My Canadian friend first learned of Australia Day when he saw the snow bogans. It was 26 January in the Rocky Mountains, and three blokes were snowboarding bare-chested down the slope wearing Australian flags as capes.
He told me this story as we drove up a winding road to the Victorian alps on 26 January this year. Rather than white with snow, the grass was drought-yellow in the paddocks on the valley floor far below. At the car park to our hiking trail we applied sunscreen and tightened the chinstraps on our floppy hats. The sun was low in the sky but already searing.
As we took our first steps on the trail, I thought how my friend’s story provided a refreshing perspective on Australia Day. Rather than the conflict over colonial invasion, he had identified something else in the national holiday — a kind of yobbo pride at defying the elements.
Those blokes snowboarding shirtless in Canada were braving the cold, but back home many Australians show the same macho attitude to the heat. We are weirdly boastful of our sweltering summers. I’ve been guilty of it myself. When my Canadian friend arrived on a hot December day, I joked about him struggling in a mere 32 degrees.
But for all this tough talk, a study by Macquarie University academics found that since 1900 more Australians have died from the heat than all the floods, cyclones, bushfires, lightning strikes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis and landslides combined. And the most deaths from the heat were on 27 January, which the researchers suggested was probably due to the after effects of boozy barbecues in the sun on the preceding national holiday.
It says a lot about our attitude to the environment here. On 26 January, in the peak of summer, many Australians fire up their personal furnaces and drink diuretic alcohol, pissing away every last drop of deference to the hot climate.
In a sense, our current prime minister was channeling this pride when he held a lump of coal aloft in Parliament. It was a defence of our coal export industry, of course, but also a she’ll-be-right shrug at the elements. We don’t change our plans just because it’s going to be hot, his gesture seemed to say. We’re Australian. We wipe the sweat off our brows and keep right on digging.
Later in our hike that day, when the sun was directly overhead, my friend and I came across a small mountain stream. We spent the early afternoon there, swimming in a shady spot beneath a rocky overhang. About 3pm two Aussie hikers arrived, a father and son. ‘We’re going all the way to the lake today,’ the man told us. ‘Quick dip then we’ll push on.’
The lake was another 12km away, mostly uphill, and the route was exposed to the hot sun. We saw them the next day and found out they’d hiked all afternoon, eventually scrabbling up the boulder-strewn mountainside at 10pm using their smartphones as torches. The father had gotten sick from dehydration. ‘But we made it,’ he told us, grinning.
I see this same recklessness in our government’s indifference to the impacts of climate change. Conservative politicians like Tony Abbott remind us that Australia has always been a land of ‘drought and flooding rains’. And yes, it’s true that mainland Australia has highly variable rainfall and that our forests have evolved with regular fires.
But this excuse has stretched way beyond credulity. Bushfires, for example, have pushed the boundaries of both location and time, incinerating previously unburned cool temperate rainforests or sparking in winter and autumn. Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef was first observed in 1982 and has accelerated drastically since. Heatwaves keep smashing historical records.
Perhaps if we were more attuned to our environment, our response to these signs of dangerous climate change would be more urgent. But one of Australia’s foundational myths is of white settlers weathering nature’s worst. It’s actually in our national character — the story we tell about the nation — to dismiss climatic extremes like heatwaves. Maybe one missing part of taking climate change more seriously in Australia is a shift in culture to respect the heat.
On that Australia Day hike, while the father and son were pushing ahead to the lake, we decided to take it easy. We walked six kilometres then spent a relaxed evening in the shade of tall eucalypts by the river. We weren’t sunburnt and we didn’t crack open any beers. It was a long way from the stereotype of what Australians do on 26 January, but I thought there was still a lot of pride in how we were celebrating the country.
‘This is the best way to spend Australia Day,’ said my Canadian friend. ‘Enjoying the beautiful environment here.’ And respecting the hot climate, I thought.