‘Everything I feared was coming true’: Victims of the climate emergency tell their stories

At Cop26, nations have gathered to limit the impact of global heating – but many across the planet are already feeling the colossal impact. Daisy Dunne speaks to those whose lives have been changed forever by drought, flooding and wildfires linked to the climate emergency

Friday 05 November 2021 07:58
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<p>Wildfires sweep through New South Wales in December 2019 </p>

Wildfires sweep through New South Wales in December 2019

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From killer floods in Germany to fires in Australia larger than ever before, almost every corner of the world has experienced unprecedented extreme weather in recent years. At the same time, there is stronger evidence than ever that many types of these events are becoming more severe – and more likely – as a result of the human-caused climate crisis. That’s according to a recent landmark report from 234 climate scientists.

Researchers working in a fast-growing field of climate science known as “attribution” have worked tirelessly to track the fingerprint of global heating on unfolding extreme weather disasters. Their studies have shown that recent record-breaking heatwaves, droughts, floods and wildfires in Australia, South Africa, Germany, the US and the UK have been made many times more likely by human-caused global heating.

As nations gather in Glasgow for the Cop26 summit, The Independent spoke to victims of these disasters to hear how their lives have been changed forever by the climate emergency.

‘Smoke turned the sky black’

“The amount of smoke in the air made it almost impossible to breathe,” says Jo Dodds, a poet, writer and local councillor from just outside Tathra, a coastal town in New South Wales that was hit by Australia’s unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfires. “The thick smoke turned the sky black. It was a moonless night.”

More than 30 people lost their lives in Australia’s fires, which burned across a record amount of land to the east of the country from September to March. Conservative estimates suggest more than 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles also perished in the flames.

Ms Dodds was in Melbourne visiting family for New Year when she heard that her home was at risk of burning down. She had already lived through a severe bushfire in 2018, which burned through a fifth of the houses in her community. “It felt to me like the little fire of 2018 that I experienced, within two years [it] was suddenly an event that was across the whole east coast of Australia,” she tells The Independent.

Onlookers watch flames burn through bush in Lake Tabourie, New South Wales, on 4 January 2020

“It was an awful realisation for me. Everything I feared was coming true.”

The 58-year-old’s family had to leave her home while she waited for updates in Melbourne. The next day she was told her house had narrowly escaped being burned down as the flames tore across her neighbourhood. “We didn’t lose anything material. But we lost what remnants of peace of mind we had since our first fire in 2018,” she says. “So the toll on us personally is significant psychologically, but it’s nothing compared to a lot of people who weren’t so prepared, who didn’t have any idea that this was on the horizon.”

Nine people in Bega Valley Shire, the area where Ms Dodds works as a local councillor, lost their lives in the fires. Some of the residents that lost their homes to the flames in 2019 are still living in caravans and other types of makeshift accommodation.

The factors behind any wildfire are complex. But growing scientific evidence shows that “fire weather” – hot, dry and windy conditions – is becoming more likely as a result of the climate crisis.

Jo Dodds’ house is shrouded in darkness in the middle of the day as bushfires rage nearby

A study published shortly after Australia’s bushfires found that weather conditions like those seen at the height of the disaster have become at least 30 per cent more likely since 1900. And such conditions are expected to become at least four times more likely if global temperatures reach 2C above pre-industrial levels – the upper limit set by countries in the Paris Agreement.

“Until I saw the fire myself, I have to admit that I didn’t understand how immediate the catastrophe of climate damage is – or that it’s already here. It always felt like something in the future,” says Ms Dodds. “Now that I have felt it and smelt it and stood in the ashes, when I hear those numbers, they’re much more terrifying. How much worse could we possibly stand than what we’ve already had?”

Ms Dodds’ experiences have spurred her into taking action. She is the founding president of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action, an advocacy group calling for the Australian government to take stronger measures against the climate crisis.

Australia’s plans for tackling the climate crisis have been rated “highly insufficient” by scientists. The country has among the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Australia finally announced a pledge to become net-zero by 2050 this week – one of the final major polluters to do so – but prime minister Scott Morrison faced criticism for refusing to set ambitious targets this decade or commit to ending fossil fuel extraction.

Jo Dodds founded a group calling for climate action

“We were determined that we did not want to see anyone else suffer what we had, without us doing everything we could to slow or to stop that happening,” Ms Dodds says.

This year Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action won a landmark court case against the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency, forcing the body to take tougher action on the climate crisis. “We’re not a bunch of people with any specific talent other than we stood in front of bushfires and saw what they can do,” says Ms Dodds. “It’s been an incredibly healing thing to do. I sleep a lot now that I spend my days fighting for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than I did before.”

‘The streets were filled with broken things’

Western Europe faced unprecedented flooding this summer. Rainfall records were smashed in parts of Germany and Belgium in July, causing rivers to burst their banks and unleash deadly waters. The record flooding killed at least 220 people in Germany and Belgium, and caused €5.5bn (£4.9bn) worth of damage in Germany alone.

