Just days before my first child was born, I escaped apocalyptic scenes in Sydney to return home, with the country’s biggest city blanketed in thick red smoke from out-of-control bushfires. Flying over the ash-covered harbour, its bridge and the Sydney Opera House, I penned a letter to my unborn daughter.
“We were warned this would happen,” I wrote. “And we wasted our chances to prevent it.”
In the month since she was born, Australia has had its hottest December on record, deadly bushfires have monstered the nation and there have been days when the air has been more hazardous than anywhere else on the planet.
My growing family has experienced this, isolated from the outside world.
Bunkered down in our home, we consumed news reports of a country ablaze, wildlife decimated, lives lost and communities torn apart. We have greeted visitors who told tales of protecting their properties and evacuating entire regions. We have taken calls from loved ones who told us, with a sigh, that they and their homes were safe, for now.
The task of trying to keep a new human alive is trying in any circumstance. Adding our dystopian climate into the equation has added new layers of difficulties. No how-to-raise-a-kid book accounts for the climate apocalypse. All the conventional wisdom of looking after a baby – from clothing to learning, body temperature to sleeping, feeding to simply breathing – is thrown out when the world is on fire around you.
Who knew there was an app for air quality before this summer? Now, like many others, we check it almost hourly. Although in reality, we do not need an app to tell us the air is hazardous. Simply sticking our heads outside delivers the distinctive scent of burning eucalypt – a smell we had hoped our daughter would first discover a few years from now, sitting by a campfire in native forest. That forest may not even exist in the future.
As the Fifth Estate reported last week, we have very little knowledge about the long term impacts of prolonged bushfire smoke. The University of Technology Sydney’s Professor Brian Oliver told ABC’s 730 program that “we’re going to have to wait maybe 10 or 20 years to start to measure what’s happening”.
Could there be a more terrifying pronouncement for a new parent? With every cough or sneeze, I fear the damage this is doing to her tiny lungs.
After cancelling two consecutive maternal health appointments because of poor air quality, our maternal health nurse casually mentioned that there has been an influx of babies in our area not gaining the recommended weight over the past couple of weeks.
“I’m not sure why,” she added. My partner and I made a guess.
We are the lucky ones. We are not in a fire-risk area. Our air-conditioning unit means we can cope with the heat, and we have a strong community supporting us.
I cannot begin to imagine the terror of being a new parent in the middle of a bushfire zone.
As the town of Mallacoota in Victoria was evacuated early in the new year, people with small children were marked with a “V” for vulnerable and forced to wait another day for evacuation as the fires bore down.
Sarah Beer said that her two children, aged one and three, had to get out of the smoke because it had caused respiratory issues. Her comment that she was “a little bit scared” seemed understated.
Anger displayed by the residents of the NSW town of Cobargo when the Prime Minister visited resonated with many people.
“So many people here have lost their homes,” Zoey Salucci-McDermott bellowed at the PM as he tried in vain to grab her hand. “We need more help.”
Salucci-McDermott, 28 weeks pregnant with her second child, lost her house to the fires.
One of the greatest thrills of parenthood is to look into your child’s eyes and see a universe of possibilities. When she confronted the Prime Minister, Salucci-McDermott had the look of a parent trying to come to terms with the premature end to her children’s possibilities.
Every generation has a reason not to bring a child into the world. My own mother has told me of her fears of having children during the Iraq War. In turn, she was conceived at the height of Cold War tensions. The two generations before her were created in the shadow of world wars.
This summer, climate change is the reason this generation of potential parents to rethink has become climate change.
However, unlike the violent conflicts of previous generations, this fundamental risk to humanity came with warnings. Decades of them.
The enemies responsible are not rival countries or ideologies but are instead of our own doing. The enemies are the companies we willingly hand our money to and the decision-makers we elect. Living in a democracy, the enemies have been ourselves.
We have prioritised franking credits over climate change policy. We have accepted the rhetoric that we cannot put jobs at risk to move away from the industries of the past. How many jobs of the future have we lost? How many lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by this summer’s fires?
When I wrote to my daughter in December, I made her a promise. I undertook that as parents, “we will do our most to preserve this planet for you, but with the knowledge that you will have to deal with the impacts of this generations’ failures”.
This summer, right now, we must begin to do our most.
We must take collective responsibility. It is no longer good enough to use the excuse that Australia is only responsible for a fraction of the world’s emissions.
For the sake of our sons and daughters, we must use this summer’s tragic events to lead the world on climate action. The rest of the world is watching.
Sam Drummond is a writer and lawyer.
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