In a world besieged by environmental threats it’s easy to feel hopeless. But after speaking with some passionate individuals Morwenna’s learned what’s truly at stake, and how we can help save it.
We’re navigating a changing world. Ancient spaces like rainforests and the polar ice caps are disappearing, while at the same time, new spaces, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – now three times the size of France – are emerging.
The name for our changing world, or rather, the new geological era we find ourselves in, is the ‘Anthropocene’. Unlike the relatively stable Holocene period before it, the Anthropocene is marked by human activity’s dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of our planet, and by its knock-on effects.
These effects include ‘once-in-a-century’ extreme weather incidents occurring… well, more than once in a century, as well as an increase in heatwaves, droughts, floods, and storms, and they are all already impacting our planet.
We’re shaped just as much by the places we call home as the spaces we choose to explore. For a lot of us, that means living in places where it’s easy to distance ourselves from the impacts of climate change.
For us, extreme weather is a ‘freak’ incident, or a heatwave might be something that we bring up as a ‘what-is-to-come’ warning when we engage with that climate-change-denying uncle.
However, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, it’s been impossible to ignore the record-breaking fires, floods, droughts, and heatwaves that have swept across the country.
As living-legend David Attenborough puts it, we are ‘changing the very fundamentals of the living world’, and it’s the forests, oceans, beaches, mountains, lakes, rivers, and reefs that have shaped, and continue to shape so many of us, that are bearing the worst of it.
Our Hottest And Driest Year on Record
By now, most of us know that 2019 was Australia’s hottest, driest year on record. But for me, until 2019, I’d never experienced temperatures hotter than 40 degrees or seen a bushfire. I was shaped by growing up and living in the UK until my mid-twenties.
My experience of 2019 – of waking up before dawn to run before it got too hot, of our back garden filled with smoke – was one of slowly realising that not only were those temperatures and those fires not normal, but that they were also worse than anything my husband, our friends, or even the record-books could recall. This wasn’t Australia-as-usual.
I mention this because most of us know the statistics. We know that those temperatures and fires took the lives of 33 people (the smoke may have taken up to 445 more), killed, injured or destroyed the habitats of an estimated 3 billion animals, and burned through around 96 percent of Flinders Chase National Park, 81 percent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, and around 54 percent of the Gondwana Rainforests in New South Wales and Queensland.
A Permanent Change to Adventures?
The figures are upsetting and terrifying. And yet they mask the ‘boots on the ground’ view of the fires’ impact at a time of year when adventures, big and small, are normally in full swing.
‘Not one of the states or environments that we operate in was untouched by the drought or fires of summer 2019-20.’
That’s Helene de Lagillardaie’s reply when I contact her asking about her experiences. Helene is a program manager for Outward Bound, an organisation that aims to inspire and empower school students and young people through the natural world. They operate in Northern NSW Sydney and its surrounds, the ACT, Victoria, and South West WA.
Over email, Helene describes the devastation of a large part of the organisation’s routes in the Mount Jerusalem and Nightcap National Parks, and how a fire burned through Namadgi National Park, forcing Outward Bound to evacuate their national base, which was only protected by a lucky change in the wind.
Her testimony paints a picture of the Snowy River fire, during which the rock used for climbing and abseiling cracked beneath their feet, and which burned all the surrounding lands until ‘you could see for kilometres around with no vegetation obstructing the view’.
In addition to programs they were forced to adapt, Outward Bound lost half of their Victorian operations, and their circuits in Northern NSW and the ACT.
This April, they went back to assess their sites, in the hope of being able to return for good, and confront the challenges of delivering outdoor education programs in post-fire conditions. And they’re not the only ones who’ve had their business impacted by the effects of climate change.
Coral Bleaching Killing Reefs And Tourism
Yolanda Waters is a scuba-diving instructor, and a member of the organisation Divers for Climate.
