On the Climate Frontline: Talking to survivors of the Northern Rivers catastrophe

Days apart, but at a great distance from each other, two men stand on vastly different waterfronts, one beside a small river, the other with his back to a deep ocean harbour, both speaking of the future. The first is John Brown, a survivor of the Northern Rivers floods of early 2022. It has been more than twelve months since John and his wife Harriet’s* home was rendered unliveable by the floodwaters that rampaged through in unparalleled volume. The couple are still living with their two kids in a caravan parked on the side of their river-front block. With voices and words full of raw vulnerability, they take turns describing the abiding sense of trauma from the event and the ongoing emotional and financial strain of its aftermath. Looking at their gutted house, John says forlornly, ‘its soul will come back … once I have found my soul again’.

The second man is the nation’s leader, Anthony Albanese, whom I watch on screen roughly a fortnight later as he announces the new AUKUS submarine deal in the company of Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak, dockside in San Diego, during a highly choreographed moment of international diplomacy. There’s no question that Albo from Marrickville is much more upbeat about what’s on the horizon than John from the Northern Rivers. The commitment to buying the subs is, according to our nation’s leader, ‘the beginning of a new chapter’ constituting ‘the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in our history’, necessary for securing ‘a peaceful and prosperous future’.

The juxtaposition of the two speech events is constructed, but the pair are connected. The future conditions to be navigated by John and Harriet—by all Australians, in fact—will necessarily be defined by the decisions and priorities of the Albanese government. Putting to one side questions of national defence strategy, the sheer budgetary scale of the AUKUS undertaking risks significant constraints on our national options. While the logic underlying AUKUS has been presented with an air of self-evidence, numerous commentators point out that only a thin rationale has been offered. The prime minister’s San Diego speech was euphemistic, referring in vague terms to ‘Strengthening Australia’s national security and stability in our region’ without clarifying how or why this objective might be achieved through this particular, colossal spend. It felt as if the gold was just cheerily waved through the Treasury door.

There is a grotesque contrast between the impulse to spend big that is endemic in the imaginary of Australia’s political decision-makers when beguiled by the deadly toys of defence procurement and what is needed in the face of the human experience of climate damage. We should ask the honest democratic question: what would the vast majority of Australians prefer to see—wildly ramped-up military spending or practical measures to keep us safer from climate damage? As numerous commentators observe, the scale of Australia’s submarine purchase commitment, particularly in the wake of the amounts of public money paid out by the Morrison regime during COVID, means no government can ever again have the temerity to claim not to be able to afford a reasonable proposal for sound investment in the public interest. It has never been clearer that what the federal government funds, and to what extent, is a matter of choice. When it comes to the allocation of public resources, some coming storms are foreseen, some are ignored, and others are wilful figments of the political imagination.

Greg Pope: Greg, his partner Margaret and their dog Nova and cat Honey spent six hours on their roof awaiting rescue by the SES. Greg is pictured on his first night back in his home. ‘This is my home. I’ve lived here for twenty-two years. You won’t find another place like this.’ Photo by Jacklyn Wagner.

The storms they chose not to see coming

The rain events that inundated large parts of New South Wales and Queensland in early 2022 were unprecedented in severity, but their coming had been long foretold. Scientists have understood for decades that for each degree our atmosphere warms, the air can hold around 7 per cent more moisture, creating conditions for much heavier rainfall and increased flood risk. This fundamental analysis has been reflected in numerous expert prognoses and forewarnings over the years. In 2007, for example, the first Rudd government commissioned the landmark Garnaut Climate Change Review, which clearly identified that climate change would lead to longer dry spells punctuated by heavier rainfall events with accompanying floods. A litany of subsequent authoritative warnings have followed, all of which have repeated the same basic message: climate change is creating the conditions for more intense, rapid and severe precipitation, which will inevitably lead to instances of significantly worse flooding.

The projections were also punctuated by real-time demonstrations of the consequences of our rapidly altering atmospheric conditions. When disastrous floods hit NSW in 2020 and 2021, then premier Gladys Berejiklian remarked that she didn’t ‘know [of] any time in state history where we have had these extreme weather conditions in such quick succession’. In March 2021, Robert Glasser, head of the Australian Centre for Climate and Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute—hardly a centre of progressive radicalism—wrote that,

Underinvesting in resilience is an abrogation of government responsibility to the millions of Australians being buffeted by the increasing frequency and range of disasters driven by climate change. One thing is certain in this changing environment: we will fail miserably to protect Australians if our overwhelming focus continues to be on responding to the disasters after they happen rather than on building our national resilience.

