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Australia is Burning – How to respond as technology professionals

Unprecedented. Catastrophe. Horror. Devastation. Apocalyptic. Armageddon. These words that usually seem like hyperbole outside of science fiction movies now hardly seem sufficient to describe what has happened in Australia over the last few weeks.  People have been reaching for new words to describe it. Ecological catastrophe. Ecocide. Hellfire.

Surely we must find a way to stop this. Surely we must find better ways to keep people safe while we stop this.

But what can I do? As a person?  As a STEM professional? As a SAP professional?  Surely, I can do more than just give goods, money, and encouragement?

Projections seen on the sails of the Sydney Opera House in recognition of the communities affected by fires across rural and regional Australia. Image: AAP

Most years the Christmas / Holiday break is a time of relaxation and recovery.  In Sydney and Australia, it’s the height of the Summer season with picnics, swimming at the pool or the beach, and sharing a barbecue with friends.  Not this year.

This year our picnic areas, our swimming pools, our beaches, our gardens are covered in a thin and persistent grime of gritty ash.

Even in our cities, where we are safe from the worst of the fires themselves, many days the acrid taste of smoke in the air has been so hazardous it’s risking your health to even go outside. Many days have been designated as total fire ban days. Even many of National Parks have been closed for fear of having to evacuate visitors.

So I spent most of the Christmas/New Year holidays sitting at home in Sydney listening to news bulletin after news bulletin after news bulletin.  Hearing a litany of the most awful real-life stories, and seeing a near constant stream of unthinkable images.

On social media the confronting images, panic, desperation, and the awful reality of people’s experiences have been a constant stream over weeks. It’s been building over months with record drought, increasing water restrictions, and dams at record lows.

While there are moments of brief respite, there’s still no real end in sight. After all we are only about halfway through the Australian Summer bushfire season.

It’s clear many of us both here and overseas are seeing the same images and feeling the same heartbreaking sense of loss and hopelessness, along with a desperate desire to help in any way we can.

I confess I am struggling with how I respond to all this as a SAP and STEM professional. 

Personally, I can and have given donations.  I’ve reached out to family, friends and colleagues to make sure they are safe.  I’ve encouraged and empathized with those directly affected in person and over social media.  I’ve reshared emergency relief and recovery agency contacts, encouraged those on the frontline, and countered disinformation where I can.  I continue to do so.

That’s not nothing – but it’s nowhere near a remedy.

I work for SAP, who works with over 430 000 organizations across 180 of the world’s 195 countries.

So what can I do to contribute to a solution?

How can I do my part to fix or mitigate the impacts of climate change?

A brief summary of the current situation

Bushfires are an expected and unavoidable part of the Australian Summer.  They are as inevitable a part of an Australian Summer as flies and sunburn.  We have had some shockingly bad fire seasons in past decades. But this year’s bushfires are exceptional in every worst possible way.

In September farmers were telling us this is the worst drought they have ever seen.

Climate experts who look at tree rings, Antarctic ice cores, and sediment records, had already told us this may be the worst drought in 800 years.

As far back as November we were already talking about this being an unprecedented bushfire season.

In middle of our hottest and driest heat wave, in mid-December, Australia experienced its hottest day ever, with average temperatures of 41.9C (107.4F).

So it is not entirely surprising that the shocking scale of the bushfires has increased by what feels like several orders of magnitude.  The statistics get worse every day.

Since the bushfire season started in September 2019 we have had:

Much of this has only happened since New Year’s Eve. We are only 2 weeks into the start of the new year. There’s at least another 2 months of bushfire season to come.

Sydney is known for being the first major city for New Year’s Eve fireworks. This year it felt like we were the first major country for severe climate change impacts.

Already many are talking about how we adapt to the “new normal” of longer and more severe bushfire seasons.

Early this week there was some welcome rain, and in this next 7 days we have a little more forecast, but it’s not enough.  We need around 200mm rain to put out the hundreds of bushfires still burning.  So far in the Greater Sydney Region we have had about 10mm rainfall. That’s enough to make the ground just damp enough to hinder further hazard reduction efforts before the next wave of hot weather.

