Climate Compassion for Australian friends

by Diana Ellis

I spent some time this morning thinking about what I, as a concerned world citizen, am learning from this year’s Australian bushfires.

There are three sets of people I know who live there – in Sydney, Melbourne, and in a small town further south on the east coast. Up to about a week ago all, when I asked them, would downplay the situation, (“Just a bit of smoke...”) I am assuming that’s because of perhaps a deep fear (What IS this really?) and/or denial that the fires are more of a problem than in years before (We’ve always had fires...).

As things heated up this week, so to speak, one family whose parents had to evacuate but were unable to get out, were quick to blame the government for not “helping” enough – but did not (yet) mention climate change. Another family, with a newborn child, noted that the smoke was a problem for them, “but we aren’t in the fire area so we aren’t in danger.” The third family (one of whom is from BC), with a toddler and pregnant with another child, spoke only about how they are thankful that BC firefighters have come to their aid. Neither of these two families seemed aware of the impact of smoke on their lungs and especially those of their infant/toddler.

I also viewed a moving, but I also thought quite nationalistic, video that contained footage of burned Koalas etc – with the background choir singing “We ARE One – We Are Australian.” No mention of or shots of Aboriginal people …all the “we” were white.

What did I learn from my thinking?

I wonder if denial, fear, playing down impact, being quick to blame government for not keeping people safe, and turning to prideful nationalism, could be basic, simple, coping mechanisms? If these good folks are “just” trying to cope, how do I/we respond to them as fellow world citizens trying to make sense of, to make meaning out of, this fearsome situation? And, while Australia has a long history of bushfires (including the historic setting of such fires by Aboriginal people apparently exacerbated by the arrival of Europeans with different ideas for forest planting/use), will today’s generation connect the “new” dots and relate the increased bushfire intensity/size to climate change’s extreme droughts and higher temperatures… and then take action? Will the climate-denialist government change their policies about coal, fossil fuels, bushfire mitigation and fire protection adaptation at all?

I think about these things as I communicate with the few people I know in Australia. Saying “We told you so!”, “It is only going to get worse you know!” or “I/we are grieving for you and all the wildlife” doesn’t really cut it as a useful compassionate response. Not for my/our Australian friends, nor anyone else for that matter.

What do you think?



  1. I would disagree that “we are grieving for you and all the wildlife” doesn’t cut it as a useful compassionate response to Australians and their fiery predicament. I think it is the ONLY logically compassionate response. They brought the disaster on themselves and must face the consequences (as we will when our oil pipelines eventually are built) – that’s sovereignty and politics. Expressing sympathy and sharing the grief, even from afar, is only human.

  2. My great grief is for the animals and I have to force them out of my mind for some peace from the image. But there is something really bothersome here, as there was with our wildfires in Canada. Something like lightning, or someone like people, has to ignite them, perhaps by accident, perhaps not, (an odd thing, there’s a false report that 100+ people have been fined), and the majority of the fires are around the coastal inhabited regions but there is no mention of how they get started in the media. Studies claim up to 80% (one even 90% in the US) by humans.

    1. Janet:
      Reliable sources suggest that some 180 people have been charged for lighting fires. The real arsonists often are responsible for two or more fires. Most “human started” fires arise inadvertently by idiots who either ignore total fire bans (eg. home BBQ) or attempt to undertake their own back burning near their property. Check out “Snopes”.

      1. So, it was not false, as claimed. Thing is, I’ve never seen this in the broadstream media which suggests that someone has decided it’s better not to talk about it as it could encourage more.

      2. Janet and David – yes, it is important to remember that people do cause bushfires–wildfires—forest fires everywhere…purposively or by accident. Lightning causes fires. Sparks from lawnmowers and power tools cause fires! Campers singing over a campfire that sends up sparks—-ooops wildfires. The issue in Australia (correct me if I am wrong David) is that the extreme drought and high temps caused by climate change takes what would be an ‘ordinary’ bushfire and pushes it to the extremes we are now seeing.

        1. Diana
          You are absolutely right. Apart from “human”induced, the main cause of triggering the start of our bush fires is believed to be dry lightning, i.e. lightning strikes without rain. Check it out. Another cause is embers which can be carried at higher altitudes for many miles. Also arcing when power lines collapse and the high voltage conductors short circuit. Two factors are used to predict the likely severity of the fire: extent of fuel load and its dryness. Hence the cries for hazard reduction by burning in the off season – which is getting shorter. Also the air humidity and wind strength, i.e. velocity and the duration of the prevailing wind. Some of our winds have been like a furnace. Terrain may be a factor – fires travel uphill more rapidly than downhill. The extreme temps can create curious microclimates and generate powerful vortexes. I believe one RFS member death was caused when a vortex picked up a Category 1 fire truck in which he was sheltering and threw it on its back. None of this is new. Rather, the lessons learnt from the past have been ignored. In summary, what cannot be ignored is the part played by climate change in creating larger fuel loads and more ‘favourable’ conditions.