In November 2021, Australia’s National Cabinet was expressly briefed about the coming high-risk weather season and the increased likelihood of dangerous flooding in the near term. It is unarguable that relevant decision-makers knew, or should have known, what was approaching, even if not the precise timing and magnitude of it. Then, in late February 2022 the inundation began. As one colleague from the region remembers, ‘the day of the extreme flooding was the culmination of three days of non-stop sheets of water falling from the sky’. Unprecedented volumes of rain fell on already saturated ground; and the waters of the Northern Rivers began rising like never before.

Olivia Kerz and Mick Hannigan Olivia lost all her plants. Friends donated plants and labour from Brisbane to get her garden back together. It had been almost twelve months to the day that Olivia and Mick had bought the house. ‘This is our precious home, big time, this is our castle, this is our everything’ (Olivia). Photo by Jacklyn Wagner.

Following the grey thread

One year on from the floods, I spent some days travelling through the Northern Rivers just to listen, and to witness the state of things. The itinerary included conversations in homes, yards, shops, community centres and pubs across the region,, from the briefest of chats through to deep personal conversations and more formal briefings. We visited Lismore, on which so much of the flood coverage focused, and other townships and villages including Chinderah, Tumbulgum, Murwillumbah, Kingscliff, Mullumbimby, Ballina, Main Arm, Woodburn and Wardell. High temperatures and intense UV created subtropical conditions for our journey, with the sun’s intense burn strikingly dissimilar to the gloom of the previous year.

Each discussion, arranged and facilitated through mutual contacts within webs of local relationships, naturally included curiosity about why I was there; after all, Greenpeace is an environmental campaigning outfit rather than a disaster recovery or social service delivery organisation. When asked the question, I would answer that Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s primary campaigns are focused on tackling the primary drivers of climate change (that is, the coal, oil and gas corporations), but added that we also support a universal safety-net approach for responding to climate damage.i Hearing firsthand and in situ from those who had experienced and survived the floods viscerally informs advocacy. Inwardly, what I heard and saw across the days in the region landed far deeper than mere provision of information. A sense of ethical obligation grows stronger in those moments of witnessing, watered by the tears of strangers.

I didn’t experience a single demurrer in response to my explanation of why I had come to listen. In virtually every conversation, the connection between climate change and the floods was taken as a given. Unprompted, various individuals referred to themselves as ‘climate refugees’ or ‘displaced persons’, driven from their homes by global warming. One woman said, after wondering why Greenpeace would be interested in her story that she had discovered the campaign against Woodside Energy’s monstrous Burrup Hub gas expansion plans on our website, at which point the connection became obvious. As the Climate Council has summarised,

Climate change is firmly embedded in the 2022 flooding emergency that swept through southeast Queensland and New South Wales with some regions experiencing rainfall that was simply off the charts. The intense rainfall and floods devastating communities in Queensland and New South Wales is taking place in an atmosphere made warmer and wetter by climate change, which is driven by the burning of coal, oil, and gas.

It is the grey thread of suffering that leads from the Woodside boardroom and other fossil fuel corporations to the smashed homes, broken country and interrupted lives of the Northern Rivers.

Jill Witham: Jill was rescued from a neighbour’s roof, from where she watched her own home go under. ‘If my low-set house could be lifted, I would possibly stay. I’m pretty sure the walls are made of red cedar.’ Photo by Jacklyn Wagner.

Waters rise

The flood deluged towns and landscapes at a speed and scale beyond anything that anyone had known before. Veterans of earlier extreme events had been inclined to confidence based on their experience, but all previous markers were exceeded, often by staggering margins. ‘Even now’, John tells me, ‘in my head the event doesn’t add up … that amount of water’. Everyone with whom I talk complains about the failure of officialdom: the lack of preparedness, erroneous worst-case predictions, inadequate notifications, absent first responses and rescue boats that simply didn’t appear. John and Harriet never received an evacuation notice, deciding to leave on the basis of gut instinct alone when the water in their toilets began gurgling uncannily. John heard the noise and remembers thinking with sharply rising unease, ‘Yeah, nah … something doesn’t feel right’. They escaped to a friend’s place on higher ground before the torrent reached them, and were not able to get back to the ruin of their house for days. Thousands, though, did not make it out before the storm waters submersed their dwellings. Accounts are visceral and distressing: of last moment escapes through windows and scrambled rescues from rooftops; of raw destruction and surreal chaos; of the terror of children, the aged and vulnerable; of the horror and the pity of drowning animals.

