This story includes details on the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.
As Lytton, British Columbia neared its second anniversary of being incinerated by wildfire, and the Canadian government warned of a dangerously fiery summer ahead, The Energy Mix sat down with Jo Dodds, president of Australia’s Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action, to talk about her organization’s fight to secure a safer future for everyone in her country, and everywhere else.
Founded in the tiny coastal town of Tathra, New South Wales in the wake of a devastating bushfire in March, 2018, Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action (BSCA), and Dodds herself remain heavily involved in pushing for stronger climate action, in NSW and at the national and international level.
In a widely-circulated YouTube video, Dodds can be seen directly addressing then-Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, excoriating him for refusing to acknowledge the connections between the ferocity of the fire that came close to destroying Tathra and the climate crisis.
“What has to burn, Prime Minister, before you smell the smoke?” she asks.
BSCA made international headlines in August, 2021 when the NSW Land and Environment Court accepted its claim that the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency (NSW EPA) had always been “an agency with teeth,” with both the power andthe legal responsibility to develop policies and guidelines to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and ensure a safe climate.
The court agreed with BSCA and its legal counsel, the Sydney-based Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), that the NSW EPA was required under the state’s 1997 Protection of the Environment Operations Act to measure and regulate greenhouse gases in the state. It ordered the EPA “to develop environmental quality objectives, guidelines, and policies to ensure environment protection from climate change.”
Pivotal in this decision was a November 4, 2020 ruling by the court that allowed expert testimony from Australian Chief Scientist Penny Sackett on whether emissions trajectories in New South Wales and Australia are on track to limit warming to 1.5°C. It was the first time an Australian court had allowed climate evidence to be heard in a case alleging a government’s failure to perform its statutory duty.
Following the court order, the EPA developed its Climate Change Policy and Climate Change Action Planfor 2023-2026, publishing it in January. The first such plan for any environment regulator in Australia, NSW’s effort appears to have pushed regulators in other states to stronger action, with the West Australia EPA updating its Environmental Factor Guideline for Greenhouse Gases in April, and a strong push in coal-heavy Queensland to establish a state EPA.
With its EPA win in hand, BSCA launched another law suit in July 2022, this time against the NSW Independent Planning Commission’s (IPC) April, 2022 approval of the extension of Whitehaven Coal’s Narrabri Mine, 900 kilometres north of Tathra in the northeast corner of NSW. Once again represented by the EDO, BSCA is arguing that the mine approval was “unreasonable, irrational, and illogical and not in the public interest,” given the connection between coal extraction and burning and climate change-fuelled extreme weather events. That list includes the so-called Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, as well as the floods that inundated Sydney last year.
The IPC’s ruling will allow Whitehaven Coal to extract an additional 82 million tonnes of coal by 2044, a process that BSCA says will generate at least 479.57 megatonnes of carbon dioxide or equivalent (CO2e) emissions. That’s roughly equal to the 488 megatonnes of CO2e the entire country produced in 2021.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It contains details about the impacts of the Australian bushfires on people and wildlife that some readers may find very distressing.
The Energy Mix: Could you tell us a bit about the circumstances that brought you to where you are today, president of the BSCA, fighting in the courts, and the court of public opinion, to force Australia’s state and federal leaders to finally take the climate crisis seriously?
Jo Dodds: Sure. Well, a big moment was back in 2009, when I was working in Melbourne, the state capital of Victoria, the state south of New South Wales. It was Black Saturday, February 7. The name Black Saturday now sometimes refers to the six weeks of fire that engulfed Victoria that year, but the name comes from the day that many of the 400+ fires involved began. 173 people died during the Black Saturday fires. 170 died on that Saturday, February 7.
And we were all so blasé, in the city. So completely blasé, so used to fires. But the heat. It was 50°C where we were in the city. 7° above typical for that time of year, at least. I remember I went outside for a very short amount of time to walk to the supermarket, and I had to stop twice and go inside a shop to let the heat radiate off. I’ve never felt the heat like that. It was incredible. At the end of that day, a mild, cool change [cold front] arrived in Melbourne, but it was this cool change that swung the fires and really drove them into populated areas. And that did most of the killing.