Just as frightening as the fires has been the bushfire smoke.   Smoke so hazardous it’s exceeding the worst in the world, on some days estimated as equivalent to smoking 37 cigarettes per day.  Our major cities –  Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra – while mostly safe from flames have been inundated with smoke every few days. So many images in the news and on social media of smoke so thick it turns the sky orange, deep red, or black.

The smoke has drifted far and wide like a malevolent spirit.

My personal situation and observations

I’ve been one of the lucky ones – at least physically. Living in the suburbs of Sydney, at no point has my home in danger – the nearest bushfire was 11 km away, quite close enough!  The smoke is another matter. Several days I have been shut inside because the smoke levels are so unhealthy, it’s too dangerous to even go for a walk. I tried walking just a few hundred metres outside on one of the early smoke days, that was enough to bring on headaches and have me coughing for the next 3 days.

I know many of the beautiful little NSW South Coast towns worst affected by the bushfires intimately. As a family we have spent many happy times enjoying their pristine beaches and forests, relaxing in their cafes and restaurants, bought from their pottery and art shops, enjoying boat trips to see dolphins and whales.  And the impact on family, friends and colleagues is always on my mind.

I have school friend in Bundanoon who had to evacuate her home and with all her pets twice in 2 weeks.  My cousin lived in Bermagui for many years and his partner worked in Cobargo, which was decimated. I have friends with holiday houses there that had to be defended, and who have had the stress of not knowing for days if their property was still standing.  All of my team encouraged our colleagues who were even close to the fire, to come to a safer area, at least for the most dangerous weekends.

More heartbreaking is the loss of so much our unique and very precious wildlife. I’ve been privileged to travel to Antarctica, the High Arctic, to Alaska, to Africa, to the Galapagos, and all around Australia to see everything from koalas to sea otters, cockatoos to magnificent frigate birds, giraffes to leopards, penguins to blue whales.  So many of my personal bushfire donations have been aimed at wildlife recovery.

Professionally, I am fascinated by how over the last few days mobile apps have become primary lifesaving tools for many of us.  Popular apps used even in official government and media bulletins included:

  • Fires Near Me – current fire status, fire maps, and predicted fire spread from the Rural Fire Service
  • Live Traffic – for road closures and alerts
  • Bureau of Meteorology Weather
  • Air Visual – local air quality index with easy to read and colour-coded severity rating
  • Emergency – giving local and national emergency contacts
  • Facebook – for checking in with family and friends.

Even one of my banking apps was launching with the message: “Contact us on <phone number> if affected by bushfires”.

I was also delighted to see how inclusive media bulletins have become, with closed captions as standard, and sign language interpreters clearly visible in the news bulletins.

Tragedies bring out the best and the worst 

The best: leadership, sacrifice, and donations

We have had calm and focussed leadership from emergency services, and several of our local and state government leaders in all our major states of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia.

Our state New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, has been so impressive he has become an accidental cult hero.  An online petition has already raised over 20K signatures for him to be named Australian of the Year. A cartoon doing the rounds of social media rated him as more a hero than all the Marvel Avengers put together.

Those who work in our mostly volunteer rural fire services are lauded as heroes everywhere. They have been honoured over and over at sports events, community events, even on the sails of the Sydney Opera House.  Too often they lose income, and even their own homes while saving others. More than 59K signatures had already been gathered by mid-December to demand more resources and income loss relief for the volunteers.

Hundreds have turned out at funerals for those few who have lost their lives in the bushfires. Particularly heartrending were funerals for those who were firefighters themselves, some with small children or a pregnant wife left behind.

Donations have flooded in worldwide.

Celeste Barber, a comedienne, initially trying to raise 30K dollars, has now raised over 50 million dollars for the Rural Fire Services.

West Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest and his wife Nicola have given 70 million AUD to communities in need.

