The continuing emergency of our time

A couple of weeks ago, climate change and energy minister Chris Bowen and assistant minister Jenny McAllister sat down with a group of retired fire and other emergency chiefs to get their heads around Australia’s disaster preparedness.

The spokesperson for Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, former NSW fire chief Greg Mullins, contrasted that reception with the group’s experience three years earlier when it tried unsuccessfully to warn the former government that we were ill-prepared for a fiery summer.

But he didn’t feel relieved: “It’s taken a lot to get to this point. We’ve already lost so much, to the fires, and the floods. We’ve lost a decade to denial and delay. And now, drastic action must be taken.”

Mullins and his colleagues are straight talkers because in an emergency you must speak truth to power. After all that’s happened the ministers will surely understand that.

But it’s no longer possible for any government, no matter how competent, to meet every demand, because we are all living in an emergency, right here, right now.

Emergency takes many forms, depending where we live and where we fit in the scheme of things. No two people feel it the same way or with the same level of intensity, but it’s inescapable. Even if you’re not directly in the firing line, just a few minutes taking in today’s news will tell you much the same. A storm of issues is engulfing us, at home and globally.

Health and education systems are failing. Staff shortages have left schools, childcare, hospitals, ambulance services and aged care in crisis. Teachers, carers, doctors, nurses, paramedics are calling in sick or self-isolating with Covid. In the worst cases they are giving up, leaving jobs which for many have been their life’s vocation, because they’re exhausted.

The result is that people who need attention are not getting it. Ambulances are queuing at hospitals because there’s no-one to receive their patients. Old and sick people are suffering and dying from want of help. Parents are being run ragged and children are missing schooling. All involved feel stressed; some are traumatised.

A housing emergency is leaving large numbers of people sleeping in caravans or sheds (if they’re lucky) or cars or tents. Or in the worst case out in the open. Some have left their homes because they’ve been bashed or threatened with violence. Some can’t meet their rising rents. An unpayable mortgage isn’t yet on that list, but it may soon be.

Some people have seen their homes destroyed or made unliveable by fire, flood or storm. In the absence of outside help they are struggling to survive. Inevitably, some of them don’t.

Those lucky enough to have a home face cost-of-living pressures. High and rising petrol and gas prices are driving up the cost of heating, cooking and transporting ourselves and our families. For most of us this doesn’t yet rate as an emergency, but it’s heading that way.

As the world continues to struggle with undiminished Covid, developed countries are experiencing a sudden uptick in mental illness, affecting people of all ages but especially the young and those in what we used to consider the prime of their lives. Their needs are pushing demands on psychiatric services through the roof: an emergency in itself, by any measure.

The political saga triggered by Donald Trump’s attempted coup, coupled with the uniquely American gun crisis and the right-wing extremism that led to them both, gravely threaten US civil society and democracy, a threat thrown into sharper relief by the rise of tyranny in Russia and China. America’s emergency is ours, too.

These things are happening in wealthy nations ostensibly at peace, but the emergency is many times greater in nations at war, or in developing countries hit by internal strife, famine and other disasters. 

All of the above pales into insignificance alongside what climate change is capable of doing to us. With carbon dioxide levels now over 50 per cent higher than in pre-industrial times and rising as fast as ever, world emissions must be cut by well over 40 per cent by 2030 to avoid the worst.

The cascade of emergencies we face demands that politicians put aside egos and point-scoring and start listening, especially to experienced emergency hands like Greg Mullins. Then we might start to get somewhere.

• Jan Linehan, a gifted legal academic, a passionate champion for human rights and climate justice, a deep thinker and a good friend, died in Hobart last week after a short illness. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.

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