The Mix: Your website includes 16 very moving testimonials by members of BSCA, describing their experience with surviving a bushfire (in several cases more than one), and the aftermath. Most of them are women, and with one exception, all are white. Could you comment on the demographic makeup of the BSCA?
Dodds: Yeah, absolutely. BSCA is very white. Partly that’s because it was formed in the aftermath of the Tathra fire. [This 2018 fire incinerated 69 homes in Dodds’ hometown of Tathra, maximum population 600, on the spectacularly beautiful NSW coast, and nearly destroyed her own. That’s what made Dodds a “bushfire survivor” and turned her into a climate activist.]
Tathra is a very white, middle class town. Mostly it’s either retirees, or doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers. And Bega is a very white shire. There are Indigenous Australians still living here. But there’s still an incredibly pervasive segregation between us and them. We don’t mix socially. We don’t work in the same workplace. First Nations people who are employed tend to be in the designated First Nations, jobs, and organizations. It’s appalling.
And I think there’s a mixture of guilt and fear that stops white people from going and meeting Indigenous people and saying, “Look, you know, I read the history. I understand what happened. I’m truly deeply sorry about it.”
As for BSCA being mostly women—I go to probably 1,000 climate meetings a year. And it’s outrageous, but you know, it’s 90% women. Climate work takes all the time you have, it’s really stressful, and it’s important, the most important of all work. So, of course it’s falling to women.
The Mix: Switching now to the BSCA’s groundbreaking work on the climate litigation front. I notice that West Australia’s EPA updated its climate guidelines in April. Still nothing to write home about, but even so. Do you think your success in forcing the NSW EPA to abide by its founding laws and regulate climate emissions is having a ripple effect?
Dodds: Yeah, no doubt, because when we won our case, there was a lot of media about it. And other EPAs would have been watching and saying, “Let’s get ahead of the curve because someone’s going to come at us.” Meaning us, the BSCA, and damn right we’ll take you to court!
The Mix: Further to that, there’s talk of Queensland establishing an EPA. Public consultations closed last year. But can you tell me a bit about South Australia? They have an EPA, and their website has a post about climate change. Its opening salvo, right up there in bold, is: “Climate change is a change in weather patterns over a long period of time.”
Dodds: [Bitter laugh.] Yeah. Well. I’m not even sure how this has happened because the state doesn’t have, as far as I know, a lot of mining resources, but South Australia has just catapulted into the worst ranks in terms of cracking down on climate protests. The worst in Australia. Huge fines, huge jail terms, just for sitting on a road and stopping traffic with a climate sign. And this from a Labour government.
Actually, for the first time ever, all the mainland states in Australia have Labour governments. So it’s really disappointing to see the left wing governments go set up shop in the centre.
I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, but climate has been such a politicized issue here.
The Mix: Do you have another two hours to talk about that? [Laughing.] Yeah, here as well.
Moving on to your ongoing efforts to stop the expansion of the Narrabri Mine, the total projected emissions from the expansion are pegged at at least 479.57 Mt CO2e, which BSCA says would be “roughly equal to Australia’s current greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 which were 488 Mt CO2e.” Could your EPA with its freshly-sharpened teeth play any role in shutting down the expansion?
Dodds: Short answer: no. The expansion has already passed through the stages in the approval process where the EPA might be involved. And even now, we’re needing to watch the EPA closely to make sure they enforce their own laws. We’ve seen at least one project slip through without them saying boo. Because we’re watching them closely, we got in touch straight away and said, “Hey what gives? Why was that? Okay. And then?” And they say “Yes, well, we’re still getting organized and we, actually yeah, we probably should have.” And we say, “Yeah. You probably should have, because we could go back to court. There’s a court order.”
The Mix: Oh, my.
