Here’s the third installment of the story series we’re doing for Friends of the Earth. Have a read. Soon (we hope) you’ll see the video at

Bush fires, droughts, record temps: Down Under has undergone a reassessment of values in the wake of a brutal summer of warming
By Marc Ethier and Lisa Archer

Australia, the Red Continent, has always been a sun-baked, inhospitable land. Popular imagination and reality converge on Australia as a flat, dry desert country, hardened, blasted and shaped by intense heat. The sun Down Under is a killer, pounding thousands of square miles of intemperate, desiccated, dangerous waste sandwiched between slim coastal strips of drying rainforest.

“Sunburnt” is how Aussies have always described their home, not without a little pride. But now Australia is more than sunburnt – it is burning.

Over the last decade – and especially over the last few years – the country’s climate crisis has worsened to the point of alarm. A drought of epic proportions, the worst on record, has afflicted three of the nation’s southern states, where half the population lives. Reservoirs are evaporating: some outside Melbourne in Victoria operate at 40-percent capacity or lower. A dozen communities have lost their water sources altogether.

Then there are the fires. At points this summer bush fires have raged out of control across Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, threatening suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart – in fact many of the population centers of the east and southeast coast. Fueled by sirocco-like winds out of the Outback, the fires have taxed limited firefighting resources across the Blue and Snowy mountain ranges and consumed millions of dollars in property and livestock; according to state Premier Steve Bracks, this summer 20 percent of all Victoria has burned.

But then, all Australia is burning: no country has grown hotter over the last 100 years. Shifting weather patterns are frying the south, crushing the country’s agricultural hubs. Tragedies abound: A suicide epidemic has swept the ranks of farmers whose families have tilled the soil and raised livestock for generations – but who now despair because they can’t draw life out of the scorched earth.

Receptive audience

The hardiest of the typically hardy Aussie has begun to worry. It’s little wonder then that Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, has had such a profound impact here. The film made more than AU$4 million through the end of last year and quickly grew into a national phenomenon, galvanizing popular support for groups dedicated to finding solutions to global warming and prompting activists and non-activists alike to face the issue. The film may have been a minor revelation for many in America, but in Australia, as in New Zealand, it was much more: a watershed event.

Sarah Bishop, a native of Queensland – which has not escaped the season of bush fires – was among the many who were moved and felt compelled to act shortly after seeing the film. The 22-year-old journalism and communications student at Griffith University in Brisbane began doing research and organizing discussion groups last fall.

Studying the issue just made Bishop more aware of the immensity of the problem. She enjoyed speaking out, but in her words, “Why should anyone listen to me?” So she came up with something better. “Youth are the main demographic that we need to get interested in this issue, so I wanted to do something that would get their attention. Working with Get Up Climate Action Now (, Bishop conceived a 1,000-kilometer walk from Brisbane to Sydney through the inferno of an Australian summer. Her two-month march began in late January and will feature speeches and a petition drive, and culminate in a visit to Prime Minister John Howard’s residence to protest the Howard government’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

“Per capita, Australia is among the top producers of greenhouse gases,” Bishop says. “We’re seeing mass devastation in Australia and we can stop it. … I don’t want to be from a generation that was given this gift, this beautiful planet, and be the ones that have ruined it. It’s selfish, it’s irresponsible.”

Immediately after announcing the walk, Bishop got the reaction she wanted: more and louder conversation, helped by Internet buzz around the event that grew to include the mainstream media and more admirers and volunteers than Bishop knew what to do with. She appeared on the over of the Sydney Morning Herald. Her website ( exploded with hits. The phone started ringing and hasn’t stopped. “The reaction was incredible,” she says. “It just took off and it hasn’t slowed down. People are really interested, and that’s very exciting to see.”

Hard at work

On the other side of Brisbane, in a tiny office next to a bicycle shop, Emma Brindal helps coordinate Friends of the Earth’s Climate Justice Campaign and the group’s work to get recognition for climate refugees. Brindal, a part-time teacher, volunteers with a handful of others to organize events like Australia’s participation in last November’s Walk Against Warming, part of a global day of action on climate change; she sees her country, a power player in Pacific geopolitics, coming to grips with the problem of man-made warming while learning simultaneously to serve as a role model for First World nations in the face of the impending disaster of rising sea levels.

But the fight is ongoing. Today Australia, following the UN’s lead, does not recognize the status of climate refugees. “Climate change is the biggest social justice issue the world has ever faced,” Brindal says. “We’re looking at millions and millions of people facing worse poverty and disease and displacement – and in the worst case, potentially the loss of whole cultures – when we’re looking at small island nation-states that could disappear.”

Brindal, Sarah Bishop and their colleagues and fellow activists know too well that no matter how great the dialogue about Australia’s problems or those of its neighbors, more help is needed. The good news – at least on the homefront – is that the famously stalwart Australian character may provide that help.

As Australia burns – as unpredictable weather becomes a striking daily reality – its national psyche bears up, seeking solutions: the expected reaction from so legendarily resilient a people. Reflecting a concomitant concern about the ozone layer, a national discussion has opened over how to reduce the nation’s skin cancer cases, which outpace the rest of the world.

The argument, for the average Aussie, is settled. The incontrovertible evidence of global warming – mystifyingly still a remote question for many Americans, in part because their media hasn’t demonstrated the courage to make the issue regular front-page news – is daily demonstrated. Down Under, further debate is moot.

The future for the continent – and the planet

Morning talk shows greet Aussies at the start of every 40 C-degree day with special reports on “what you can do to reduce greenhouse gases,” which Australia, reliant on coal for 85 percent of its electricity, produces more of than France or Italy – each of which has three times its population. Water patrols, water conservation commercials, half-flush toilets, tight restrictions on personal and commercial water use: all are now regular and accepted features of life, the new reality, on the Red Continent.

Roused to action, Australia is, hopefully, turning a corner in its climate crisis. Its re-education could serve as a lesson to the world.

“It’s not just about our children’s lives and our grandchildren’s lives,” says Sarah Bishop, who will finish her 1,000-kilometer walk on John Howard’s doorstep March 31, just hours before Sydney turns out the lights in an effort to publicize Australia’s consumption of electricity. “I’m young – I’m 22, and I’m hoping to live for at least another 60 years. And the effects of climate change are going to have an effect during my lifetime.

“It’s not going to change by itself. Every individual makes a difference. And obviously collectively we make even more of a difference.”