          1. David – thanks for this ‘insider’ information, much appreciated. As you can see from other remarks made here, some feel strongly that no compassion, or little, should be due to a country where citizens (some but not all) voted in a climate change denying government. Others feel compassion for the animals – likely all of us feel compassion for the animals! Personally, and being unafraid of being called a bleeding heart, I want to find a place in my mind (and heart) to enable an easy step away from blame. Can we be ‘with’ those who are suffering no matter what their political stripe? Might that compassion help move folks along the ‘dot-connecting’ road? And even if it doesn’t move them along, seems to me to be the right thing to do regardless.

      3. I would like to see those so called “reliable sources”. My understanding is that this claim of human cause was made up to divert the attention from the real causes: climate change.

        Australia is the largest exporter of coal. It also (even as a sunny country) produces over 75% of it’s electricity from burning coal. I have no compassion whatsoever as the majority of Australians (btw, my wife is half Australian) have voted for a right (centre right?) wing, coal-loving, government since 2013. I feel very sorry for the wildlife as they are paying a dire price for our greed.

        1. G’day Denis
          You can see here a normally reliable source: NSW Goverment/NSW Police Report:

          It says: “Police take legal action against more than 180 people so far during 2019/2020 bushfire season Monday, 06 January 2020 02:03:36 PM. The NSW Police Force has taken legal action against more than 180 people for bushfire-related offences since late last year. Numerous bush and grass fires have impacted the state, claiming the lives of 18 people and destroying hundreds of millions of animals and livestock, thousands of homes, and more than 4.9 million hectares of land, so far this bushfire season. Since Friday 8 November 2019, legal action – which ranges from cautions through to criminal charges – has been taken against 183 people – including 40 juveniles – for 205 bushfire-related offences.
          Of note: 24 people have been charged over alleged deliberately-lit bushfires; 53 people have had legal actions for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban, and 47 people have had legal actions for allegedly discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land. But of course the right wing press have reported this as “police have charged 180 arsonists”. A bit of difference.

          As to your other comment, please have a little compassion for the other half that has to suffer under this government. We didn’t elect it.
          And do these words ring any bells with you? “This is the world’s most destructive oil operation – and its growing”. Mmm. Denis, perhaps hoisted on your own petard!
          Anyway, warmest.

  3. Stan
    No we did not bring this disaster on ourselves!
    Whilst the Australian government’s response to emissions reductions has been farcical, the extent of the drought and fire crisis has been indirectly caused by world wide global warming. Check the science.

    1. David: the WEF says Australia produces 7% of the world’s thermal coal and exports 390 Mt annually. Its not all-or-nothing but you have to shoulder some of the responsibility. The compassion bit in the above post relates back to the average Aussie who takes the brunt of the CC impacts.

  4. David Flakelar – aaah, I was hoping you might chime in, given you are our only Suzuki Elder member in Australia. What, in your opinion might a useful and compassionate response/initiative be to our Australian neighbours who are dealing with this very front line climate emergency and disaster. I chose those two words purposively – USEFUL and COMPASSIONATE. To my mind, sending thoughts, prayers and saying we are grieving for them is not particularly useful. Kind for sure, but what else could we ‘elders elsewhere’ do to support people? Did you read the Jackie French article that I posted on the Elders google groups the other day? It was in the Sydney paper (one of them). Do you think her comments to Australians were on the mark?

  5. All of Diana’s expressed emotions are reasonable and normal to my mind. I think that by the time climate change deniers have been convinced that there is a catastrophe coming it will be too late. They should all be awarded the Darwin Award en masse.

    1. Paul – check this link out! We don’t need to convince all those climate change deniers. We just need to get a cohort of 3.5% of a city/country etc to get change happening. So I’d rather spend our precious time encouraging the ‘quiet supporters’ to speak out – we know who they are and where they are. Many are in our own homes or next door, in our book club, over coffee at church, while playing bridge/golf, taking a walk, sharing a meal. The literature on communication about climate change says the most useful thing we can do is simply start the conversation. No big lecture, not even big science or a challenge. Just start with a conversation (“so what are you thinking these days about…Greta? the Aussie fires, etc) or a “do you remember when…?” type discussion….. or storytelling. Just put it out there and leave it. I am pleasantly surprised at what gets picked up or acknowledged. › future › article › 20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-peop…
      ‘3.5% rule’: How a small minority can change the world – BBC
      May 13, 2019 – Nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change. In 1986 millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful protest and prayer in the name of People Power.

