Kelly Slater and the Angriest Summer
Last weekend Kelly Slater, the most famous surfer in the world, posted to his 2.6 million Instagram followers a horrific image of one of the 480 million animals that have perished in the worst bushfires in Australian history, along with the words:
“I’m not sure a picture could better sum up the fear and devastation more succinctly. I’m no expert but from the messages and reading I’ve done on the subject, mismanagement of forest underbrush back-burning in the winter months and overall water resources have helped create a perfect storm in the face of this drought.”
I don’t know the provenance of the heart-wrenching photo of a juvenile kangaroo trapped on a fence while trying to escape the fires, other than it was published last week in News Limited media, but I do know a little of Kelly, and that his intentions in spreading awareness of our country’s horror would have been noble. (In fact he posted links to fundraising pages.)
But unfortunately his scattergun midnight Google research, revealing that mismanagement of “back-burning” was the main culprit, put him squarely (if unwittingly) in the camp of the fossil fuel corporations and the climate change deniers. Like the GOAT said, “I’m no expert…” But perhaps he may have been better informed if he’d included in his reading Australian Nerilie Abram’s report, Australia’s Angry Summer: This Is What Climate Change Looks Like, published on New Year’s Eve in the online edition of Scientific American.
Abram began: “Of course, unusually hot summers have happened in the past; so have bad bushfire seasons. But the link between the current extremes and anthropogenic climate change is scientifically undisputable.”
Spelling out the size of the dilemma for her American readership, she continued: “The fires raging across the southern half of the Australian continent this year have so far burned through more than five million hectares. To put that in context, the catastrophic 2018 fire season in California saw nearly 740,000 hectares burned.”
While this should not be a time for political point-scoring, I thought Abram’s conclusion was the most succinct summary of this horrific situation that I have read thus far: “The angry summer playing out in Australia right now was predictable. The scientific evidence is well known for how anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing long-term climate change and altering climate variability in ways that increase our fire risk. The role of climate change in the unprecedented fires gripping Australia is also well understood by our emergency services. Sadly, though, this summer has occurred against a backdrop in which the Australian government has argued, on the world stage, to scale back our greenhouse-gas-emissions-reduction targets. Our leaders are literally fiddling while the country burns.”
Meanwhile, as Australia’s East Coast burned last weekend, Kelly’s Insta post played out to middling reviews.
'Be Noble' responded: “Please don’t spread this misinformation. There’s only one reason this is the worst fire season ever - warming, drying climate.”
'Lewis Bassett' was even more brutal: “Didn’t you read about climate change bro, or d’you feel too guilty about constantly flying around the world to go there?”
But the one comment that brought tears to my eyes was from Mark Rabbidge, a surfer/shaper who has toiled valiantly and with great integrity in the trenches of the surfboard industry for as long as I can remember. Mark brought it all down to what is real at ground zero with these words from the front, clearly pumped into his phone with angry, ash-covered fingers: “I’ve been stuck at my surfboard shop at Bendalong for 6 days fighting this fire it’s come at us from all points of the compass yesterday was real bad felt like the end of the world we saved everything I’m over it”
Like all of former world champion Pam Burridge’s friends and followers, I’d been biting my nails as Pam posted updates daily over the New Year period on her frantic efforts to first get supplies to husband Mark at Bendalong, then just to contact him to know he was alive, as fires raged around the Conjola area, claiming nearly 100 homes. Thankfully it was a happy ending for the Rabbidge/Burridge family. For so many others it was not.
For me, safe in Noosa (although this long bushfire season that hasn’t always been the case) and watching the red flame icons on the TV maps, concerned about friends and family still in that part of the world, every image of an Armageddon sky brought back vivid memories of so many happy times in places now on fire. So many weekends surfing Green Island, just down the hill from where Mark Rabs and friends were holding back the flames; surfing alone at sunset near Mallacoota, not far from where 4,000 frightened people huddled on the beach waiting for rescue.
It’s almost impossible to reconcile those memories with the images on the TV news, but we must, because sadly we are going to see a lot more of them.