Over the past four months, Australia’s bushfires have killed at least 29 people, an estimated one billion animals, and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
As the crisis has deepened, so has public anxiety, leaving many people wondering where best to donate their money.
Millions of dollars have already poured in from around the world to help sustain the efforts of firefighters, rebuild habitats and look after injured wildlife, as well as help people rebuild their homes and livelihoods.
But environmental organisations are also seeing a surge in donations.
Greening Australia, one of the country’s largest climate and sustainability organisations, saw donations increase nine-fold between December 2019 and January 2020, compared to figures from the same period a year earlier.
“We’re getting unsolicited donations of $100,000, have heard people talking about million dollar donations and gifts, which is unusual in itself,” the organisation’s CEO Brendan Foran told HuffPost UK.
The group had been running a radio campaign, unconnected to the fires, which has driven some of that money, but Foran said even without it, donations have increased by almost 400% against the same time period.
“Without too much engagement people are doing an independent review of organisations that they want to give to and are passionate about, and in an exceptional volume,” he said.
“I have never seen anything like this before, and I’ve been in and around this stuff for 20 years. I’ve never seen it go like this.”
“People who may have thought climate change was a vague, distant threat are now breathing bushfire smoke and reeling from the lives lost, the thousands of houses destroyed and the death of possible a billion native animals.”
Global charities with links to Australia have also witnessed a similar pattern.
Friends of the Earth said that in the UK alone it had received more than £11,000 in donations for Australia, and are expecting to match the £15,000 they raised in donations during the Amazon fires in 2019.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace said it had seen a “significant increase” in the number of regular donations over the past year, adding: “We are confident this is linked to the rising number of world climate events that people are worried about, care about and want to take action on.”
Smoke from the fires has choked parts of Australia, and more than 10m hectares of land have been destroyed (nearly half the size of the UK, which is 24m hectares). Australians have been bombarded daily with horrific images – the charred remains of iconic species such as kangaroos and koalas, whole communities burnt to the ground, and holidaymakers forced to very shoreline of some beaches in order to escape the flames.
The Australian Conservation Foundation has described the intensity and scale of the fires as a “devastating wake-up call for many Australians”.
The foundation, which has deflected incoming donations towards the firefighting agencies and frontline services, said calls for climate action are now growing louder.
“People who may have thought climate change was a vague, distant threat are now breathing bushfire smoke and reeling from the lives lost, the thousands of houses destroyed and the death of possible a billion native animals,” a spokesperson told HuffPost UK.
“People can see climate change is here, now. The calls for climate action are growing louder. ACF’s community of supporters now numbers 600,000 and we expect that number to grow – and for donations to our work to increase – as more and more Australians demand a serious response to the climate crisis from our governments.”
The threat of bushfires is not new – they have arrived seasonally for thousands of years - but the increasingly volatile swings to scorching temperatures and months of severe drought brought by climate change have exacerbated the fires and, in the right conditions, allowed them to escalate to mega-blazes.
Some volunteer firefighters, many of whom had dealt with large fires lasting a day or so in the past, have been on firetrucks for months.
Australia’s indigenous people have been dealing with bushfires for millennia, using practices such as strategic burning during the country’s cooler season in order to create fire breaks – designed to halt the spread of flames throughout the otherwise unbroken vegetation of the bushland.
“Where you’ve got large areas of land under traditional ownership, there are very sophisticated and proven traditional ways of reducing fuel loads in high risk areas, and I’m very pleased to say there is a much more mature conversation emerging around the role of indigenous and traditional fire management practices,” Greening Australia’s Brendan Foran explained.
“People talk about innovation and technology, but we know that traditional fire management practices work, they’ve been proven over the course 60,000 years,” he added.
Whilst climate organisations and charities are reliant upon donations from concerned citizens, there’s a limit to how much they can achieve without the cooperation of governments and industry heavyweights.
Dr Angela Falconer is an associate director at the London headquarters of the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), which monitors and helps to improve a sector known as climate finance, which encapsulates how governments, businesses, and financial institutions financially address the climate crisis.
A major element of the Paris Agreement, signed by every country in the world (although the US has begun the process of withdrawing) was a pledge to limit the increase in global temperature to below 2C, with efforts to reach a more ambitious target of no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels in the long-term.
““We need to stop exporting these fossil fuels to be burnt in other countries. And there is no way new coal mines, like Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, should be allowed to proceed.””
Falconer explained that the landscape of current climate finance efforts is such that the world is on track to warm by 3C – and the pace of change is already proving incredibly destructive.
She said: “The Australian bushfires are one example of the frequency and magnitude of of natural hazards that are going to be triggered by climate change, that have been increasing globally.
“We’re already seeing that climate change and natural hazards are leading to economic damage, in addition to the impacts on on human and ecological health. So the proactive and reactive approaches of climate resilience and adaptation are really crucial.”
The UK is one of the leading contributors to climate finance, Angela explained, but while there are positive steps in the right direction worldwide, the picture below surface level is much murkier.
She said: “I think changes needed at all levels, from our individual choices, right through to company supply chains and government policy. We’ve got to make the best decisions we can, but we absolutely can’t do it without strong a government and really ambitious action.
“For example, when it comes to energy systems renewable generation investment compared to fossil fuel investment is pretty striking – there’s sort of a positive story to that, and a not so positive story.
“We found that there was £336b invested in renewables for 2017/2018, while in the same year there was £130b invested in fossil fuels – so there was actually two-and-a-half times more going into renewable generation than fossil fuel generation globally, which is a great indication we’re going in the right direction with energy systems.
“But if you look at the supply chain around fossil fuels – the oil, gas, coal supply chains – overall £800b was invested in the whole supply chain. So there’s still a huge amount of investment going towards activities that aren’t consistent with with low carbon, resilient future.”
The Australian government is under increasing pressure to act, with thousands of people marching in the streets of the country’s biggest cities - and around the world outside embassies - to demand change.
“The tragedy here would be if things didn’t change, not just for Australia but for the world.”
Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, has repeatedly drawn criticism for his handling of the fires – including taking a holiday to Hawaii as the fires began to worsen – and has widely been accused of downplaying the severity of the crisis.
Whilst the leader’s climate rhetoric has softened recently, on Wednesday he doubled down on his commitment to coal – stating: “Our resources industry is incredibly important to Australia, [it] is worth $70b (£36.9b) to Australia and it is important to communities across the country.”
Responding to the situation, a spokesperson for the ACF said the moment should be used to propel Australia forward as an international leader on climate action, instead of the country lagging behind.
“To date Australia has negotiated hard for weak emissions reduction targets and then has employed tricky loopholes to do much less than our fair share. We need to quickly transition our energy systems away from their reliance on coal and gas.
“We need to stop exporting these fossil fuels to be burnt in other countries. And there is no way new coal mines, like Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, should be allowed to proceed.”
Brendan Foran said: “I wish the circumstances were different – I get absolutely no comfort whatsoever from the fact it’s taken something like this to garner people’s hearts and minds at this level.
“However the tragedy here would be if things didn’t change, not just for Australia but for the world.
“We’ve got an opportunity here, we are a first world country, we enjoy a very high standard of living and we’ve got an opportunity to show that, and I truly believe this, that economies, communities and environment are connected in ways that can benefit them all.”