Pink and Better Midler donated 500K Dollars

Movie star Chris Hemsworth donated $1 million dollars.

Several sport stars have pledged their tournament winnings.  

Book authors are auctioning book signings and writing experiences to raise funds

Supermarkets have donated food and funds and provided practical help in packing water and food to go to fire affected areas.

Communities, sports groups, and even local coffee shops have raised money for bushfire victims both human and animal, and to revive communities.

Many people in our city suburbs raced down to the shops to buy goods to donate to the fire service and to those affected by bushfire. Children have been donating toys.  Those good at handcrafts have been making recovery pouches for wildlife.

Major global organizations, including SAP and Amazon, have donated. Many employers, including SAP and the federal government, have provided unlimited leave for employees who are volunteer firefighters.

Even countries that are considered financially poor compared to Australia have donated. Vanuatu gave 250K AUD Especially amazing since Vanuatu has its own climate change problems: the country is sinking as sea levels rise.

The Australian government has announced a 2 billion AUD bushfire recovery fund, and emphasized that this is on top of the usual range of services.

People have responded so incredibly generously that in some areas it’s become a problem, officials had to request people not to send physical donations (clothing, toys, food).  There’s nowhere to store them when your home and your community has burnt down.

If you have given a donation, then THANK YOU on behalf of all of us!

The worst: Greed, denial, and disinformation 

The bushfire disaster has also brought out the worst of human nature.

Looters in fire affected areas – police have set extra patrols and the courts have been as swift to punish

Scam charities – taking advantage of people’s generosity by leeching funds to personal accounts

Price gouging – some shops raising prices of scarce resources where people have already lost so much

Social media trolls – criticizing those giving donations for not giving to their preferred causes, not giving enough, not giving, not giving anonymously – often in contradiction of themselves.

Climate change deniers including some particularly manipulative parts of the media spreading rumours and disinformation.  Focussing attention on arguments and blame, instead of more constructive activities.  Such as inflating the role of minor contributors to the bushfires, e.g. arsonists, who based on the evidence start less than 2% of all bushfires. Even the Rural Fire Service Commissioner had to take time out of a media briefing in the middle of the fires to blast that particularly rumour.

Bots used as Tech4Bad – Augmenting disinformation & encouraging the worst of human nature.

Ineffective government responses – suffice to say the federal government has been on the back foot since some key leaders took overseas holidays at the most critical times.  And added insult to injury by being more interested in excusing their “we are doing enough” position than in truly focusing on the victims or the cause of the disaster

Optimism from the heat of despair

Personally, if only for my own sanity, I have to believe fixing climate change is achievable, and certainly that we can find better ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

However relying on national governments to provide the necessary leadership is clearly not going to get us there.  Inaction on climate change is rampant.  Even the best countries are currently rated as insufficient.  Climate accords are plagued by excuses and delays.  At the macro level the news is sill mostly bad.

Look harder though and there is still some cause for optimism.  While leaders of countries have failed to act adequately many states and cities are already doing more. They are acting not just for the benefit of all, but to make their states and cities more sustainable, and more livable. It’s not easy but it is achievable.

Some examples:

India has increased forest coverage by around 3%. In one day alone 220 million trees were planted. Delhi has just passed a policy aimed at reaching at least 25% electric vehicles by 2023.

China is making aggressive investments across renewables, energy efficiency and other reduction policies, and is fast becoming a leader on climate action.

In the United Kingdom, renewables already outcompete fossil fuels, and energy prices are getting cheaper as a result.

California currently produces 34% of electricity from renewables and now requires all new homes to have solar power.

In Sweden renewable energy sources are expected to reach 50 per cent of the country’s gross final energy consumption this year.

Plus we have a some good precedents of fixing world problems with technology guided by science, provided we put the effort in. In only the last few decades we fixed Y2K so well many think it was a non-issue (victims of our own success). We have fixed the hole in the Ozone layer so well it has shrunk dramatically.

