A Message From the Flood Zone

Ten months ago my family and I moved to Lennox Head, a small town on Bundjalung country on the New South Wales north coast. It’s a region that has a special place in my heart: My partner and I lived here when I was pregnant with our now six-year-old son, and we have friends spread from coast to hinterland, Murwillumbah to Mullumbimby.

Last week we received a flood evacuation alert via text message. Before the phone lines and internet went down, I checked our community Facebook page, seeing that people were evacuating from Ballina to a scout camp on the other side of town. I packed three large boxes with blankets, pillows and linen and gave them to a neighbour driving out to the camp. My husband and I then spent the night carrying furniture, food and our son’s collection of toys upstairs to the second story of our home. We are the lucky ones – our house didn’t flood and we didn’t lose  power and water. But our region has been devastated. It will take years to recover. 

I have been a climate advocate for the past 25 years. Over this time, I have read many peer reviewed scientific papers about the link between a warming climate and extreme weather events like flooding and bushfires. I knew, intellectually, that events of this nature would happen in my lifetime. 

But knowing something intellectually is very different to living it. 

Knowing something intellectually is not the same as filling your bath with water in case the mains supply is cut off, carrying canned foods and your 6-year old son’s surfboard into his second-story bedroom while he sleeps. It is not the same as seeing the shelves in your local supermarket completely bare; seeing NO FUEL signs at your local petrol station; your local library and community centre transformed into an evacuation hub. It is not the same as receiving a despairing message from a mum in your fitness group because her breast milk has dried up, after spending three days without food, water or power, before being saved from floodwaters by helicopter. 

Lismore, March 2022. Photo: David Lowe

“We are the first generation who will experience the impacts of the climate crisis in our lifetimes if governments do not act now to reduce carbon pollution. Australia is the most vulnerable industrialised country in the world when it comes to extreme weather events like mega-fires and extreme floods. We need political leaders to step up and prioritise the next generation before the next election”. 

I was 18 when I wrote those words. It was 2002, and I was a first year university student. I had become an environmental campaigner in high school four years earlier, annoying those around me with earnest talk of environmental destruction and our responsibility to act. Three years later I would attend my first UN Climate Negotiations. After returning, I set up the Australian Youth Climate Coalition with a group of other young people. 

“As someone trying to convince others to take notice of climate change, I am constantly puzzled to see people ignore the biggest threat facing our country’s environment and economy. Australia has proven in the past that we can deal compassionately with fires, floods, droughts and cyclones. Yet in their aftermath we stop one step short as a nation from thinking about how to deal with climate change. It’s a terrible irony, given the extent to which scientists predict climate change will increase and worsen extreme weather events.” 

I was 28 when I published those words in Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Sceptic (2012). In the same year, my uncle’s farm in Moree was affected by severe flooding, along with thousands of other properties in the region. 

I am 38 now and grappling with what it means to be a climate advocate at a time when climate scientists tell us we have maybe seven or eight years left to turn things around before irreversible climate “tipping points” in the Earth’s system are passed.

This community is strong. It’s the first thing we noticed when we moved here. As I write this, a colleague is shoveling mud out of homes in Lismore alongside thousands of other ‘mud army’ volunteers. Everyone we know has been involved in the rescue and recovery effort in some way.

But no community, no matter how strong, will be able to deal with disasters like this at the scale and frequency that scientists warn us are coming if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

South Golden Beach, March 2022. Photo: Nina Karnikowski
South Golden Beach, March 2022. Photo: Nina Karnikowski

I had a recurring nightmare when I first learned about climate change in high school. It went like this: I was living in a place that, every year, experienced an extreme weather event – floods, fires, droughts, king tides. Disaster piled onto disaster until no one had anything left – financially, emotionally, physically – to do anything about reducing emissions before the Earth’s tipping points were reached. A nightmare that feels too close to reality right now. 

After I became active on climate change, the nightmares stopped. This is a common story – people are anxious until they get active. Then they’re too busy doing useful things, seeing the huge movement of people working to solve the problem. Climate anxiety recedes into a small, dark place at the back of the mind. 

