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Week Forty-Two - People

We're like an ant colony. If every ant does the right thing, we can handle this.

My first-grader

- I wish we could go to the beach for Christmas.


- I hope the beach is still there at Easter.

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Little changes = big impact

Two years ago, I set out to cut my carbon footprint by 75%, one week at a time. I tried simple lifestyle changes, like turning down the heater, riding a bike instead of driving and eating less meat. I used carbon accounting to get my results. My family tested out big changes and kept the ones we liked. I trialled more moderate steps for the average Australian.

When I began, I had no idea if a 75% cut was possible. I didn't even know what my carbon footprint was. I thought all the political noise about making tiny carbon cuts meant real action was out of reach. I was wrong.

I've overachieved my goal. I cut 77% from the average Australian footprint with simple lifestyle changes that anyone can make. I'm on track to cut 82% from my own. Cutting carbon is not merely possible, it's easy. So give it a go!

Climate change = people

Climate change is not about science or politics or economics. It's about people. We caused this. We could be destroyed by this. But we can also fix this.

When I started my project in 2018, I thought I'd finish by putting a human face on climate change. I intended to interview a Kiribatian or Fijian about the impacts on their country. I thought we'd discuss rising sea levels and island food production and village fisheries management.

But now that it's 2020, I don't need to look overseas. We have climate change refugees right here. Whole families are refugees at the South Coast their homes burnt down. All summer, those fires threatened me and my family, too. My house and streets filled with smoke 35 times higher than the hazardous level. My friends were hospitalized. Workplaces shut down. Planes stopped flying. The post stopped running. Plants and animals burned or starved to death. Many evacuated the nation's capital and some have not returned.

Climate change is here. It affects us all. Our wealth, our health, our friends, our kids. So instead of interviewing someone else from somewhere else, I interviewed a man affected by climate change who lives in my city.

An interview with Ted Pettigrove, manager of the 2020 Broulee evacuation centre

Ted lives in Canberra and holidays at Broulee. He's a volunteer and Patrol Captain for the Broulee Surf Club. Ted found a new role on New Year's Eve running a bushfire evacuation centre.

Tell me about the New Year's fires at Broulee?

I was at Broulee with my family for Christmas. The fires were all around in the lead-up to New Year's Eve. At 6.30am, we received a text saying we should evacuate. We could see the glow in Mogo and Rosedale nearby. We spoke to the crew and decided to set up the surf club as an evacuation centre. Dad stayed behind to protect our property. I ran the surf club.

By 9.30am, the fires were close. We set up at the club with first aid suppplies, oxygen, radios and canteen water bottles. We were in contact with Surfcom, who relayed messages to emergency services. About 10.30am, power and communications went down. The fires hit before 11am. The firefront reached Broulee road and the town evacuated. We had about 500 people by then. We got them down onto the beach. With the fire so close, the surf club wasn't the safest.

There was a southerly behind us and a northerly in front from the fire. It was strange, my back was cold but I had heat on my face. The beach was a wind storm, sand was ripping everywhere and people weren't too happy about it. A family came in from a bush property. They'd stayed to try and defend but they said, never again. Their clothes stank of smoke. The father was really struggling with emphysema. We gave them oxygen. At around 11.30am, the southerly blew the fire back on itself. By 2pm, were safe.

The second day of hell came a few days later with the fires north of Batemans Bay and near Moruya. They'd made firewalls by then, clearing the trees so they had flat ground to fight on. I saw good reactive work but not much was happening proactively. The surf club posted information about what was going on. I later found out my girlfriend in Canberra had better South Coast warnings than we did. But the surf club used our resources and training well. We had first aid training and our IRBs helped with evacuations [inflatable rescue boats]. People wanted to help with animal rescues too but we weren't trained or set up for it.

Broulee ended up as one of the lucky areas. Mogo, Rosedale and South Durras got hit hard. The Mogo Indigenous community will really struggle with support and housing. We had around 500 people and we were well resourced to cope. Some community centres operating as evacuation centres had 5,000 to 8,000 people to look after. That must have been tough.

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Little people gather on South Broulee Surf Beach as a big fire approaches on 31.12.2019.

Do you feel differently about climate change now?

Not really. We knew this was coming. This is the inevitable impact of climate change. We have to do what we can to reduce our emissions and work on systems to cope. It's hard sometimes when you think how little an impact you have, but it's like an ant colony. If every ant in the colony does the right thing, we'll handle this.

Interview ends.

Why didn't someone warn us?

Ah, Cassandra's problem. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was cursed to accurately predict the future but never to be believed. She must have been a climate scientist. Experts have been telling the truth about climate change for decades. Those in power did not heed the warnings.

The Garnaut Report in 2008 said climate change would bring extreme bushfires by 2020. In brighter news, that report also showed how Australia could cut carbon, create prosperity and raise living standards all at once. Does that sound good? Then let's stop voting in politicians that disagree.

Ross Garnaut's vision would have been easier to achieve if we'd started in 2010 (or 2000 or 1988). But it's not too late now. Consumption and emissions are increasing but technology is helping us. Renewables, electric cars and the share economy have all matured. Most businesses and the community are on side about the need to cut carbon. My personal experiment has convinced me it's not only easy to slash emissions, it actually makes life better.

Let's heed Ross Cassandra's warning. Let's get the whole colony together and each do our part. Make 2020 the year we got it right.

No spreadsheet this week but see Notes section for calculations on The Carbon Diet.