That sort of action takes all of us.  The scientists to see the problem. Leaders who have the will to understand the problem and drive action on it.  Professionals and experts to come up with solutions and implement them.  And many others to check, test, and support these actions.

Even when governments seem intransigent, there is still hope. Today – 12th January – our resistant, conservative Prime Minister has started to talk for the first time about increasing our emission reduction targets beyond what has already been committed.

So keep pushing for a more sustainable world wherever you can.

Like many large organizations, at SAP sustainability has been a top of mind goal for some years now.  As a SAP employee, I find it encouraging to see SAP’s new co-CEO Christian Klein chose sustainability for his speech at his first Davos 2020 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting on January 10.

How we can respond as technology professionals

So what can I do? What can you do? Especially as technology professionals.

I have a few suggestions.  I make them because even living in the midst of this bushfire disaster, I am finding it surprisingly easy to go back to normal as I go back to work.  But I do not want to go back to normal. Because normal will get us all killed. The planet will survive. We will not.

I’ve lived most of my life by one simple mantra that’s always helped me to find a way forward, to decide where to put my efforts and why:

If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Aim to be part of the solution

If you are looking to see how and where you can contribute, there is more scope to help than you might think. This disaster has driven this home to me in new and urgent ways.

Dealing with climate change isn’t just about sustainability. Dealing with climate change isn’t just increasing renewables and reducing emissions. We are already too late for those to be enough anyway.

A big part of dealing with climate change is now about managing disaster so most of us get through this.

Here in Australia we are having to bite down hard to manage the very real and immediate impacts on lives, properties, and communities. In the last few weeks we have had fuel and food shortages, road blockages, unreliable communications, and power outages. Major mental health impacts on both people and animals. Devastating loss of income. Loss of farms and farming communities, many of which were already in dire need due to the drought.

So we need better and faster ways to distribute much needed cash and services to survivors to help them get back on their feet.

There was also a reminder that we need to protect our existing renewables and check our disaster recovery plans. One fireball hit a renewable energy project and wiped out much of the town that supported it.

Whatever industry you are in, I’m sure you know much better than I do what can be done to reduce climate change or manage its impacts.  If not, please ask around. Maybe do some research. Google!

Avoid being part of the problem

At the very least, take responsibility for your personal footprint. Recycle. Turn the lights, air conditioning and heating off when you don’t need them. Walk or cycle or take public transport instead of using your car, where you can.  Many of us are doing this already.

Help to educate others. Try not to get into arguments. We have had so much of this over the last few weeks and it’s exhausting!  Granted accepting climate change is a kind of grief process – grief for what we have done to our own planet and ourselves – so denial, blame, anger and bargaining are no big surprise.

Just keep calm and relentlessly bring the facts.  Augment the reach of articles and scientific voices that point to real evidence.  Every claim or fact or dispute over the last few weeks has taken no more than a brief Google search to find a credible, evidence-based article that refutes it.

If you have friends or colleagues in climate change denial, introduce them to a new and very scary term: dry lightning.

Across all the news bulletins, and from the fire service authorities themselves, the majority cause in of new bushfires was dry lightning. That is, bushfires so big they create pyrocumulonimbus clouds up to 16 km in height that bring dry lightning (lightning with no rain) that starts the next bushfire.

If you have found a proof point or message that has turned around a friend or colleague, let us know.  I’m always open to suggestions!

If you have children, make sure they know what evidence is, how to fact check, and how to identify credible sources of information.  I can’t even count the number of times I have seen on social media opinion is posted as fact, without a shred of evidence or any credible source behind it.

My 2020 commitment to you

I’m sure there are many of you already out there and doing great things.

So here’s my 2020 sustainability commitment to you:

If you are working on a climate change initiative of any kind – personally or as part of your organization – send me some details and I will promote it on Twitter and LinkedIn.