The point is this: Once you’re active, it’s possible to see that there is a different path to take. We have all the technological solutions we need to take it. The problem is, we’re running out of time.  

In the last week, two things have happened in relation to the climate crisis that are often referred to as ‘wake up’ calls. One, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The other, the NSW and Queensland Floods. For many Australians, the fires in 2019-2020 were their ‘wake up’ moment.

But are we really awake? Or did we wake up, get jolted out of our day-to-day dreaming after reading a few news articles, and go back to sleep?

The pandemic hit, and suddenly – understandably – many of us had no choice but to focus on doing whatever we could to get through each day. Home schooling, keeping a job, or finding a new one. Now the war in Ukraine, and now the floods. It’s all too much. For some of us there’s nothing left in the tank. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed – if you’re stretched beyond capacity dealing with the floods or with Covid-19 or emotionally paralysed due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – I get it. Please stop reading. Rest, look after yourself, and accept the help of those around you.      

A Brisbane woman whose work in renewable energy policy and community engagement on climate I have admired for over a decade, and whose house, her parents and her partner’s houses all flooded last week, wrote the following note on Facebook: 

“I feel helpless and terrified…I’ve done everything I can to tell people, but we keep choosing to bury our heads in the sand. I just don’t have any more energy to fight on this.

She is one of the most effective climate change agents I’ve seen. She needs – and deserves – a break to recover. But if she steps out for a year, to focus on rebuilding, who will step up? 

Will it be you? 

There must be people out there who have a bit more in the tank. A handful, at least, who have more emotional reserves than people in flood affected areas, or more energy than long-term climate advocates battling with the grief of seeing what they have spent so long warning people about come to fruition before their eyes. 

This latest flood crisis is a call to action and an invitation: Will you join the climate fight? We have an opportunity to make things better, and we need more people. Ask yourself this: Can I dig a bit deeper? How can I do more to be part of the solution? No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Work out how much time you spend watching TV shows about imaginary worlds each week and focus on saving the real world instead. Cancel your subscriptions, put the money into funding climate advocacy. 
  2. Use time saved by not watching TV to educate yourself about climate change so you can have a conversation with people in your networks about it. Set yourself a goal of having at least one conversation a day, or 365 conversations in a year. Society can’t solve a problem it doesn’t talk about.
  3. Make a sign for your house that makes your support visible. If you’re a parent, order one for free from Australian Parents for Climate Action. Otherwise you can order them at cost price from Climate Action Network Australia. Ask your neighbours and local businesses to put up signs in their windows. Some businesses will say no. Some will say yes – support them and encourage people to spend their money there. 
  4. Meet with your member of Parliament and tell them that you’re an ordinary person who wants to support candidates who are more ambitious on climate change. 
  5. If you know people with capacity to fund climate advocacy at the level of $20 a week or more, tell them about Groundswell, Australia’s giving circle to fund climate advocacy. 
Woodburn, March 2022. Photo: Nina Karnikowski

I’m exhausted and upset. You couldn’t not be, living in the Northern Rivers and seeing what has just happened. But, over the last week, I have also been reminded that humans have an extraordinary capacity to help each other, to cooperate, to come together in a crisis. 

Every single person can help in some way with the immediate response to these floods. In the same way, every single politician in an elected leadership position has the opportunity to step up and be a leader on climate. Exercising leadership to make progress on the climate crisis can seem hard, but dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic flood of this scale is harder. 

The economic opportunities of acting on climate are abundantly clear. We have the technology and knowledge to become a renewables superpower. We can export cheap energy to the rest of the world, and use it at home to finally build a manufacturing industry. We can create secure, well-paid jobs in the regions to replace those that we need to let go of in coal and gas mining, and do so in a way that protects communities. I am hopeful when I think about the Australia we could create when we reach bipartisan support for climate action. 

In 2050 my son will be 35. My nightmares now are about him, and the world he will raise his family in. Those of us who are adults right now have the chance to write how the future will play out.  Let’s not waste that chance.

Upper Wilsons Creek landslide, March 2022. Photo: Sahar Zadar