‘A few years ago after one of the recent heatwaves, the bleaching really started to have an impact on the dive industry in Cairns’, she explains. ‘Cairns goes through these waves of “last chance tourism”. People are coming to see the Great Barrier Reef because they’ve heard that it’s dying, but it’s also slowly becoming less of a go-to place.’
‘People are preferring places like Ningaloo in the west because they’ve heard the Great Barrier Reef isn’t worth it anymore.’
Combine bleaching predictions with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Cairns diving industry is starting to struggle. This presents a worry (to put it mildly), not only for the more than 64,000 people whose jobs are linked to the Great Barrier Reef, but also for Australia more widely.
Most of us regard the ecosystems and marine life that depend on the Great Barrier Reef as priceless, but their actual value was calculated in 2017 in a study by Deloitte Access Economics.
They valued the Great Barrier Reef at $56 billion, and found that, from 2015-2016, the reef added $6.4 billion of economic value to the Australian economy. Or, in other words, at $56 billion, the reef is more valuable than 12 Sydney Opera Houses.
Heatwave-related bleachings and bushfire-related damage are some of the ways in which Australian adventures are already being impacted by climate-change-related incidents. Weather is becoming more extreme, and less predictable.
But these changes aren’t only affecting businesses and industries; they’re also affecting individual Australian Explorers and their adventures.
For Many The Impacts Are Literally Hitting Home
Australian trail-runner Lucy Bartholomew is one of these Explorers. Lucy ran her first ultra-marathon, the 100km Surf Coast Century, at just 16 years old, and just a few weeks ago, finished running the 231-kilometre Larapinta Trail. In addition to her astonishing achievements as an athlete, she’s also a powerful advocate for mindful training, healthy living, and protecting the environment.
After spending the past five years (literally) running all around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has grounded Lucy in Australia and given her time to notice the changes in her home in the Yarra Valley.
‘The extremes are more extreme than they’ve been’, Lucy tells me. ‘For me, training when it’s hotter can be good training for races, so I sometimes use it to my advantage. But at the same time, I’m aware that it’s not normal. As a young kid, I just went out and ran. Now things are so extreme and you have to be so careful because there’s bushfires or there’s flooding, it’s just one thing after another.’
Glimmers of Hope – Action Through Community
Yet, in the past year, Lucy has also noticed changes for the better in her home, and in her wider communities.
‘I find hope in conversation’, she says, ‘people are starting to pick up on signs and understand that they have the ability to create change. When everything was burning down last year, we saw people band together and do relief runs and raise money to protect our wildlife, because we’re not just protecting our wildlife, we’re protecting such a big part of who we are. That’s a glimmer of what we can do if we really try.’
This sense of community concern isn’t unique to the bushfires. It’s something Yolanda has experienced as well. ‘It’s not just reefs’, Yolanda explains, ‘kelp forests in Tasmania are struggling, all kinds of ocean ecosystems are deteriorating, but what gives me hope is seeing people realise that we can’t just let these things go, and seeing people realise, “OK, we can fix this.” Seeing community groups come together makes me think that we can still turn this around.’
‘If you’re not hopeful, you’ve already given up.’
An example of a community coming together like this is the Fight for the Bight campaign, which saw surfers, fishermen, sailors, conservationists, and everyday citizens all come together to successfully protest against Norweigan oil company Equinor’s plan to conduct exploratory drilling in the Great Australian Bight.
Equinor abandoned their plans in February 2020 after small, grassroots opposition grew to become the biggest coastal environmental action in Australian history. Their action included months of campaigning, a National Day of Action, and paddle-outs that took place across both Australia and Norway.
Change is Possible When We Work Together
Heath Joske is a Patagonia Ambassador and former WQS surfer, who lives in Streaky Bay in the Bight. For months, he was in the thick of the Fight for the Bight campaign, even traveling to Oslo to speak to Equinor’s CEO and hand over more than 300 letters of protest.
While Heath has seen some pretty extreme temperatures at his home, where he grows his own fruit and vegetables and keeps chickens, ducks, and guinea-fowl, he draws hope from the legacy of the campaign.
