up the ground and thawing out the permafrost, creating a positive feedback loop. The reluctance to do anything about it is culpable. In Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region, a spokesperson for the Forestry Ministry stated “For the most part, we take decision on non-extinguishing since there are no threats to human settlements nor objects of economy.”

In Australia, bushfires have already claimed three lives yet the deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack dismissed any links with climate change as the “ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies”, enraging many farmers and citizens. In the Amazon, fires have claimed close to a million hectares, and in Indonesia, smoke from fires in are affecting the livelihoods of local populations. 

The issue of water is already one of the most important dilemmas facing society in modern times, and will only get worse. Only a year ago, Cape Town, South Africa, almost ran out of water. Many more  cities will start facing similar problems as water use becomes restricted. The constant need for water leads many to dig wells in order to extract water from underground aquifers but this too has great risks. Illegal wells in combination with swamp land being highly susceptible to rising water levels have forced Jakarta to relocate. The proposed move of the capital city to the island of Borneo means yet another ecosystem will be destroyed to accommodate 10 million citizens. Globally, warming oceans face a decrease in pH levels, leading to coral bleaching and affecting reproduction cycles. This in turn affects food chains, which are already suffering due to overfishing. The increasing temperatures also means that oceans are expanding, and cities like New York, Osaka and Mumbai will be at great risk in the decades to come.

 

Everywhere, there are signs that those in authority place little or no concern on the issue of climate change.

 

The reactions of governments have been predictably slow. Brazil’s president, Bolsonaro, accused NGOs of setting the fires ablaze deliberately in order to then blame him. The US president, Donald Trump, claims to be an environmentalist but his records would prove otherwise. When questioned about mitigating the effects of climate change in the House of Commons, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, stated that free trade remains more important. Everywhere, there are signs that those in authority place little or no concern on the issue of climate change. Furthermore the first US Environmental Protection Agency administrator under Trump, Scott Pruitt, claimed that humanity is not the primary cause of global warming, and the Australian Drought and Water Resources Minister, David Littleproud, claimed that he didn’t know if climate change was man-made, resulting in an unashamed U-turn a few days later. 

People’s reactions  vary too. Research has shown that unless warnings are localised, people will not give it as much attention, leading to under-preparedness for when danger does strike, such as floods and bushfires. The worry about these things does not rate as highly as ordinary everyday issues since they are not as common but this is a Global North attitude. The Global South has been facing the effects of climate change for far longer. More effort needs to be made to warn people about the potential dangers, while also outlining what the best course of action is. There have been instances where, in the case of the Australian bushfires, some people became trapped but were unaware of what to do in that situation. 

Governments continue to be seemingly uninterested in mitigating the damage of climate change. The recent flooding in the UK brought a meek response from its own government, and the US government has begun its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. In Italy, the Venice regional council, controlled by the far-right League Party, voted against measures to combat climate change. An estimated 12 minutes later, and the rising tide flooded the council chambers. It is this type of occurrence that, irony notwithstanding, demonstrates exactly why direct and fast action is needed. 

It would be easy to apply blame to right-wing governments; after all, it is in countries like the US and Brazil that some of the worst domestic environmental policies are being pushed through and causing significant damage. Capitalism is another easy target. A system that requires the plundering of finite resources in order to create material possessions that billions of dollars’ worth of advertising and marketing tell us we need in order to distract us from  the corruption deep within that very same system. 

We must be responsible for our actions. We elected those people who are in power, based on lies and broken promises, yes, but we elected them nonetheless. Every election from now on is a climate election. Change needs to happen and it will have to come from whomever we vote into power. Protesting creates awareness but however cynical we are about those governments on offer, change has to come through politics. Other subjects tend to dominate elections but of all the problems we face, climate change is not something that can be overcome unless drastic action is taken. Governments have to be responsible for mitigating climate change and we have to be responsible for voting in governments that will do the right thing.

 

Featured image credit: Harley Huntington for U.S. Airforce


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