  6. The question is “What will we do about it?” As the fires burn, I’m getting up the courage to send out my rant about flying to my Christmas card list. This fall, I will take my last flight to my Peace Corps Afghanistan reunion in Florida, visit Ann’s family there, then drive up to Ohio for one last visit with my family, before flying home. I will tax myself 256% of flight cost which I will donate to green charities. If I ever fly again, 512%. Progressive self taxation really works. Flying is too cheap, and it’s worse than driving a SUV. Sacrifice is essential, especially for us Boomers.

  7. Dear Diana
    Thanks again for your thoughtful piece on our Australian fire crisis. I particularly noted your comments on a ‘nationalistic’ video featuring a koala and the Seekers song “We are one but we are many”. You suggested disappointment that our first nation people were not mentioned. Not having seen the video I don’t think Afghans, nor Peruvians nor Icelanders were mentioned. Nor Canadians. I think the lyrics are trying to stress the inclusive nature of Australia (as is Canada). To mention any nation – even our First Nation – would have diminished what the song is trying to say. However here is a link to a version where aboriginal kids feature together with a lot of other kids – none of them named.
    Thanks again.

    1. Love that video – thanks for sending it along. It reminds me not to make assumptions about what might be going on (or not) in another country/culture. Here in Canada many non-Indigenous people have had their eyes opened to the reality of life for indigenous people, thanks in particular to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report several years ago and the follow-up community work since. Officially Canada prides itself on being inclusive to/for all. Unofficially it is still a work in progress.

  8. Dear Diana
    (Mmm…. do I write with an Aussie accent?)
    Further to your post of January 13, 2020 5:13 pm and your flattering invitation to advise what Canadians can do to help their Oz neighbours across the Pacific that is both USEFUL and COMPASSIONATE?
    Perhaps a few obvious observations. If a Canadian knew an Australian that was directly impacted by fires (or drought for that matter) then you do what any friend would do. You contact them and express your concern, grief, say you are thinking of them and remind them they are in your prayers. Certainly a response cannot be ignored. Perhaps not directly useful, but a human thing to do. They will be touched by your concern as all Australians are when we hear of the world-wide publicity and generous giving.
    More generally the adage applies. “Think globally but act locally”. Develop your knowledge and be in a position to counter the skeptic’s argument with facts. The best site for this is “skeptical”. All the worn claptrap arguments are there together with rational scientific answers. But don’t expect any conversions. I’ve been arguing with the denialists for years but have yet to make a conversion – but it makes me feel better and more determined.
    More generally, and nothing new here, but I would say get involved in the action and, as a Suzuki member, I know you are. This may be costly and you may lose friends. Carry a banner and march with the kids. Write to newspapers, take up a petition to be read in parliament, write to your MP, get involved in protests, if necessary get arrested but be aware of your rights before being exposed. Try and do these things with a likeminded group of people. Sorry I can’t be more helpful but:
    think globally but act locally.
    Would love to see the Jackie French post. Perhaps the moderator can send you my email address.
    Warmest from Oz
    (in every sense of the word)

    1. David – thanks for all of these thoughtful and sensible remarks. I will follow up with the folks I know. And, yes, we Suzuki Elders here in Canada do already march, write letters, carry banners and generally make the usual fuss over all things related to this, and other environmental issues. I will send on the Jackie French piece – it was in a major Sydney paper and posted on Facebook by a friend. As you are a member, I already have your email. Actually, one can just google.
      I want to note, for you and others who are reading these posts (and there have been a lot of you over the past few days!), that I asked that seemingly simple question about ways to offer useful and compassionate words to folks in challenging environmental situations because we (varying bunches of Suzuki Elders) are giving serious thought to ways to encourage and support community-building, resilience, understanding, connection etc . The disasters brought on, all or in part, by climate change, have a different…um…tone? to them. It is not usually a ‘one-off’ disaster, like an earthquake for example. Climate change impacts will repeat and endure over a long time period (a new forever?!)
      This weighs on people, heavily. And, as I sensed from some of the responses posted, there can be a feeling of ‘you are part of what caused this because of….(.for example), how you voted, your consumer lifestyle, your denial of climate change as real, your unsatisfactory analysis of how change happens …etc!’ This leads so quickly to folks splitting into we/they camps, blame, anger, frustration. I observe that often leads to a paralysis of sorts. On all ‘sides’. We get stuck.
      Given what is coming down the climate change pike re impact on all our lives, I, and many others, are wanting to move forward differently. Which, perhaps surprisingly, takes a bit of thought! Not a lot…because the compassionate responses ,as you describe, are pretty darn sensible and grounded in a basic humanity. Perhaps the hard part is that what is also being asked of us is to change the habit of being quick to judge and quick to divide the world, people, and issues into black and white. There are many shades of gray (hmmm…wasn’t there a book…..?!)
      Enough rambling! Thanks again for your advice, which re-energizes us in our actions on the Canadian front. We send you and your/our Australian friends lots of good will (as well as a contingent of able BC firefighters!)

