I'm sitting here, trying to come to terms with answering a set of questions sent by the RUSSH team in the wake of a devastating tragedy off the coast of Greece. A boat carrying hundreds of people desperately seeking asylum sank, with many women and children trapped in the underneath cabin. The majority of the people are assumed dead, with bodies throughout the Mediterranean. It's nearly impossible for me to talk about the boat accident my family and I were in – it feels disgustingly insignificant. Yet, inequality continues to polarise the human experience, as it does in the climate space. Yes, we are all feeling the effects of climate change, but we are not all feeling them equally.
Sometimes our experiences open us up to a greater sense of empathy, helping us understand what others are going through. If my family and I were impacted by the effects of climate change only one hour outside of Sydney's CBD, then we must think hard about what it's like in more remote and neglected areas. Shortly before the boat accident, which happened during the first major floods in New South Wales in March 2021, my partner Daniel Stricker travelled to Samoa to record the stories of a village that was destroyed by floods. The chief of this particular village lost his wife, house, and practically the entire town to the natural disaster. To mourn, the chief left his village for many months while the rest of the villagers rebuilt his house. He is now the only member of the village living by the water; everyone else has moved into the hills. Personally, in our accident, there was a moment when Daniel thought he had lost his entire family.
During the NSW floods, we were at my parents' place in Lower Portland on Darug Country when police pulled into our flooded front yard in boats. They strongly advised us to evacuate the property and my kids (aged 4 and 7), Dan, and I were placed on a police boat and transferred to an SES vehicle. While on the raging river, the SES evacuation boat got caught on a low-lying power cable and flipped upside down. I was trapped underneath the front cabin, in pitch blackness, with a 10cm air pocket, the smell of petrol, and my two children – one of whom had never swum before. I had to teach her to hold her breath in the dark and hope for the best as I pushed her head under the water to move from one cabin to the next. When we reached the back of the boat, I had to leave them holding onto a life jacket while I dived down to find a way out from underneath the fast-sinking boat. We were all certain that we were going to die – a situation no child should ever experience. However, we managed to get out, and although our story has left us with emotional scars, it was a story of survival.
Unfortunately, many similar situations end in tragedy, and such devastating circumstances will only worsen. More and more people will find themselves in emergency situations, and more and more people will be displaced. What my family went through seems small compared to what a lot of people experience, but it allowed me to emotionally connect with the critical situation at hand.
The healing process for me and my family has been difficult. Initially, I was angry at the police that my family was unnecessarily put in a dangerous situation. Then I had the brutal realization that nobody would help save my children's lives except me – an understanding I now feel grateful for. We must understand that no one is going to save us except each other; it's naive to think otherwise. This holds true for taking action on climate change as well. We can't sit and wait to be saved because the world doesn't work like that.
When I finally found some kind of forgiveness for the people involved in the boat accident, I had to seek forgiveness for myself. It's natural to blame oneself to some degree when your children are involved.
Later, learning we are survivors of a climate crisis kicked up new feelings of shock, anger, and frustration on a much greater and more complicated scale. I had never considered what we went through as part of the climate crisis – I was too immersed in the emotions of our personal experience. After connecting with Groundswell, I began to see the bigger problem. Climate change is a problem of people.
With this realisation, a new healing process began. I couldn't simply shift the blame to someone else; I had to take responsibility and take action. I felt foolish for not understanding this earlier – for not seeing the floods as a consequence of climate change. I mean, of course I did! I just didn't connect the dots and see that climate change was directly affecting me and my family. This is an important point – we need to understand that these situations will affect us and our loved ones. People need to shift their thinking from "that won't be a problem for me" to "okay, that could happen to me and my loved ones" and broaden our perspective to see how people outside their social bubble have already been affected, and for some time.
As a mother, it has become one of my life missions to raise children with a deep love and respect for nature. I believe this is one of the most fundamental and important ways parents can shape a child's upbringing in a world that needs to be highly climate conscious. My children are anxious about the state of things. Just the other day, my daughter said, "If you take a plastic bag, you have the blood of Mother Nature on your hands". It may sound dramatic and intense, but she's right. After 2030, a certain amount of climate change will be locked in and much harder to address. So, this window of time we're currently in is powerful, and it's crucial to take action on climate change while we still can.
The kind of change that needs to happen now is at a systemic level – we need significant changes in policy, law, and business that prioritise the end of fossil fuels and a transition to a renewable economy. To me, one of the most significant long-term impacts we can have, in addition to raising children deeply connected to the Earth, is to listen to the people who have cared for this land and continue to do so. For tens of thousands of years, First Nations people have been cultivating, nurturing, and caring for the Australian landscape in ways that most Australians have never considered.
Through my connection with the Groundswell community, I had the wonderful opportunity to engage with many powerful and deeply educational voices, such as Torres Strait Island woman Tishiko King. Tishiko has represented the SEED Indigenous Youth Climate Network and Our Islands Our Home at the UN COP26 Climate Talks. Our Islands Our Home is a campaign led by Torres Strait Islanders to protect their island homes. On September 23, 2022, the Torres Strait 8 made international legal history when the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Australian Government was violating its human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islanders by failing to act on climate change. This landmark decision obliges the Government to do whatever it takes to ensure the safe existence of the islands, setting a precedent for Indigenous Peoples all around the world.
We need to create the future we want to live in. We are lucky to live in this county and luckier still to have people like Tishiko willing to lead our country in the climate space. How is it that we are in the year 2023, and there is still no voice of recognition in the constitution or Treaty for Australia's First People? One thing I would like for the future of this country is to see Australia's First Nations people, like Tishiko, as leaders in discussions and decision-making for the country, advising the nation on climate matters.
With humans causing climate change, largely by burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, the most urgent thing we need to do now is reduce emissions at a rapid rate. As individuals, it can be challenging to know how to make an impact, especially at a systemic level. But systems change will only happen if we demand it and while you don’t need to excel at climate action every single day, there are some important steps we can take to send a message to those in powerful government and business positions that community demand for climate action is strong. Steps like, changing your energy provider to renewable energy, voting for candidates driving climate action policy and switching your bank and superannuation to funds that do not invest in fossil fuels.
And then there’s the many incredible climate groups working behind the scenes on climate solutions and driving ambitious climate action in Australia. Supporting them is one of the most impactful things we can do right now. Among others, I contribute to Groundswell. Groundswell was founded by three remarkable women in response to the Black Summer fires. As a community, they raise money for climate action and 100% of those funds are granted to high-impact organisations, like Our Islands Our Homes, who are making real progress on climate action.
My family is not the same since the floods. There will always be an aspect of fear that lingers, and a sense of trust that may never fully return. But channelling this into climate action and supporting climate solutions as they build momentum, gives me hope during this critical time that we can turn climate change around.