In contrast to the rancour directed towards officialdom, the organic crisis response of local society is overwhelmingly celebrated. The word community is spoken as if sacred—the saving grace amidst the carnage of the floodwaters and apparent failure of governmental systems. ‘Community’ itself clearly took many forms, from the instinctive actions of individuals to the more coordinated and conscious efforts of local organisations. The churches played a significant part, as did the newer deities of social media. Facebook and other platforms were widely deployed, including to coordinate the now legendary ‘Tinny Army’ of small aluminium dinghy owners who rescued many people from balconies and rooftops. Everyone speaks of neighbours and volunteers, including significant numbers who travelled down from the Gold Coast to help. There is widespread gratitude for the generous charity of tradies who often fixed up the houses of others for free even as their own remained unrepaired. Some of the newer groups that emerged in response to the floods are the ‘COREs’—Community Organised Resilience Efforts. The term ‘resilience’, I learn, has become problematic and contested, and is loathed by some as a rhetorical device favoured by politicians and bureaucrats. Not everywhere, though. In Wardell, the local CORE sells t-shirts in maroon and grey designed by a local artist and emblazoned with the slogan ‘Community is resilience’, depicting many hands raised holding instruments of work or claiming power in gestures of defiance.ii

Marion Conrow: Artist Marion has been paying off her home for 33 years. All the walls are now stained with contaminants that leaked into the river during the flood. “It’s all too much. My home and my companion cat, Oscar Prince Wilde, have been the best things in my life and now my cat is gone.” Photo by Jacklyn Wagner.

From feurgeist to flutgeist

An emergent politics is endemic to mass disasters. Often it seems that when we are confronted with the worst, we find the best in ourselves as a group. Many observed the extraordinary collective spirit that was released by the terrible fires of 2019–2020, a kind of feurgeist of the Australian people acting together at their finest. Something similar looked to be at work during the hard months of COVID lockdown. The same phenomenon seems toweringly evident in the Northern Rivers, where thousands of human beings took care of one another and acted cooperatively and collectively for the common good: ‘the people stood up as spontaneous responders’; ‘the community was amazing’; ‘we see the source of power of our resilience is community’; ‘we’ve had a whole lot of community help’.

One year later, however, the generosity and pliancy of feelings that epitomised the flutgeist are under significant strain. In a busy community centre, one of the staff reflects that shared sympathy has given way to rising mistrust: ‘In the crisis, everyone helped everyone … one year later, everyone is looking at what others have achieved’. Over lunch in a different town I’m told that communities are now in competition; ‘there’s suspicion about who’s getting the best go’. More than one person observes that social media platforms, so vital at the height of the crisis, have become a source of rumour and mischief. There is a general sense that official communication is failing. ‘Lack of information is spilling into misinformation and suspicion’, one prominent local informed me. Pre-existing divisions and resentments, elided for a time by the literal submergence of ordinary society, are not only re-emerging but exacerbated because of the socio-economic pressures imposed by the carnage of the floods. ‘We don’t want these people here’, one woman doing it pretty tough recalls overhearing a passer-by say, apparently directed at her. Another, currently living in an open shed in the backyard of a mate’s devastated house, describes as ‘baffling’ the fact that businesses are apparently being assisted to reopen while families are still homeless.

In one town, exactly a year after the centre was engulfed by water, a senior manager in the local community service sector offers a thoughtful analysis of community-building across the course of an hour-long conversation. After the floods, she says, the ‘social fabric got stronger’, but the spirit of the moment has begun to fray. Her sense is that there was great potential for community-building and deepening of democracy in the wake of the disaster, but that to make the most of that opportunity requires the right institutions to hold the space, maintain the energy and nurture the sense of the collective. Local organisations like Mullumbimby and District Neighbourhood Centre, WardellCORE, the Women’s Village Collective, the Jali Local Aboriginal Land Council and others are doing their absolute best and, as I hear from many, making a big difference. What is missing, though, is another layer—an enabling government committed to the public, the social, the transparent and the universal. The shallow state, left enfeebled by years of neoliberal government informed by New Public Management theory, never authentically served the common good and is revealed as grossly unfit for purpose in these years of climate emergency.

In Australia, privately obtained insurance is the primary form of financial relief in the wake of disasters like fires and floods. Right from the outset, the mechanism of individualised insurance policies has had a disaggregating effect because of differences in adequacy of coverage, with policy selections often predetermined by individuals’ financial capacities. As the aftermath of the Northern Rivers floods shows, this creates obvious inequities in the recovery and erodes the sense of common good. On top of this, I also heard the pervasive view that insurance companies have behaved badly: ‘They are playing games with us’; ‘The amount of loopholes that insurance companies seem to be relying on!’; ‘They are reissuing insurance policies that are not fit for purpose so this will happen again’; ‘What I would like to see is the insurance companies held to account’.

