Australian forest fire survivor Jo Dodds welcomes Scott Morrison to Glasgow climate summit

Jo Dodds knows the horrors of Australia’s forest fires on his own.

In March 2018, she evacuated her Tathra home on the south coast of New South Wales with only her clothes on her back and watched from the banks of the Bega River as the inferno rolled in.

The wind changed and her house was spared, but many of her neighbors were not so lucky: 69 homes in Tathra were destroyed.

Now bushbrand survivors and Bega Valley councilors are heading to COP26 – the UN’s international climate summit in Glasgow – to pressure Prime Minister Scott Morrison to do more to prevent what happened to her city.

Ms Dodds is participating with the umbrella group Climate Action Network Australia (CANA), one of more than 2,000 non-governmental organizations participating in the summit from around the world.

She intends to share her story – as well as other survivors of bushfires – at various events.

“It is crucial to have voices from people with lived experience of climate disasters, because otherwise it will just be the talk party where everything is theoretical and hypothetical,” she said.

Mrs. Dodds’ organization, Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action, raised more than $ 12,000 to fund her Glasgow trip.

Jo Dodds is standing on a chewing gum tree wearing red glasses and a yellow shirt, looking directly into the camera.
Jo Dodds is president of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action and councilor in the Bega Valley. (Delivered by: Tony Dean)

What happens at the summit?

COP26, which began on Sunday and continues until 12 November, is the most significant international climate summit since the Paris Agreement was drawn up in 2015.

World leaders, including Mr Morrison, will discuss emission reduction targets and ways to support the countries most vulnerable to climate change, such as low-lying Pacific nations.

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Morrison announced last week that Australia would commit to a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

“It will not shut down our coal or gas production or exports,” he said.

“It will not affect households, businesses or the wider economy with new costs or taxes.”

However, the plan was quickly criticized for not increasing the current 2030 target – a key target being discussed at COP26 – and for relying on technologies that have not yet been invented.

Mrs Dodds was not impressed with the announcement and aims to pressure Mr Morrison on COP26 to do more.

“I am really concerned that our Australian Government is now announcing a target that is zero by 2050 without really meaning it and without having a plan,” she said.

The government has said its approach is focused on “technology not taxes” and it is on track to hit its current 2030 target.

A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in August found that it was important to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent catastrophic warming and natural disasters.

Associate Professor Ying Zhang, a senior epidemiologist and climate scientist at the University of Sydney, felt pessimistic about whether the world could keep warming below 1.5C.

Australia’s net zero goal was a step in the right direction, she said, but “we need to see more commitment instead of word of mouth”.

“We will definitely see more natural disasters due to climate change. We will see more people die from the climate crisis, and the health risk is even greater than the pandemic.”

You see a reflection of a woman of Asian descent smiling in a spherical driveway mirror, which is surrounded by empty branches.
Dr. Ying Zhang says the world will experience increased weather-related disasters due to climate change. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Dr. Zhang said life could be saved if world leaders now acted by increasing their goals at COP26 and building resilient systems to deal with the risks of climate change.

“We can reduce the health risks from forest fires, from extreme floods, we can save millions of people from losing their homes due to climate disasters,” she said.

‘I am afraid for my children’s future’

Mrs Dodds is not the only one surviving a bushfire worried about future natural disasters.

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Moosa Kutty had just stepped outside his home in Batemans Bay to go to work when he realized something was wrong.

“I realized that this is not how the sky usually looks around me – it is orange,” he recalled.

His neighbor told him the municipality was instructing residents to evacuate, so Mr. Kutty gathered his pregnant wife and young daughter and left town with only their important documents.

A man with facial hair, wearing a blue business shirt, takes a selfie.
Moosa Kutty had to evacuate her home in Batemans Bay in the 2019-2020 Black Summer bush fires. (Delivered)

Mr. Kutty’s house survived, but he will never forget the experience of the fire.

“I’m worried about how things could end. It was awful to live through it,” he said.

He said he did not have enough information to say definitively whether climate change was causing more frequent and severe forest fires in Australia, but said more needed to be done to reduce emissions.

“We should strongly find ways to reduce the burning of fossil fuels,” he said.

“I’m afraid for my children’s future.”

The road to climate advocacy

A woman is sitting in a house holding an antique clock.
Jo Dodds was worried she would lose everything when she evacuated her Tathra home.(Delivered by: Jo Yeldham)

After the Tathra fire, which nearly knocked Mrs Dodds home, the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, visited the Bega Valley.

He was asked whether the fires were caused by climate change.

“We are the land of the bushfires,” said Mr. Turnbull.

“Nature throws its worst against Australians, it will and always has, often unpredictably.”

Mrs Dodds said she was shocked by his response and that was what made her start her grassroots group.

“I know what you are saying: you are saying that there is nothing to see here, that this is common, that these are the kind of fires that have always been in Australia,” she said.

Mrs Dodds was horrified that bushfires were becoming more frequent and more intense – a fear that was confirmed when the 2019-2020 Black Summer fires hit the Bega Valley.

“They did exactly what I feared. There was so much more damage, so many lives, so many homes and so many animals.”

Two people walk under a jacket with masks under a smoky sky
The Bega Valley Shire was hit hard by the Black Summer fires of 2019-2020. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

In August this year, Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action won a landmark lawsuit that found the New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority had a duty to “develop environmental quality objectives, guidelines and policies to ensure environmental protection against climate change”.

While the court did not order specific regulation, the decision could pave the way for a carbon ceiling.

Tell stories about forest fires in Glasgow

Mrs Dodds said she wanted to put a human face on the climate crisis through her trip to Glasgow to motivate world leaders to action.

Postcards lay on a table: One shows a woman in front of a burned home, and another shows a firefighter in burned bushland.
Jo Dodds will hand out postcards written by bushbrand survivors at COP26.(Delivered: Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action )

“There are real people who are already affected, who are already losing everything, and there are more. There are the same people, and there are more people in the firing line in the near future.”

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