A man walks through floods towards destroyed houses in Schuld, western Germany, in July

Raphael Thelen, an author who recently published a book about the climate crisis, grew up close to one of the worst affected areas near the river Erft in Germany, where his mother still lives. After hearing of the devastation on the news, he travelled from Munich to visit his family home.

“When I got there, the river had become a raging brown stream that had just ripped apart half of the town,” he tells The Independent. “The streets were filled with broken things. The streets were filled with furniture and piled up washing machines which people had dragged out of their basement.”

Germany’s worst affected areas, near the rivers Ahrs and Erft, received more than 93mm of rainfall in just one day during the disaster’s peak in July. An attribution study published the following month found the extreme rainfall that triggered the deadly flooding was made up to nine times more likely by the climate crisis.

If global temperatures reach 2C above pre-industrial levels, such extreme rain would become a further 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely, according to the analysis.

A destroyed bridge in Echtershausen, near Bitburg

“I have understood that extreme weather is being affected by the climate crisis for some time, but what was interesting about this was the proximity to me,” Mr Thelen says. “To see such destruction near the place that I grew up made the climate crisis much more real.”

He adds that, despite the devastation caused by Germany’s summer floods, he does not believe that the country’s main parties understand the urgency of the crisis. “After the floods you would expect the climate crisis to become the top issue,” he says. “But that hasn’t happened.”

‘We didn’t know if we were going to come back’

“There was ash falling from the sky for multiple days. It was literally raining ash,” says Yvonne Vrugtman Featherer, a teacher living in the resort town of South Lake Tahoe during this summer’s historic Caldor fire. “It was pretty apocalyptic.”

Caldor was one of several large fires to cause chaos across California this year. Severe drought conditions combined with record heat to fuel what is likely to be one of the state’s worst fire seasons in history. Ms Vrugtman Featherer owns a house in South Lake Tahoe and each summer spends around two months or so holidaying in the area with her husband and two children. The tourist spot is known for its idyllic beaches and mountain hikes.

But this summer, smoke from nearby wildfires prevented her family from enjoying the outdoors. In July, fumes from the Tamarack and Dixie fires caused severe reductions in air quality in the resort town. “You couldn’t go to the beach or go hiking,” she says. “You’re sitting in your house in a resort town, thinking, ‘Why am I here if I can’t do anything?’”

Flames from the Caldor fire consume homes close to South Lake Tahoe, California

And in August, the fast-moving Caldor fire began near Placerville – around a 40-minute drive away from her home. “With the hot weather, the Caldor fire moved so fast,” she says. “Highway 50 is the main access point from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe – and it just blazed across it. It was crazy.”

As the fire moved closer to her home, the 41-year-old and her family stayed inside and anxiously followed the news. “The smoke was just terrible. I had to tell my kids they couldn’t go outside,” she says. “You could see these huge billowing clouds and the whole sky turned grey. You couldn’t see trees 100 metres in front of you. It was really shocking.”

After a week of waiting, she decided to leave her home. “I told my kids and husband to pack what was most important to them,” she says. “We didn’t know if we were going to come back.”

The following day, as the fire drew even closer to the tourist town, officials gave an unprecedented order to evacuate all 22,000 of its residents. The order prompted chaos as thousands attempted to leave the city at once, leading to miles-long queues on roads.

When The Independent speaks to Ms Vrugtman Featherer, she has not yet returned to her home. “The parks are closed. The beaches are closed. A lot of the restaurants stayed closed and the main highway is still closed,” she says. “My sister-in-law works there with her kids and our good friends own a business there. When you live in such a small place, you get to know so many people and it’s really devastating to consider how this will impact them.”

Firefighters on their way to tackle the Caldor fire in August

The run of severe wildfires in California this year have been fuelled in part by unusually hot and dry conditions in the summer. A quick-fire analysis published in July found that the record heat sweeping across North America this summer was made at least 150 times more likely by the climate crisis. In other words, such a heatwave would have been “virtually impossible” in a world without human-caused heating.

If global temperatures reach 2C above pre-industrial levels, similar heatwaves could occur every five to 10 years, according to the findings. At present, such extreme heat is only expected once every 1,000 years.

“I think it’s super scary,” says Ms Vrugtman Featherer. “I’m not a doomsday person, I believe we can make changes with education and knowledge, but I can’t escape that it’s super scary.”

She adds that she would like to see more people make changes to their “day to day lives” to help tackle the climate crisis. “We needed that change to happen years ago. We’re playing catch up now,” she says. “I would love to see people all over the world prioritise the earth over themselves. That’s a challenging thing for most people. We want to have clean air and snorkel in the ocean but we don’t necessarily want to sacrifice our convenience for that.”