Dodds: Yeah. So clearly, it’s not enough to win a case. Even though we won the court case, we then have the responsibility to make sure the EPA follows through. Because if we don’t do that, no one’s watching and no one’s pursuing them. So, between us and the EDO [Environmental Defender’s Office, the BSCA’s co-plaintiff], we’re still in touch with them every week saying, “What are you up to?”
We’ve finally got the policies out in front, and we want the EPA to use them now. They’re not just in a cupboard for Christmas.
The Mix: Sticking with Narrabri for just a bit longer, I know the BSCA has expressed solidarity with Environmental Justice Australia and the Environment Council of Central Queensland in their ongoing legal challenge against Australia’s federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, who recently declared her decision not to consider the climate impacts of the Narrabri coal expansion. Could you comment on this decision?
Also, you mentioned that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese may be moving to create a federal EPA. Would such an entity have the authority to rule against a coal mine expansion like the one at Narrabri?
Dodds: Not sure whether even a federal EPA would have sufficient teeth for this one. But one of the things I am fascinated by, and am still trying to get solid usable answers on, is whether the minister actually has the power to say no. It’s quite possible she [Plibersek] hasn’t been given enough levers, but I would love her to tell me. No bullshit. Just give me the facts, please. You know, wave me a wave if you’re not the right person.
Like you mentioned, all the politicians talk about what is “feasible”, what is “politically possible”. I’m on social media a fair bit these days, saying, “well, let’s see, your decision today, will it make my house more or less likely to burn down?”
The Mix: As I know you know, Canada is already pretty much on fire, and quite a few media outlets have been looking to you all for some guidance, knowing that your country has been “living with fire” for millennia. Do you think this habituation to a degree of flammability (dry, hot, all those eucalyptus trees) might incline the average Australian to still shrug off the fires of 2009, 2018, 2019-2020, as just more of the same, and not part of a very different beast?
Dodds: It’s an interesting issue. Yeah. The thing is, with the exception of Tasmania and parts of the north, Australia is a fire-adapted landscape. It’s been that way for 80,000 to 100,000 years, with Indigenous peoples themselves using fire to create that landscape. But with them, you know, it was, and is, a symbiotic relationship. Now, with us, we’ve done two things: we removed the people who knew how to manage this landscape and the fire that shapes it, in doing so have removed the land’s greatest protector, andwe have allowed a whole country’s worth of landscape to become unmanaged. We’ve had 200 years of us not managing the landscape. Or, rather, managing it really badly.
And it isn’t just the land. It’s the water. We’ve tried to be English farmers in a fire-adapted landscape that was very fertile when we got here, but because we didn’t understand how the soil and the water worked together, we’ve lost so much of that.
The Mix: Could you say a bit more about Australia’s take on what we call “forest management” here in Canada? One of the conversations in Canada right now is the roll that poor forest management has played, and is playing, in the worsening wildfire situation. Do you think this statement applies in Australia?
Dodds: Well, here’s the thing. There’s a huge difference between so-called “controlled burning” and Indigenous cultural burning. Controlled burns, or “hazard-reduction burning”, gets done very badly in many places. When Tathra was burning, the then Mayor of the Shire (I was on council then) comes up to me and says, “Josephine, you’ve got to burn the bush before the bush burns you.” As if the alliteration would make bullshit sound less like it.
The thing is, there are right ways to do a burn: cool, and paying attention to things like humidity. The fires that are set by Indigenous people are less smoky, they release less CO2, they don’t destroy the soil. Controlled burns tend to run very hot—”burn the bush before the bush burns you!”—and bad things happen.
The other thing is a lot of people still don’t respect the fact that Indigenous cold burning is a cultural practice. It wasn’t invented to solve the climate problem.
The Mix: That takes us to another question. In Canada, and in the United States as well, one hears talk of firefighters talking about particular wildfires, but climate-charged wildfires in general, as “unstoppable.” Do you hear talk of this kind in Australia?
