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President’s Column: The Australian Bushfires and the 2020 ICA Conference

Posted By Terry Flew (Queensland U of Technology), Tuesday, February 11, 2020

As most ICA members will be aware, December 2019 and January 2020 saw a major bushfire crisis in Australia. Many parts of the country have been affected, particularly New South Wales and Victoria,  but also south-east Queensland and parts of South Australia and Western Australia. It is estimated that about 5 billion hectares of land were bushfire affected, and 24 people have lost their lives to the fires, as well as up to one billion animals. Some of the regions affected have never experienced bushfires, and the fires came after a prolonged period of drought and above-average temperatures during 2019. 

ICA members are no doubt wondering what they can do to assist, and may be reconsidering their attendance at the 70th Annual ICA Conference on the Gold Coast from 21-25 May. In terms of attending, it is very important to be aware that summer in Australia (now) is traditionally bushfire season. Climate change may lead to longer bushfire seasons and has led to an impact in places that do not typically experience bushfires. It has also generated some haze in cities such as Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, which have on some days been among the most polluted cities in the world. For the first time, summer sporting events such as the Australian Open tennis have been affected by adverse air quality. 

We do not expect such problems in May, which is late autumn leading into winter. We have already had some rain since the last time ICA sent out an update about this. It is also important to note that South-East Queensland, of which the Gold Coast region hosting the conference is a part, has only been slightly impacted by bushfires. 

If you wish to support bushfire relief, there are a number of ways to do so. You can donate to the Australian Red Cross at https://www.redcross.org.au/campaigns/disaster-relief-and-recovery-donate. If you are particularly concerned about the impact on wildlife, one of many groups that can be supported is WIRES https://www.wires.org.au/

At the same time, I am aware that Australia is a relatively affluent country, where governments can support disaster relief, and have done so. There has also been a great deal of activity and support from artists, musicians, sports people, non-government organizations and many others. Crowdfunding initiatives have been very important, ranging from comedian Celeste Barber’s GoFundMe initiative that raised over $50 million in donations to the #AuthorsForFireys and #ArtistsForFireys campaigns, which had raised over $250,000 by mid-January. 

One way of assisting when in Australia would be to visit bushfire affected regions to help local economies through tourism. Domestic tourism has taken a major hit over the summer, which is traditionally when Australians who live in major cities “go bush” with their families and friends. While most bushfire-affected are not close to the major coastal cities, you may want to visit regions close to the Gold Coast that experienced fire damage in late 2019. These include Lamington National Park, Tambourine Mountain, and the Noosa Shire region. They will require a car in order to be accessible.

There is considerable interest in indigenous land management techniques and the use of fire to manage country. If you want to educate yourself about these techniques, this resource provides a good place to start: https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/aboriginal-fire-management. The extent of the bushfire damage has been particularly traumatic for First Nations people, who have connections to country in many affected places that date back over thousands of years. A fundraising site dedicated to supporting Australian First Nations communities can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/fire-relief-fund-for-first-nations-communities?utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_lico+share-sheet.

The Australian bushfires have of course raised the issue of the relationship of adverse weather effects to human-induced climate change, as well as the inadequacy of responses of governments such as the Australian Federal Government to a looming global climate emergency. The impact of the bushfires on public opinion towards action on climate change has been significant. The Australian Academy of Science released a statement on Australia’s bushfires observing:

The scientific evidence base shows that as the world warms due to human induced climate change, we experience an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

As a nation, we must deal with extreme weather events more effectively than we currently do. As such events become more frequent and severe, we must adapt Australia and Australians accordingly, as well as strengthen mitigation efforts.

Bushfires, along with other weather and climate challenges, pose complex and wide-ranging problems. Population growth, climate change, temperature extremes, droughts, storms, wind and floods are intersecting in ways that are difficult to untangle and address.

The good news is that there is already abundant evidence available to help us understand the environment we live in and to design and build the future we want for Australia. There has never been a more important time to draw on that scientific evidence base to help guide Australia’s short- and long-term responses to the devastating bushfires ravaging our nation and that are causing uncertainty about our future.

An important way in which ICA scholars can assist is through their own research into the role of communication with regards to climate change and environmental issues. The Australian Academy of the Humanities has made the point that:

Humanities, arts and cultural research, with its deep understanding of human experience and knowledge and its detailed attention to locality, ecology and history, can make a significant contribution to the way in which communities not only rebuild in the wake of disaster but also in equipping Australians with the skills, knowledge and confidence they will need to deal with future crises, which are inevitable given the new challenges created by climate change.

There is also growing debate about the impact of air travel, including that associated with academic conferences, on the global environment. The ICA has recently approved a carbon offset program to be employed for all future conferences. After registering for the 2020 ICA Conference, you will have the option of clicking a link to pay a carbon offset fee directly to an organization working on climate change and various environmental projects around the world. When you complete your registration, you will receive a confirmation that details this and other information. 

In addition, there are numerous sessions addressing communication around climate change, including the sponsored session ICA Special Roundtable: Greening the Academy in Times of Crisis. The panel, organized by Benedetta Brevini (U of Sydney) and including ICA President-Elect Claes de Vreese (U of Amsterdam) and Current Chair of the Future of ICA Conferences Task Force Jeff Niederdeppe (Cornell U), among others, asks: What are the major challenges we face in greening the academy? What efforts have past and present conference organisers, committees and communities at conferences made to ensure our conference legacy aligns with positive environmental futures? How can we support global movements of activities? How can we ensure and push universities to divest? Come join the conversation. 

Terry Flew

ICA President

Tags:  January-February 2020 

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