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What do we do when our home is on fire?

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Image: Project LM/Flickr

Successive Australian governments have denied or downplayed the existence and risks of human-caused climate disruption. There, coal is king. In our outdated economic systems, short-term jobs and financial indicators mean more to politicians than keeping the planet habitable for human life!

The worst bushfires in Australia's history have consumed more than 11 million hectares, killing dozens of people and more than a billion animals, displacing many more, and destroying thousands of homes. While the fires rage on, smoke chokes the air and coral reefs bleach and die, Australia's leaders are touting development of yet another huge coal mine: the Adani Carmichael mega-mine in Queensland, designed to produce 2.3 billion tonnes over 60 years of mostly low-quality, high-ash coal.

Australia's fires cover an area 15 times larger than those in the Amazon, which are also bad. More than 30 years ago, my wife Tara and I, along with others, worked with the Kayapo in Brazil to help protect their traditional territory in the rainforest from development. Together, we convinced the World Bank to pull funding for a massive dam system, which put the project on hold.

As Brazil's economy improved and World Bank money was no longer needed, the project went ahead under a new name. Flooding is just one threat to this precious forest. Clearing and burning to make way for agriculture and industrial development are also fuelling rapid destruction.

Some call the Amazon the "lungs of the world," because the rainforest breathes in carbon and exhales oxygen. Canada is home to what some call the "northern lungs" -- the boreal forest stretching from Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador, covering 55 per cent of Canada's land mass. The amount of oxygen forests produce is difficult to calculate and often exaggerated, but there's no doubt forests are important for human survival.

The boreal is also under threat from rapid development and global heating. As with recent massive wildfires elsewhere, climate change is increasing the boreal fire season and fuelling intense burning over larger areas than ever -- regardless of whether fires are set by lightning, arsonists or sparks from machinery or a train wheel. Warmer winters have also facilitated the spread of tree-destroying insects like mountain pine beetles that cold winters once kept in check.

Intact forests produce oxygen and provide many other services beneficial to humans. They sequester carbon, which helps regulate global temperatures. They prevent runoff, slides and flooding. They maintain and filter water. They provide food and other necessities for people, and habitat for plants and animals.

In the midst of its fires, Australia has been hit by extreme weather events, including terrifying massive dust storms, battering hail and flood-producing torrential rains. Smoke from the fires is also a potent greenhouse gas. So, as a heating planet causes more forests to burn, the fires release even more carbon into the atmosphere, creating feedback loops that accelerate warming.

What will it take for politicians and others to listen? As Greta Thunberg warns, our home is on fire. It will get worse if we fail to change our ways, quickly. But politicians and industry keep expanding fossil fuel development, trying to cash in before markets fall in the face of better alternatives and climate chaos. Our economic systems still run on endless growth and consumerism, creating unconscionable waste and devastation. We judge how well the economy is performing in part by how quickly we are tearing up the world.

It makes no sense.

Why is Australia going ahead with a massive coal mine? Why is Canada considering approving a 24,000-hectare open-pit oilsands mine, the Teck Frontier project in Northern Alberta? Why is the U.S. reversing environmental protections and facilitating fossil fuel expansion? Haven't they heard we're facing a global crisis the likes of which we've never experienced? Or do they just not care? Are money and power really more important to them than the health and well-being of citizens and the future of our children and grandchildren?

We're not being held back by a lack of solutions -- there are plenty existing and more being developed. We're hostage to a lack of political will and imagination. Wake up humanity! All that money and power won't mean anything if we destroy our only home.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor and writer Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

Image: Project LM/Flickr​

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