In an academic article from 2020 entitled ‘Privatising Climate Adaptation: How Insurance Weakens Solidaristic and Collective Disaster Recovery’, Tasmanian geographers Chloe Lloyd and Kate Booth argue that

The rise of home insurance as the predominant form of protection against extreme weather events and other natural disasters is a consequence of decisions by neoliberal governments to step back from responsibility for disaster management as a duty of the state, transferring the financial burden from taxation to private insurance of financialised individuals … By placing total responsibility for the risk on the homeowner, it negates the responsibility for increased climate risk borne by corporate emitters of greenhouse gases, and the responsibility of governments for fair regulation of and protection from these impacts.

Meanwhile, among those I encountered in the Northern Rivers, the failings of the state itself are conspicuous in regard to both its outsourcing and its failure to deliver the kind of support that is still needed: ‘The government is too slow’; ‘We were bounced from agency to agency to agency’; ‘[I] looked to government for answers … and they had nothing. You could see they were a mess’. Government is seen as having been captured by developers, allowing houses to be built on flood plains, and as failing to regulate Airbnb and other hosting platforms that have contributed to the inflation of housing costs to breaking point, with lower-income locals having been priced out of the area even before the floods. Kate Booth warns that the ‘current housing crisis coupled with climate change could see more and more people living in the kinds of shanty towns and tent cities seen around the time of the Great Depression’. Climate change has long been characterised as an environmental issue, but as the Northern Rivers shows, the wages of inaction are being paid in social and economic chaos.

Almost as an afterthought, I ask some of the people I meet if there is an identifiable face of the recovery. A few express begrudging respect for then premier Dominic Perrotet, while local state Labor member Janelle Saffin is widely applauded for her hands-on role in the recovery. I am not the least surprised when Lismore is the first electorate declared on election night, with a 19 per cent increase in the incumbent’s primary vote. Local Greens candidate Mandy Nolan is another notable and prominent advocate. However, David Witherdin, chief executive of the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Commission, seems to be a largely anonymous figure. In a March 2023 video update on the situation, Witherdin, in an awkward presentation accompanied by jaunty music, notesthat ‘we know, that you know, looking at the next sort of three to five years, there’s more than six billion dollars worth of work that needs to be undertaken’.

Put another way, you could rebuild the infrastructure in the Northern Rivers more than sixty times over for the price of eight nuclear submarines. A state with a different ethos could spend that enormous amount of money in a way that nurtures, builds and enables a stronger, more secure and equitable society, optimising our capacity to face the coming climate storm.

Victoria Baker: The houses in Victoria’s street were solidly built in the 1930s for returned servicemen. There’s a strong sense of community in the neighbourhood. “I had to leave my cat behind; he didn’t survive. But I’ve got my community and friends so I will be fine. I have to come back. This is my home.” Photo by Jacklyn Wagner.

The challenges ahead

Severe damage caused by global warming has arrived and is being cruelly visited upon the people and biodiversity of Australia. There is nothing vague or intangible about this. The fossil fuel corporations have unleashed a kind of forever war on humanity and nature. The firestorms and rainbombs are already landing, along with the slow guerrilla violence of heat, drought, mould, rot and ecosystem collapse. Survivors of severe climate change impacts often speak of their experiences as akin to being in a war zone, and the ruins left in the wake of these unnatural disasters could easily be mistaken for the work of missiles. Yet despite the fossil-fuel-driven attack on the natural and societal fabric of our country, political vision and analysis are distorted, somehow rendering climate change a lesser priority than the imperatives routinely invoked to legitimise defence spending.

Standing proudly to the right of the President of the United States, Anthony Albanese finished his speech optimistically, expressing an ‘unwavering conviction that whatever the challenges ahead, the cause of peace and freedom will prevail’. It was the right sort of speech, but on the wrong issue. The submarine purchase money could have been spent much more wisely. As former admiral Chris Barrie and one-time fossil fuel executive Ian Dunlop noted in a co-authored article,

The overblown rhetoric on imminent war with China has been justified as the need for the Australian people to be fully informed of threats to the nation. But the same rationale has not been applied to the security threat of climate change, a far greater risk the response to which will be far more costly and extensive.

There is a clear fork in the road for the Australian response to climate change impacts. Either we harness and nurture the energy of the collective spirit ignited by climate disasters into a set of robust, transparent, empowered, universalistic and locally responsive public institutions, or we proceed down the path of individualising the burden, leading to immiseration and deepening social divisions and inequality.

We can only imagine the speech that Albanese might have given if he’d been standing alongside John and Harriet Brown instead of dockside in San Diego. It might have been tweaked a bit to read something like this:

I am honoured to stand alongside you both—here, in the heart of the Northern Rivers—as trusted members of this community.