If you are doing it with SAP platforms or SAP solutions and want to present it in a blog, a webinar or conference, reach out to me and I’ll help you find one. There are lots out there – DKOM, SAP User Group events, SAP Inside Tracks, Monthly Webinars, and of course SAPPHIRENOW and SAP TechEd.  Just remember the agenda for major conferences such as SAP TechEd and SAPPHIRENOW are usually finalized 6 months ahead of the event.

You can reach me:

My dream for New Year’s Eve 2021? It isn’t for smoke-free fireworks.  I want real hope. 

I am desperate for some genuine hope that we are moving towards a more sustainable world.

I really hope you are too.

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  • Nice blog, Jocelyn.  Kudos to you.  It was nice to see Shane Fitzsimmons, mentioned in your blog, video American firefighters arriving in Australia to help with the fight the fires.

    While I have donated to Country Fire Service in South Australia, my own personal story is that I am walking everywhere, instead of driving – sort of like the accidental environmentalist.  See how walking helps climate change.  I have driven less than 400 miles in total since last August.  I find that I am less stressed by not driving.  Bad weather?  I am still walking – in rain, sleet, and yes last week in snow.

    I am wishing/hoping for the best for Australia.

    Tammy

    • Thanks Tammy – thanks for your donation and hopes.  And thanks for leading by example! I try to walk as much as I can too & agree that walking reduces stress.

       

  • Thanks for this detailed account from the frontlines of the Australian bushfires, Jocelyn! I’ll ping you on Twitter about a “misinformation-fighting” crowdfunding project I’m involved with.

    Cheers and thanks for all that you do!

    Bärbel

  • Hi Jocelyn,

    A couple of points …

    The image of RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons pinning a medal on Harvey Keaton at his father Geoffrey Keaton’s funeral is particularly touching; his own father (George Fitzsimmons), a volunteer at the Duffys Forest brigade, died during an out of control fire in 2000.

    Nothing as brave or generous as our Firefighters, but I have just installed Solar Panels; Apart from whatever I save by using my Solar Panels during the day, my electricity provider will pay between 8 and 20 cents per kilowatt / hour for any excess I produce.

    Since I work from home (also saving time, money AND carbon) day time is when we tend to use the most electricity, and I’ve also noticed the family paying attention to when they do things like washing clothes (even when they ran their showers, till I reminded them them it was gas hot water system) and so on, so as to use the solar panels instead of the “imported” electricity.

    FWIW, with most Australian electricity providers, you can also buy into plans that supposedly supply you on electricity from renewables, but given how fungible electricity is, and the fact that we are on a national electricity grid, I’m not sure about how helpful it is (we are on such a plan anyway, as part of our Solar bu-back plan from our provider).

    hth

    • Thanks Martin! Great to hear all you and your family are doing.  I also mostly work from home (hoping it makes up for the inevitable overseas travel). Thanks for the reminder of those energy options, I use one of those “green” electricity plans myself – more than happy to pay a little extra to encourage renewables.  I’ve also late last year put a hybrid car on order… although they are getting so popular now there’s quite a queue.

    • We recently moved to a home with Solar and will increase renewables where we can. I was a bit disappointed that a month after we chose our provider (because of their rebate/incentive), we were advised they were reducing it. They were kind enough to send an email out explaining what it means to us – formatted as though it was a benefit that we’d receive less (i.e. our power cost will increase)…. email was sent during horror fire week last week….. didn’t think their timing for changing pricing was really smart and was tempted to slam them on Twitter.

       

       

  • Great blog as usual and really good summary pulling together the challenges

     

    I have two worries for our country as for 2020:

    (1) Cyclone season hasn’t really start. What will this look like this year and how many communities will be hit a second time

    (2) Charity Fatigue: The generosity has been amazing to see. Coming out of a Christmas period when most need to be back at work to pay off their credit cards and to see people giving what they can. However, I worry about the charities unrelated to the fires may struggle with their fundraising this year as the average person already allocated their funds. I really hope this is not the case. It is a pity that some of the donations this year were needed when perhaps our governments could have been more proactive.