  9. Let’s get a few things straight from the start. I am not a climate change denier; in fact, I strongly support the concept that climate change is occurring. I am also an Australian citizen having been born there and lived there for 30 years before coming to Canada. I am also a biologist and have an understanding of forest ecology.
    The fires presently devastating the Australian landscape provide a reason to step back and take a look at how the indigenous population managed the forests and grasslands of the island continent for thousands of years. They carried out burns during the cooler months when fire could be more easily managed. It was called Firestick Farming or Cultural Burning. They did it to convert certain areas to savannah and open pasture to provide forage for the larger marsupials such as kangaroos and wallabies which they preferred as a food item. The European settlers had adopted fire suppression resulting in the present situation brought on by increased temperatures no doubt due to climate change.
    There is hope for the future. The Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation is finding that at last it has a voice being heard now that the fire problem has reached devastating proportions.

    1. David – good to hear from you – thanks for chiming in with your expertise. And for anyone interested, here is the link to the Firesticks AllianceIndigenous Corp.
      Firesticks Alliance

      LATEST FROM THE FIRESTICKS ALLIANCE … Support the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation as we continue providing Indigenous leadership, …
      ‎About · ‎Firesticks Alliance · ‎National Indigenous Fire … · ‎Events

  10. From Sydney:
    We are currently enjoying good soaking rain in parts of the country. Good time to stay inside. Since it would seem that currently I can throw a some light (and perhaps a little heat) on the subject I thought it time for a few words about our ‘firies’, our extraordinary volunteer fire fighters – who have been so ably assisted by friends from Canada, California and NZ. All are state based and I speak only for the Rural Fire Service (RFS) in NSW. Plenty of background information on the www if you search.
    All training and operations are centred on local brigades each led by a Senior Captain, a Senior Deputy Captain, supported by 5-7 Deputy Captains, all volunteers. The interesting thing here is they are elected by members. Obviously, the prescribed training must have been completed but on the fire ground the members (the guys and gals inevitably in varying degrees of danger) need to have confidence in their leader/s. Dopes need not apply!
    Several years ago I visited my son’s brigade on Open Day. There was a sign out front inviting the public to come visit, which some did. Heartening that many cars that passed gave a toot in acknowledgement for what they do.
    Similarly on the road in their Cat 1 fire truck they will often get a toot and a wave.
    It’s normally a 5-day operational deployment and up to 12-15 hours per day. Absolutely exhausting. I’m told that when they take a break and enter a Maccas or like, there is a scramble at the front of the queue by other clientele who want to buy for them. They recently went for a bite at a pub not far from the fire ground, crowded and possibly with people that had lost their homes. As the team entered, the crow parted and they were greeted with applause. They could not get to the bar. Too many wanted to ensure they did not have to put their hand in their pockets for anything! Nice.
    There is a long-standing custom that when an RFS member dies as a result of fire all members leave their boots and helmet at their front door, I guess in acknowledgement of service and in their memory. Andrew did this recently late at night in his apartment block after returning from an exhausting deployment. On that day there had been a tragic death on the fire ground. Next morning bunches of flowers and thank you notes.
    There is much recent agitation for these guys and gals to be paid and the federal Govt. has agreed that those members that have lost wages will be compensated up to $6,000. Does not apply to my son who is self employed. I asked whether he was happy about that? “Nah, when I signed up (about 20 yrs ago) it was not for the money. If we become professional, I am concerned it will attract the wrong people”. He may be right.
    Incidentally our former PM Tony Abbott (he of “all this climate change stuff is crap” fame) is an enthusiastic and active member. Well done Tony.

  11. As a matter of interest:
    “Australia created its water market in 1993, hoping that the ability to sell excess water would encourage farmers to conserve. …In 2000, water sold for AU$2 per megalitre; by 2014 the price had risen to AU$1,500 per megalitre; and by 2018 private premium water was selling for as much as AU$2,500 per megalitre. …Australia is now officially in permanent drought.”
    Maude Barlow, “Whose Water is it, Anyway” Toronto, ECW Press (2019) p.26.

  12. On Friday January 6 the CBC programme “Day 6” broadcast an interview with New York Times reporter Damien Cave on the enviro-politics and public reactions of the Australian fires. The published version is at

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