‘It was a car crash in slow motion’

“If you live in Africa, you’re used to drought. But in urban areas, people don’t know what it’s like when the taps get turned off,” says Bronwyn Nortje, a consultant from Cape Town, South Africa.

Ms Nortje and her family lived through Cape Town’s “Day Zero” drought – an intense dry spell that forced severe water use restrictions across the city in the first half of 2018. The crisis was precluded by three consecutive dry winters in southwestern South Africa, which played a major role in dam water levels falling to between 15 and 30 per cent of total capacity by 2018.

“A drought is a car crash in slow motion,” she says. “It’s not like a flood that suddenly happens and mobilises people. People have the attitude of ‘it’s not going to affect me today’ – until they reach a crisis point.”

At the height of the crisis in Cape Town, Ms Nortje and her family had to drastically reduce the amount of water that they used. “We had to queue for hours for water,” she says. “We’re a large family, it’s a household of six. We used to go and collect 100 litres a day, which is 100kg of water – it’s a lot. My husband still has tennis elbow years later, his arm has never really recovered from lifting these heavy containers.”

Locals queue for drinking water in Cape Town during the drought in January 2018

To cut down on water use, Ms Nortje had 30-second showers and used hand sanitiser instead of washing her hands, she adds. “The swimming galas were banned. There was no swimming for a season. People left their pools empty.”

The crisis eventually eased when strong rains began in June – and the drought was effectively broken in 2020 when more rain resulted in dam levels becoming 95 per cent full. A study published in 2020 found that the three-year dry spell behind Cape Town’s crisis was made between five and six times more likely by the climate crisis.

In the aftermath of the event, more attention was given to the political handling of the crisis than to the role of global heating, says Ms Nortje. “There was so much political outrage that I think people saw it as a failure of governance rather than a system change,” she says.

A dried-out dam on a farm in Piket Bo-berg, north of Cape Town, in March 2018

However, over the past few years, many in South Africa have become more aware of how the climate crisis is affecting their day-to-day lives, she adds. “In South Africa people know that the climate is changing,” she says. “Farmers can see that the time for planting things has changed. But many don’t have a way to express it.”

“There’s no specific word for climate change in Sotho,” she adds. Sotho is one of the 11 official languages spoken in South Africa.

‘Climate change is affecting my job every single day’

In the summer of 2019, Britain sweltered during several episodes of extreme heat. In July, Cambridge University’s Botanic Garden recorded a temperature of 38.7C – the highest ever logged in the UK. A quick-fire study published in the aftermath of the event found that the record-breaking temperatures were made around 20 times more likely by human-caused global heating.

The spell of extreme heat caused days of travel chaos in the UK, with train engineers rushing to repair damaged rail lines and airports across the country facing air traffic control issues. The hot and dry weather in 2019 also played a role in fuelling severe drought in many parts of the country. Among those affected was Kit Papworth, a 50-year-old crop farmer from Norfolk.

An empty rain gauge and dry soil show the impact of high temperatures on this field of potatoes

Mr Papworth, who has worked as a farmer all his life, said the hot and dry conditions caused severe damage to his cereal crops, resulting in “huge reductions in yield” and food shortages the following year.

“Lack of rainfall affected the yield of all of our cereal crops and therefore there was a shortage,” he tells The Independent. “Our sugar beet crop was then hit by a disease called virus yellows, which is directly affected by numbers of aphids. So 2019 was a double whammy – mostly affected by climate.”

He adds that the hot and dry conditions seen in 2019 are just one example of how UK farmers are being affected by the climate crisis. “Climate change is affecting my job every single day now,” he says. “Lots of people still believe that climate change is just about global warming and that it’s just going to get hotter. That isn’t at all what we’re seeing out on the farm. What we’re seeing is longer extremes of weather – it’s wetter for longer and drier for longer, for example.

“Farmers are really struggling with this stuff... I think farming is the industry that is most affected by climate change if we’re honest with each other.”

Sugar beet droops under drought stress

Mr Papworth is making changes to his own life in response to the climate crisis. He has decided to reduce the amount of meat he eats and is using his own money to trial technologies to boost stores of carbon in his soils. But the UK government must do much more to support farmers facing the impacts of increasing weather extremes, he says. “Agriculture is the only industry that can offer a solution to this problem. We’re in control of so much of the land, both in the UK and globally. We can support agriculture to do so many of the things we need to do – planting more trees, reducing fertiliser use. We can do all of those things, but it comes down to money.”

The UK government in 2020 announced a new post-Brexit scheme for farmers that would allow them to access funding in exchange for performing public goods such as increasing carbon stores on their land and creating more space for nature. But campaigners have warned that key details of the scheme remain “murky” for farmers. And a 2021 progress report from the UK’s independent climate advisers warned that the government has done far too little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

“I’m expecting to see more years like 2019,” Mr Papworth adds. “I’m expecting to be working more with volatility, in yield and in price. Some years we’re simply going to lose a lot of money.”

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