Dodds: Yeah, for sure. For quite a while now, there has been ELCA [Emergency Leaders for Climate Action]. These are the guys who were the fire chiefs, the big ones who saw what was happening and said, “this is outrageous”. Governments talk about arsonists “causing” the fires, not climate change. A spark is a spark. We’ve always had fires. It’s the frickin’ conditions, not the fires, that are the problem.
Those ELCA guys know, and they’ve said, “if we can’t fight these fires, all we can do is get communities out of the way.” They’ve set up a whole different category of warning for communities: the one with red stripes means, this is catastrophic, get out. ELCA’s leader, Greg Mullin, is a former state commissioner of fire and rescue, and he’s amazing, fantastic guy.
The Mix: Another of your bushfire survivor testimonials is by a volunteer firefighter, Allan Glover. He tells a joke that apparently does the rounds in NSW firefighting circles: that if all else fails, “we can use the Great Eastern Fire Break.” Asked what that is, your firefighter will reply: “The Pacific Ocean.” Not really a question, I realize.
Dodds: [Laughing.] No, but it is funny. And, not funny, that’s exactly what happened during the fires of 2019-2020, when people were actually called down on to the beaches, just to the south of us in Tathra. The navy had to come in and pick people up because there was only one road out and the whole forest coastline was on fire. They were from Mallacoota.
A bit later, I meet this couple in town with their dog. We get to talking and they tell me they’ve come north to get some space, but mostly for their dog, who’s been traumatized since the fire. Hates all loud noises. And then they just kind of look at each other and say, “it was the sound of the koalas burning that got us.” Sounded like children, screaming.
I’m sorry. I don’t tell that story very often.
The Mix: I’m glad you did. More people need to hear it. But it’s very tricky… not everyone.
Dodds: Yeah. It hits me that those [are the] front-line stories where people see and hear the most horrific things imaginable. I think those stories need to be acknowledged and told. But I wouldn’t tell young people that one. They didn’t create the climate problem. They shouldn’t have to solve it, but they’re going to have to face it. So it’s like, alright, so the story I give them is much more about the hope, and the action, of course, and the motivating stuff. But these decision-makers who are being recalcitrant? Maybe this is where I have to hit hard with the reality of koalas, screaming like children.
But even then, you need to deliver it gently.
The Mix: Yes. On the need to speak gently, at least a lot of the time: mental health and the climate crisis, especially amongst young people. Thoughts?
Dodds: Yeah. There’s definitely been an ongoing rise in mental illness. In suicidality and low-grade depression and anxiety symptoms in kids. It’s hard to know how much of that has been climate stuff and how much has been social media, I think that [social media] has been one of the big factors.
After the Tathra fire, though. Watching my community go through the roller coaster of recovery and observing how people in fractured communities can come together, rescue each other in completely selfless ways. (Dodds was a town councillor during this time, hoping to build the will for climate action through the ballot box.) And then it starts to fall apart: The people who start to take advantage of what just happened. The people who are suspicious. The people who are too shy to ask for help. It all starts to, you know, can get really, really nasty and toxic very quickly.
In Tathra, it became so you couldn’t talk about the fire in a way that brought in the bigger picture. No way could you mention the climate. After the fire, a bunch of locals decided to have a Facebook page called Tathra Strong. You couldn’t post anything “negative” about what had happened in the fires, or why they were so big. Really, incredibly toxic.
Most people—especially the men—wanted to talk about rebuilding. That was it. Physical structures like houses and barns. It was all about structures. Fixing things. We can rebuild it. We can put that house, that shed back in your life. There was a real rush to get rid of all signs of damage and the burned trees and make it all nice and put those white picket fences up again as soon as possible.
And I’m just walking around thinking, where’s the bit where we grieve? And where it never comes back? Because we lost things that are never coming back, ever.
Dodds didn’t just “walk around,” though. In her role as councillor, she and other staff and council members worked hard to educate themselves and their constituents about the need to grieve, and that grieving can be a very slow process. She says they made some progress.