The Climate Crisis as a Collective Trauma
This morning on my first day in Sydney I woke to the smell of smoke in the air. I didn’t think much of it until meeting up with a friend who lives here who explained that it was the result of one of the increasingly common controlled burns which take place in the run up to the fire season in the hope of minimising the spread of the bush fires which annually, devastate so much of Australia’s land. Last year’s fires scorched more than 24 million hectares, killed 33 people directly and were responsible for a further 450 deaths as a result of smoke inhalation. A study published in August last year revealed the temperature in the stratosphere about Australia rose by 3 degrees because of the fires.
Climate change is contributing to this period of collective trauma that we are living through and for Australians climate change is a vivid day to day reality. Not only have Australians had to cope with bush fires, but many areas have also seen the worst ever flooding, leading to many people, particularly those from Indigenous Communities losing their homes and livelihoods. The trauma felt by these displaced communities can not be underestimated and both the floods and the fires disproportionately impact on the most vulnerable in Australia, the First Nation population. Ironically the unprecedented amounts of rain Australia has experienced earlier this year will only serve to increase the spread of bushfires as the wet conditions will lead to greater growth of materials which will become fuel during the fire season.
Climate change has lengthened Australia’s bush fire season with higher temperatures making the risk of wildfires even more likely than before. According to the Guardian Newspaper’s Australian edition the fire season in Victoria is 56 days longer than it was 30-40 years ago as a result of climate change. This combined with cyclones and monsoons means many Australians are in a permanent state of climate anxiety, hypervigilant for the next climate crisis that will come along.
In terms of bushfires the change to the climate has meant the windows for hazard reduction are becoming more and more limited as the weather has to be just right for these controlled blazes to be a safe option; not too windy, not too hot and not too wet. This has meant that so far this year only 20% of the planned fires have been able to be started. The aim of the controlled burns is to reduce the amount of fuel available in order to reduce the intensity of the fires. As we know, a sense of efficacy is an important way of reducing the impact of traumatic events upon us. The fact that it is becoming harder and harder for Australians to do the things they know will reduce the impact of the fires will therefore be contributing to their traumatic impact.
To exacerbate things further the controlled burns themselves can be terrifying for asthma sufferers as well as a stark reminder of the very real risk of bush fires getting out of control near residential areas. In Australia there is no escape from the reality of the harm we have caused to the environment and the trauma that this inevitably leads to.
There is also much to learn from the resilience of the Australian people as they learn to cope with the increasing challenges posed by the weather. Although the government response to flooding was heavily criticised the spontaneous civilian response resulted in hundreds of lives being saved with stories of victims being dug out by the bare hands of fellow residents when the emergency services were not able to provide support in time. Huge amounts of money were raised on crowdfunding sites to help people with temporary accommodation and to replace lost possessions demonstrating the importance of community when times are hard. And as always, it is often those with least who give the most with many stories of how the indigenous communities have pulled together to help those most in need further evidence that collective trauma requires a collective response.