How not to be Greta

Two and a half years ago, we bowed out of our posting in Beijing as early as we could to escape the horrific smog that was threatening our little boy’s health and trapping us indoors; when we moved to Canberra for our current posting we drank in the clean air and hailed the blue sky, thanking our lucky stars that we had escaped those evil PM2.5 particles forever.

And yet today, we watched out of our bungalow window as, like a scene from an apocalypse movie, another thick veil of grainy grey smoke rose over the horizon and swept over the city, bringing with it a foul smell and taste. Our boy’s nursery posted a Facebook notice saying outdoor play will continue to be on hold tomorrow, with a link to the city’s emergency services page which showed a map illustrating where the 200 or so fires in the region were still burning.

On such days, vulnerable groups including young children are advised to stay indoors with windows shut. Unfortunately, our bungalow, being of an old build, only has single glazing and big gaps under the doors, so the smoke sweeps through the house. Scared for our one year old and four year old, we scan online for air purifiers – recalling wryly how we had sold the ones we had in Beijing before we left – but everyone seems to have had the same idea, with the more affordable ones all out of stock. We also have a secondary problem – with the stifling summer heat we need to cool the house, but we only have an evaporative cooling system which requires windows to be open to create a draught. So do we risk overheating our kids or poisoning their lungs? We find ourselves reminiscing how our flat in Beijing at least had double glazing and air conditioning.

From what little I have gleaned catching snippets of local reports, it seems the number and intensity of bushfires this year – with the accompanying hazardous smoke – is something new and scary. The optimistic view is to assume that this is a one off, that December of 2019 will be remembered in years to come as that freak moment when all those bushfires happened. But I’m more inclined to believe that this might become the new norm; that even though this current veil of smoke might be blown away by a change of wind direction in a couple of days’ time, a new one will come next week, or next month, and then next year and the year after that. After all, there seems to have been very little rainfall this year to stamp out the fires and prevent everything becoming so dry and flammable – only high hot winds carrying sparks across highways from forest to forest, and pushing smoke relentlessly across the sky.

In Beijing we were battling pollution caused by factories, but now in Canberra we’re experiencing for the first time, first hand, the damaging effects of global warming. And for the first time, we’re witnessing how these effects of global warming are threatening our own children’s health and future. This should be a wake up call for me, to fight harder for changes in environmental policies and make our lifestyle more green.

It should be a wake up call. It should. And yet tomorrow, all I’ll do is make some patchy effort to seal up the house and then continue to feel depressed. Some day in the future my kids might ask what I did to fight climate change, and I’ll say ‘well, we bought expensive air purifiers and shoved towels under the doors’. Oh, to be Greta. The inertia and shame hang in languid balance, weighing down on me like a million PM2.5 particles.

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