Today, a new chapter in the relationship between the Australian people and our nation’s government begins.

Built on our shared values, our commitment to democracy and our common vision for a peaceful and prosperous future for all.

The new climate contract that I announce today will provide a universal safety net for all Australians. It represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s social capability in our history.

Strengthening the security and stability of our society.

Creating a bridge to a flourishing future with record investments in skills, jobs and infrastructure.

And delivering a superior social robustness into the future.

My government is determined to invest in our society.

We are also determined to promote security by addressing the causes of insecurity, through the rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy in both domestic use and exports.iii

It’s time for our leaders to see the climate storms that are already upon us for what they are and to seize the clear opportunities afforded by the best of our shared national spirit to build and nurture our shared home, secure for all.

Simon Robinson: A collector of fine art and vintage wares, specialising in fine paper, books and fabric, Simon lost 95 percent of his collection in the flood. “I thought we were doomed. I rang a friend to say goodbye. I dropped my phone in the water after that call. When they lost contact with me, my family thought they had lost me.” Photo by Jacklyn Wagner.

Coda

As this article goes to publication, July has broken heat records, and the Bureau of Meteorology has warned it is likely to declare an El Niño in coming weeks, spelling another summer of suffering for disaster-affected communities across Australia and the Pacific—survivors of bushfires, floods, droughts, cyclones and other extreme weather events, supercharged by climate change. The recovery effort in the Northern Rivers continues to be fraught with challenges. Meanwhile, Woodside has gained approval to carry out seismic blasting to explore for new gas in the oceans off Western Australia’s northern coast. Greenpeace is calling on the federal government to stop the project, which is entirely incompatible with its climate commitments. The government has the historic opportunity to sever the grey thread of suffering that is unspooling from the fossil fuel industry and harming innocent people in Australia and the world over.

Notes

Names and locations are anonymised. I’m deeply grateful for the thick strands of connection and willingness to trust that enabled the conversations I had, and for the time and work that made it possible. I’d like to specifically acknowledge and thank Nicole Richards of the Australian Communities Foundation and Sam Henderson of the Northern Rivers Community Foundation, who organised my itinerary and were my companions and guides, and my wonderful colleagues Fiona Ivits, Tamara Dowling and Nele Becker for their advice and assistance.

i Greenpeace’s broad position is set out in Select Committee on Australia’s Disaster Resilience Submission 38, February 2023.

ii Full disclosure: I loved the politics and design of the shirt, and bought one. They are available here.

iii The full text of the actual remarks given by the prime minister can be compared here.

Alan and Vicki Boyle. After the flood, a neighbour Alan and Vicki had never met cooked lunch every day for 12 days for up to 12 people. “Our houses are all screwed and in that we are all equal. We may leave but it would be with a very heavy heart. I’ve been in climate grief for a long time” (Vicki). Photo by Jacklyn Wagner.

Note on the Images:

Jacklyn Wagner, from her project ‘Through the Heart: A Flood of Fears and Tears’:

When I saw the widespread devastation caused by the 28 February 2022 flood in Lismore, I knew that I needed to apply my art to creating a permanent record. For twenty years a photographer and later chief photographer at the daily Northern Star newspaper, I was well-known in the district.

I knew exactly what I needed to do. I would document the actuality of residents in their ruined surroundings, if they would let me, exactly as I found them. I went to the worst affected areas taking just a camera and lens, my notebook and a pen, and wherever there was someone at home I knocked on their door. Over the following weeks, I photographed over a hundred people, capturing those moments when the harsh reality of all that they had lost was hitting them hardest, and the road ahead was most uncertain.

A selection of images were shown to Lismore Mayor Steve Krieg, who had lost his family home and two businesses to the flood, and then to NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet. With bipartisan cooperation, an exhibition was mounted at NSW Parliament House in November 2022.

Jacklyn’s book of images is available for order.  The complete proceeds go to three Lismore businesses who, among others, lost everything in the flood: New Camera House, Lismore Printery and Graffiti Design.

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It was not only the scale of social and material destruction of the world wars but the collective experience of suffering that enabled the post-conflict remaking of societies.

About the author

David Ritter

David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. David’s most recent book is The Coal Truth: The Fight to Stop Adani, Defeat the Big Polluters and Reclaim our Democracy. David also holds affiliations with the University of Western Australia and the University of Sydney. Before joining Greenpeace, David was one of Australia’s leading Indigenous land rights lawyers.

Twitter: David_Ritter; Instagram: davidr_greenpeace

More articles by David Ritter

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