• An Australian Christmas

    Christmas, as is often said, is a time for families – and, I’m glad to say, we are no exception. My wife and I have had the pleasure of being joined this year by our son, his wife and their three (now grown-up) children from the UK.

    They are no strangers to New Zealand, having holidayed here repeatedly over the years – and they are always delighted to see not only their grandparents but also their New Zealand aunt and three New Zealand cousins. As a result, we have had a houseful of no fewer than eleven people and, because the English and New Zealand cousins all get on so well (give or take some friendly rivalry and differing views over the odd rugby or cricket contest), a wonderful time is guaranteed for all.

    On an earlier visit, a couple of years ago, our visiting UK family all took the trip to White Island, and on their return back home regaled their friends with accounts of what they had seen. So they had a special interest in, and were aghast at, the tragic outcomes of the eruption on Whakaari and have been fascinated and alarmed at the plumes of steam still rising from the island and visible from our deck.

    But the disaster that has also captured our attention over the holiday period has been the bush fires raging out of control in Australia. It has been hard to credit the pictures of flames engulfing vast areas of bush and pasture, destroying houses, buildings and cars – to say nothing of the fatalities and injuries, and the impact on wild life. Whole towns are threatened, and air quality in the big cities has become a health hazard.

    Even at this time of Christmas celebration and joy, it behoves us to pause for at least a moment and to consider the full implications of the Australian nightmare. The message being delivered by the flames is that human habitation in Australia is now seriously under threat – and, furthermore, that it is human habitation that has itself created the crisis.

    When a land mass the size of Australia heats to its current level, we are perilously close to the point of no return. The record temperatures are not just the consequence of global warming but have become a major contributor to it. Australia has become, first, a huge repository of stored heat and, secondly, a damaging source of heat released into the atmosphere.

    The Australian Prime Minster, Scott Morrison, attracted fierce criticism for departing on holiday to Hawaii while his countrymen were burning up. But his real dereliction of duty has been to lead a government whose programme, despite the growing evidence that climate change now threatens his country, is to intensify and apply the free-market doctrines that have produced global heating in the first place.

    There is no salvation for any of us (and we are all potentially likely to face Australian-style problems if nothing changes) if we go on asserting that nothing need change – and that “business as usual” must be maintained.

    If further global warming is to be avoided, or at least restrained, we have to accept that the so-called “free market” cannot be allowed to go on calling the shots. The market has many strengths but the single bottom line is not one of them. If we are to treat global warming seriously, we have to adopt an economic system that takes account of wider considerations than simply profit and loss and the quest for the best financial return on investment.

    What this means – that government must intercede (in the public interest) in business and in private sector operations – will be unpalatable to many. But the choice is clear – do we give priority to political dogma or to the future of the planet?

    Now is the time to put to the test the strength of our resolve and to meet our obligations to future generations. If the human race is to have a future, and if our planet is to remain habitable, the time to act is now. Our own government, no less than their Australian counterparts, must now show, on issues like offshore drilling for oil, that it recognises the seriousness of the challenge.

    Bryan Gould

    25 December 2019