‘I feel like, before the Bight victory it had been a while since people power had had a win against big mining companies in Australia.’
‘It seemed like you were always fighting an uphill battle but these past few months it’s been really heartening to see some of the really big fights that the Surfrider Foundation has really got behind.
‘They’ve had a couple of big wins, and it’s been awesome to see that people power get results. To see a local movement spread to a national protest was pretty huge, then for everyone to see Equinor pull out, and feel like they might have played a part in them coming to that decision, probably put a lot of fire up people’s backsides to get out there and fight issues closer to home.’
Drilling Off The East Coast? Protest PEP-11 at One of These Paddle Out Events
Heath mentions the recent victory of the Save Westernport campaign in Victoria, which involved the local community in Westernport standing together and successfully opposing energy company AGL’s proposed gas import terminal and pipeline at Crib Point.
But climate action isn’t limited to protests and campaigning. These are just two of the many important actions adventure-lovers can take in order to stand together and fight for the places we love.
‘I always really encourage people to get linked up with the climate movement’, says Vicki Adams, ‘and the way to do that is to find a group, any group that appeals to you, and connect in some way.’
Vicki is the founder of Outdoors People for Climate Action (OPCA), whose mission is to protect the outdoors in the face of the climate crisis by driving bold action among outdoor lovers. And she practices what she preaches.
In 2019, she was inspired by witnessing the school strikes in Alice Springs, and decided to take a year off from working as an outdoor ed instructor in order to concentrate on climate activism.
‘I went on the internet and I actually spent time reading about the topic. You don’t need to read very far to get some basic understanding of an issue. I realised how bad it was, and that’s when I really wanted to learn more about climate action, and to take climate action. So, in Sydney, I started going to protests and stuff.’
Not long after Vicki started going to protests, the bushfire season ‘exploded’, as she puts it. Witnessing many of the areas she’d explored and worked in burn motivated Vicki to found OPCA. Vicki sets out OPCA’s goals as to sound the alarm, empower action, as well as ‘to take tangible action’, which Vicki describes as ‘anything from personal actions like saving energy to political actions like protesting and lobbying’.
The latter is one of OPCA’s ‘Anywhere Actions’, one of several actions that, as the name suggests, can be done from anywhere, with other options including signing petitions, sending an email, or making waves on social media.
The impact these actions can have is not to be underestimated. ‘The thing that I try to communicate to people is that every tonne of CO₂ that goes into the atmosphere matters’, says Vicki. ‘Personal actions matter, and our personal footprints matter. Everything you do matters, whatever it is. Every single thing adds up and makes a huge difference.’
The single actions Vicki describes all create ripples. Put together, they make waves.
‘They play a huge role in individual empowerment and collective action’, explains trail-runner Elle Finch. Elle is a member of the For Wild Places crew, a group of ‘sports activists’ who lead the running community into immediate action to protect places of environmental and cultural significance.
They’re behind the takayna trail ultramarathon and are working on another race in the Pilliga.
Like Vicki, Elle’s first recommendation to anyone considering taking climate action is: focus on what you can do. ‘Self-education is a very important place to start’, Elle tells me.
‘Understanding your own contributions to climate change can help break down a very overwhelming issue into smaller, more manageable parts that you can choose to focus on.’
After speaking to Elle and Vicki, it’s hardly surprising that I was inspired to reflect on my own carbon footprint, and look for changes I could make.
But in addition to this reflection, my conversations with them, and with Heath, Yolanda, Helene and Lucy, all brought me back to the same thing: our shared love of getting outside and exploring the world’s wild places.
The same wild places that inspired me to write this article, and that have inspired countless other outdoor-lovers, adventurers, and Explorers to take action.
It’s this shared love and respect for the outdoors that inspires me, along with our shared knowledge that these wild, untouched, natural places are worth protecting.
Feature photo by @hallvardkolltveit courtesy of Patagonia