Feeling climate change in my heart

“For a long time we have understood the implications of global warming in our heads. But Australians need to feel it in their hearts.”

So said the campaign coordinator from Greenpeace, who organised a speaking tour of Pacific islanders who told us – passionately, desperately – that their homes are drowning.

It’s gone past the point of mere intellectual concern; of artificial apocalyptic images produced by and aimed at the middle class intelligentsia. It’s gone past optimistic campaigns – environmental rock concerts, exercises in switching off lights for a particular off-peak hour. All it once, it seems, the issue of climate change has shot past all this and triggered in me a kind of heart-sinking despair.

The Age announced last week that this coming summer would be the worst fire season ever. I read the headline with a crinkled forehead and a constricting stomach. How can this be? What about a grace period of a few years – time to recover, to prepare? I imagined fireballs, thrown relentlessly from heaven at my friends and family in the bush, for every summer to come.

But it is not God who sends these plagues, any more than it is God who causes people to be homeless or dispossessed from their generational lands. We brought on our environmental woes when we decided that we were tougher than our planet, that we could use her up and discard her carcass and live happily ever after.

Or maybe it’s wrong to say ‘we’, for surely it’s not all of us? What we see now –smoke unfurling into the sky, machines swallowing whole forests – is the product of a particular system; a particular kind of greed. Western capitalism, with its guns and handbags, surges on while the people of other worldviews and other social systems look on in dismay.

And so our Pacific island neighbours suffer at the hands of a new kind of colonising force – one that steals land and destroys cultures (benefiting only the coloniser) as effectively as any of the past. King tides from the ocean lap at their coconut palms and taro plants, polluting their water supply. People with nowhere else to go evacuate flooded houses…until the next time. Or until their island home disappears altogether.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked a woman from Kirabati, pacing the room and talking in high, urgent tones. Australia, she says, is part of the Pacific family, and has also been part of the problem. When will Australia take responsibility and stop polluting the air? When will Australia pull its proper weight to help its family members adapt to rising sea levels? Am I my brother’s keeper?

Australia seems completely inept at responding to this crisis. How can we be using numbers like ‘5 percent’ when the firestorms have already started raging, and family members have already started drowning? How can we think that the solution lies in turning appliances off at the point, while the real problem is industry and consumerism? What has to happen before governments do something?

Government is wooed by the tea parties of people with shiny shoes and sharp teeth, while the vibrations of a monster’s feet rattle the teacups.

I’m feeling it. I’m feeling it in my heart.