While we were listening to news of the G20 gathering in Brisbane and wondering how our government would respond to the major climate change initiative that the US and China have agreed to, the weather was doing its own thing.
Just a three hour drive south from downtown Brisbane, the town of Casino in northern New South Wales was experiencing a massive heatwave with temperatures up to and above 44C (111F). At those temperatures, flying-foxes start to die of heat stress. Grey-headed flying-foxes, already declared a threatened species and struggling against a barrage of perils, were dying again.
From the climate point of view, the timing was odd: mid-November (late spring), and already a heat wave of this magnitude. What does the summer have in store for us all? From the flying-fox point of view, the timing was disastrous. Their birthing time is October-November. The babies were still wholly dependent on their mothers’ milk, and indeed many were still dependent on their mother all the time, even when she flew out at night for food.
Mothers and babies were most vulnerable to heat stress.
The connection between heat and death is this: when temperatures reach 43°C (109°F) these lovely flying mammals ‘start to melt from the inside out’, as one scientist vividly described it. In the words of another scientist: in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of trees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’
The ground beneath a flying-fox camp becomes covered with flying-foxes most of whom, but not all, are dead. Mothers who die may yet have a living baby still clinging to the breast.
In the midst of all this heat and death, carers offer their dedicated labour. Systematically they sort through piles of dead flying-foxes to find any still alive. They euthanize those who can’t be saved, and they work round the clock to save those who can be rehydrated, allowed to recuperate, and released back into the bush. It is estimated that some 3000 individuals will die.
Given the time of year, there were many young orphans. Now they are now being fostered by flying-fox carers as far afield as Sydney.
All of this heat and mass death was taking place around the time that climate change was being discussed at the G20 gathering in Brisbane. US President Obama spoke movingly of Australia’s vulnerability to climate change. According to one report: “The science is in, he said, and Australia and the Pacific especially need to pay attention….”
“Extreme weather events, heatwaves, fires and the need to protect our beautiful Barrier Reef for generations to come make action imperative.”
By way of response, Australia’s Prime Minister Abbot rejected everything that was put to him both by President Obama and by the international community more widely. According to the Courier Mail: “Tony Abbott has rebuffed Barack Obama’s demand for increased action on climate change and openly clashed with the US President in a fiery end to Brisbane’s G20 leaders’ summit.”
“The Prime Minister muscled up to Mr Obama behind closed doors yesterday, declaring there could be no effective action on climate change without a strong economy and strongly endorsing fossil fuels.”
“He did not address calls to pay into a global Green Climate Fund backed by the US. He also refused to commit to new emissions reduction targets in the first quarter of next year, despite being urged to do so in the final G20 communique agreed by all leaders.”
Mr Abbot was in full frontal display as a master of zombie politics. The basic elements of zombie politics are fear, cruelty toward those who are vulnerable, and the vigorous defence of an ‘us-them’ boundary dedicated to the interests of the most powerful. Both at home and in the international sphere, zombie politics assert that dialogue is not really possible; all that matters is protecting one’s ’own’ against the others. The government’s ‘us-them’ commitments were clearly shown to be sick to the core: ‘us’ was implicitly defined as extractive industries, with fossil fuels at the centre. ‘Them’ included anyone who sought dialogue toward significantly reduced carbon emissions.
Back in northern New South Wales, rescue and clean-up continue. I am thinking about the two events – mass death and zombie politics – in the same frame. Along with being sickened by a federal government that revels in not caring for anyone but the powerful, I am also struck by the quality of local leadership. While Mr Abbot was refusing to lead the country on matters that affect the lives and well-being of humans and nonhumans alike, people who were experiencing the flying-fox heat death event were showing genuine and committed concern in matters of life and death.
Let us acknowledge these humans who show compassion, fair-mindedness and concern:
All praise to the carers. Their names have not appeared in the articles I have read, but we knew they are there, that their work is exhausting and traumatising, and that they hold fast to their commitments in the midst of it all.
All praise to public officers who have to manage the dead bodies, and who have remained grave and thoughtful. Mr John Walker of the Richmond Valley Council described the heat death event as a tragedy: “Whatever anyone’s opinion is either side of the bat debate, no one wishes this sort of tragedy on the bats.”
All praise to local residents who are experiencing the difficulties of sharing their parks and backyards with flying-foxes and never the less are able to balance inconvenience with awe and appreciation. Mr Paul Mackay of Casino spoke in an interview about the flying-foxes in his backyard. He showed himself to be an exemplary leader in multispecies co-existence and conviviality in this time when we need ever more respect across species and amongst humans.
My daughter Chantal Jackson is a mandala artist. She made this flying-fox mandala that praises the blessings of life on earth as they come forth in the mutualism of flying-foxes and flowering trees.
And so, with love and respect, let us yet again mourn the suffering and deaths of our fellow creatures in this time of escalating catastrophe. And let us honour the flying-fox survivors by doing all we can to assist them in their perilous lives.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
For information on Mr Walker’s statements, see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-17/dead-bats/5896002
For the video of interview with Mr Mackay see: http://www.northernstar.com.au/news/heatwave-kills-bat-colony/2456008/