Australian bushfires should spur climate action

As hellish bushfires rage through Australia, providing a nightmarish glimpse of the planet’s future in a climate emergency, Alexandra Phillips MEP has called for individual and government action to curb the worst effects of climate change.

Bushfires have devastated large swathes of Australia.
Bushfires have devastated large swathes of Australia.

Image: bertknot – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Alexandra Phillips

For months now, wildfires have been ravaging huge swathes of Australia, with over 18 million acres burned. They’ve already claimed the lives of 23 people and over half a billion animals – and they show no sign yet of slowing down. 

While the likes of Jeremy Clarkson might write this apocalyptic event off as an act of God, back in the real world, most of us know that these fires have been vastly exacerbated by climate change. 

Rising temperatures have made forests drier and more susceptible to burning and, as global temperatures rise, we’ll only see more irreversible disasters like this one. Prior to the Australian fires, parts of California were decimated by some of the worst wildfires it’s ever had to contend with (costing an estimated $400 billion in damage and economic loss). You can bet your bottom dollar that this kind of news is going to become an annual tradition around the world. 

While the concept of carbon off-setting is a flawed one, each and every one of us can play a role in slowing down climate change and preventing the conditions in which fires like the ones raging down under can thrive. If nothing else, knowing that you’re playing an active role can be a massive boost when you’re feeling helpless!

Four easy ways to make a difference

  • Vow to take fewer flights, opting for rail over road and air – or holidaying closer to home. I decided to stop flying a few years ago and now really enjoy travelling more slowly. I take the train to Brussels and Strasbourg from my home in Brighton and, when going on holiday with my family, I actively look out for destinations, often not too far away, that we can reach by rail or bus. The issue in this country is that train travel is often prohibitively expensive, which is why we need a Green New Deal that would seek to nationalise the railways and provide comfortable, cheap and convenient transport for people across the country.
  • Sign up to Veganuary or commit to more vegan days during the week. It’s never been easier to go plant-based thanks to the number of companies jumping on board, but you can of course do without the companies and stick to making your own oat milk which is super cheap, and use beans and lentils for protein. We know that the animal product industry is responsible for a huge amount of carbon emissions; livestock accounts for up to around 18 per cent of all human-created greenhouse gases globally. Veggie diets account for around half the carbon footprint of a meat-eater’s, while eating vegan is even better. You don’t have to go the whole hog (forgive the pun!) but every reduction in animal consumption helps.
  • Volunteer with green projects. Read the news and you could be forgiven for not wanting to get out of bed ever again. But there are tonnes of positive projects happening up and down the UK, which all aim to make our country a greener, safer and happier place to live in. Whether you’re interested in local wildlife, trees or environmental education, there’s something for everyone. Check out environmentjob.co.uk for up-to-date opportunities. 
  • Write to your local MP demanding they make known their environmental commitments in your area. Fundamentally, we need to see change at the top levels – it can’t simply be down to individuals. So write to your local MP to ask them what they are doing at a national level to hold the government to account over their environmental responsibilities.

But it’s not just down to you...

A massive effort has been made online to get social media users to donate to battling the current wildfires and, while it’s always heartening to see so many people dig deeply, it’s also worth highlighting the fact that it shouldn’t just be down to us to make a difference. 

We need systemic change at a governmental level. We need to see what environmental commitments Boris Johnson’s government has pledged to uphold, including becoming the greenest government ever, which seems to be all talk and no action, and how it’s going to be held accountable for them once we leave the EU.

Despite the fact that burning fossil fuels for energy is the most heavily polluting activity on the planet, companies are still being invited to expand their oil drilling explorations in the UK (such as UK Oil and Gas’ site at Horse Hill in Surrey, which is in the South East region I represent). Fracking is still an open threat to many rural communities. Banks continue to lend money to fossil fuel companies and fund oil projects.

Our impending exit from the EU pulls us away from environmental standards and protections and pushes us further towards the environmental Wild West of Trump’s America. With the dearth of environmental leadership coming from our own government, it’s easy to feel anxious and despondent about the current state of things. We can donate a tenner on Facebook and share sad cartoons of crying koala bears but without national and international plans and policies in place, it can feel like no one is taking control of the situation.

Hope on the horizon?

I’ve spent my time in Brussels working to lay the groundwork for a European Green New Deal. This year, our efforts have paid off, and not only has the Commission pledged to launch a European Green Deal – possibly just talking the talk, we need to ensure they walk the walk – but next week I’m launching an all-party parliamentary group, or Intergroup as they’re known here. Tens of Intergroups seek establishment but only a dozen or so actually materialise so it’s a huge success that the one I’ve created has come to fruition. The Intergroup will work to scrutinise the Commission’s Green Deal but also to suggest policies for it going forward too. 

As we know, as of the end of this month, the UK will no longer be a part of this journey as we leave the EU. Now more than ever before, opposition parties in this country need to work together to hold the Tories to account over commitments to uphold environmental standards and workers’ rights. Such united and concerted action can give hope that we can arrest the march of climate change and make our world a cleaner, greener place.

Alexandra Phillips is Green MEP for the South East of England region.