Devastation and blindness in our High Country

Jan 15, 2023
Skier racing through a Ski Cross Course in Australia

One can only hope that the day is not too far away when “I was only doing my job” will be no more a defence against climate crimes than it is against war crimes.

Climate change has come to the Australian Alps, where the snow is failing and the snow gums are dying. But the skiers appear oblivious.

My wife and I recently spent a few days hiking in the Australian Alps. This was new territory for me – I’m not a skier – and it is stunningly beautiful.

But my most lasting impressions of our holiday are encapsulated in two images, reproduced here. They reveal a tale of climate catastrophe and willful blindness.

The first image is of dead snow gums.

Snow gums are surely one of Australia’s most remarkable and iconic trees. They are the only Australian trees which grow above the snowline. Not only do they survive snowy conditions, they also survive bushfires, growing new branches from underground lignotubers. But now there are great swathes of dead snowgums throughout the alpine regions. They are being killed by a “trifecta” of drought, fires and a species of wood-boring longicorn beetle. But really, I couldn’t help but conclude, these marvellously adapted survivors are being killed by climate change. And climate change will undoubtedly defeat them; if the changes were occurring over millennia, the trees could perhaps “migrate” to higher ground, although in Australia, there isn’t much higher to go; but with climate change now occurring faster than even climate scientists anticipated, there is no hope.

The second image is of a dam.

The dam is near the peak of a ski-resort mountain, built recently to supplement an older dam which is no longer adequate to meet the increasing demand for snowmaking for an increasing number of winter visitors. I struggled to comprehend what I was being told, yet nearly all the information I could find was full of excitement at the prospect of “better, more reliable skiing conditions …”; nowhere did I see the obvious second half of the sentence, “… despite the climate-change-induced steady reduction in Alpine snowfall”.

I found those two images really troubling. I wondered how much cognitive dissonance others experience as they look out the windows of their ski-lodge at dead and dying snowgums and then head off to spend a day skiing on artificial snow. Is it possible that they actually fail to see what is happening around them? Do they realise that our recent La Niña snow-seasons may well be the last with good natural snow cover? Have they not heard about Europe’s current stupendously hot winter, with many ski resorts closed because of a total absence of snow?

In general, I agree with the view put by Jeff Sparrow in his book “Crimes against nature” that it is both pointless and wrong to blame individuals for “causing” our climate catastrophe; that what we need to do is change the economic system which is its root cause. But the people seeing yet not seeing the dead snowgums, and enjoying the ski-runs without reflecting on how they are produced, are not just average people. Many of them are people with both the education and intellect to understand what is happening, and with the power and influence to radically change the nation’s responses to the impending climate catastrophe. But they don’t. They include the fossil fuel miners, exporters and investors, who continue to extract fossil fuels at an increasing rate; the bankers and financiers behind Australia’s more than one hundred planned new fossil fuel projects; the media proprietors and managers who deny, obfuscate or ignore the worsening frequency and severity of unnatural disasters; the lawyers who defend the status quo and stymie real action; the advertisers and marketers who promulgate the lies that “gas is cleaner than coal”, that “our coal is cleaner than foreign coal”, that “CCS is the solution”; the legislators who, ensnared by fossil fuel lobbyists, claim that “43% is enough” while clamping down brutally on climate protesters. The list outstrips my ability to regurgitate it!

To update Upton Sinclair’s famous aphorism, “it is difficult to get a person to understand climate catastrophe when his lifestyle and income depend on his not understanding it”. One can only hope that the day is not too far away when “I was only doing my job” will be no more a defence against climate crimes than it is against war crimes.

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