     

    My family and I are starting to look at more sustainable measures. We recently move to a property that backs onto bushland. We are realising our personal obligation to maintain our place and remove debris, etc to minimise impact should a fire hit our area. We are also looking at general sustainability and recognising the climate impacts to our food supply.

     

    As communities get back up and running, we need the next wave of  charity to be time and adventure: get our and visit the communities (bring your own water to Stanthorpe) but go to the local business and spend. Imagine if every Australia did at least one weekend trip to regional Australia and spent locally… it could help some of these communities get back up and running. There’s also apps/sites for Buy from the Bush to allow regional businesses to advertise and get a wider customer base.

     

    I hope also it’s fireworks and celebration next year. However, I suspect we will enter a period of reflection as we recognise 1 year on.

    • Thanks Colleen.

      Agree with your concerns re charity fatigue – Australians are generous but everyone has a limit.

      I saw Stanthorpe on the news – whoever is close enough to visit – maybe come with your own water plus a small tank or crate of bottles to leave behind with the locals.

      How delightful be so close to bushland! There have some amazing stories about how the animals are surviving.

      A couple of my personal favourites:

      https://www.sciencealert.com/this-echidna-got-its-spikes-burnt-off-in-a-bushfire-and-we-can-t-stop-staring – no wonder Echidnas have survived so long!

      https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/experts-question-reports-of-wombats-heroic-bushfire-efforts-20200113-p53r57.html – I even got caught by this one – along with Greenpeace –  so it’s good to see the reality behind the myth

      https://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/massive-food-drop-to-help-save-endangered-wallabies-in-fire-affected-areas-20200112-p53qss.html – a particularly good use of carrots, which personally are not my favourite vegetable 🙂 so I’m happy to see them go to better use

       

       

      • Stanthorpe is about 2-3 hours from Brisbane (near Toowoomba). There has been a fair bit of water collection and distribution going on. However, think the water restrictions were in place prior to the fires – hasn’t helped!

         

        Stories are great and hopefully there’s focus on the full ecosystem – e.g. snakes and others – the koalas need the attention and look cute in photos but that aren’t the only ones suffering. Local animal hospital collection points have also been asking for expired medical supplies (e.g. bandages, tapes, saline) that can be used on the animals. I think all GP clinics, etc were encouraged to donate their stock instead of throwing it out. Spotlight shop has been giving out free material offcuts to for local sewing groups to make bandages for the animals as well. There are a heap of local grassroot community movements going on but I got impression charities can process the material donations ad are now needing cash for flexibility.

         

        yes, you’ll need to visit next time you’re out my way 🙂

        • Cool. Yes I always advise cash for donations… goods are great if you can meet the exact and requested need from someone on the ground who really knows what is needed and when. All else bring cash – much more useful. 😉

  • Thank you for sharing your tough situation there.

    I’m sorry to tell you that there are not enough concern on it here in Japan.

    Maybe we lost enough space in our mind it’s because we are also tired of our own things facing natural disasters like earthquake in the past and the future or terrible rain and typhoons every year.

    So I keep on checking YouTube channel of Australia’s ABC news and Singapore’s CNA.

    My family – as small lovers of wild lives – is caring for migratory birds from Northern Hemisphere passing by Japan, Korea, China this season. I know so many wild lives are gone. Hope the rest of them can survive safe and sound.

     

     

    • Thanks Hiroshi. Yes I can understand compassion fatigue from people in Japan with your history of more than your fair share of the world’s natural and man-made disasters.

      You have such a beautiful country – I was lucky enough to visit Tokyo in Cherry Blossom season a couple of years ago.

      We have many good news stories of wild life who have survived. There are some estimates though that it may be several more years before we can work out which have been lost – many were already shy and difficult to find.

      It’s so heartening to hear of your family caring for wild birds.

      Of all the wildlife here the birds do best in fires because they can usually fly (or for emus & cassowaries run) away.

      Thank you for sharing and for taking an interest in our situation.