“Australia has always had bushfires…”
A common response of those under siege over the most recent and ongoing bushfire catastrophe in Australia.
But these fires have received international attention; numerous celebrities, businesses, and individuals have donated hundreds of millions in an effort to help the fire services contain the blazes, protect biodiversity ensure those who have lost their homes are supported.
Australia has a GDP per capita of US$53,000; higher than the UK and Canada. This has raised a question amongst climate activists about donating to such a wealthy nation: is it ethical? Especially when less attention is given to the crises in the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), both developing nations.
Here I will examine both sides of the argument, for it is a complex issue.
Is it ethical? The case for ‘NO’
First and foremost, the sheer economic power that Australia harbours – for a nation with approximately 25 million people – is astounding. As I mentioned, with a GDP per capita higher than the UK and Canada (IMF, 2019) of US$53,000, it seems problematic to justify giving aid to such a wealthy nation. It is the 14th largest economy and has a Human Development Index of 6 – higher than the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands and the USA. Its government, under PM Scott Morrison, has allocated US$1.32 billion specifically to form a new agency to coordinate a national response in rebuilding communities, following the bushfire crises. This depicts an economically strong country, in fact, arguably more than strong, world-leading, and thus not needing donations.
Furthermore, the environmental impact of Australia’s fossil fuel economy is vast. How can it be ethical to donate to a well-developed nation when it contributes so heavily to the very climate crisis the world is fighting against? As the largest exporter of coal in the world, a picture is painted of a country who prioritises profit over climate security; mining 10 times the global average of CO2 per person per year, at 57 tonnes. Australia is the world’s 3rd largest exporter of carbon dioxide at 1.1 billion tonnes. National emissions of greenhouse gases from 2018-19 increased by 3.1 million tonnes, to reach 538.9m tonnes, demonstrating to the international community the value its government holds of profit.
Climate crises in developing nations often go unnoticed. They are rarely concentrated on by the mass media, and hardly ever circulate social media. The Philippines has been dubbed the country most at risk from climate change for a myriad of reasons:
- Geography – more than 7500 low-lying islands off the south-east coast of China with an average of 20 typhoons per year.
- Rising sea levels – where 150 million people are predicted to be underwater by 2050, 70% in South-East Asia.
- Death of sea life – increasing pollution levels are killing off coral reefs surrounding the islands. This leads to the fish dying, or migrating elsewhere…
- Predictions of food shortages – the Philippines relies heavily on seafood and is the 8th biggest fishing nation in the world. Typhoons are increasingly causing damage to food crops.
Being a developing nation with a GDP per capita of US$3,318, its focus is not primarily on the increasing severity of natural disasters, such as the Taal Volcano eruption in January 2020. According to Amnesty International, the Philippines ‘is not currently taking this threat seriously’. It does not have the funds, nor the resources to focus time, money and energy on this crisis when developed nations are profiting. Other countries include the DRC, Somalia, and Burundi; where not only populations are expected to increase, but so too are droughts, heavy floods, extreme heat and soil erosion – making the ability to produce crops and sustaining a living that much harder.
Is it ethical? The case for ‘YES’
There is a feeling amongst Australians that the governing party – the Liberal Party under PM Scott Morrison – is simply not doing enough to fight the climate crisis. Morrison has acknowledged that the government’s environmental policies must ‘evolve’ but says that this doesn’t equate to ‘writing off a $70bn industry on which regional Australians depend for their livelihood’. But 86% of the population is urban, with a small percentage in rural areas. The mining industry is still a substantial contributor to its economy (expected to be up 2% this quarter) and so donations to charities, NGOs and fire services seem acceptable here. Particularly since so far only US$244 million out of US$1.32 billion in funds for rebuilding communities after the 2019-2020 series of bushfires has been allocated. Change is slow from governments; they look for short-term electoral success and not long-term environmental progress.
This next argument is a simple one: why can’t well-wishers donate to causes they believe in? Surely this is better than no environmental awareness at all? The reality of whether it is ethical to donate to a developed or an undeveloped nation should not apply here. The Australian Red Cross has received US$150 million since July 2019 from donors around the globe, a colossal collection of funds to help those in need of support. The principle of donating to a cause helping those affected by climate disasters displays a great deal of human decency often absent in environmental protection. Large donations by wealthy individuals such as Kylie Jenner, Elton John and Chris Hemsworth provide not only financial assistance, but raise awareness of issues much wider than the trials and tribulations of daily life.
The international community was devastated by the 2019-20 bushfires in Australia. The natural disaster has resulted in a death toll of at least 30 people, an estimated half a billion animals, and approximately 2000 houses destroyed. New Zealand sent 157 firefighters to assist with the blazes in a show of support from a close ally. People were also shocked to learn that volunteer firefighters were losing wages from their main jobs, in an effort to contain these blazes. Millions have been donated and are currently being distributed due to the NSW Rural Fire Service – ‘the boots on the ground’ – being so underfunded. The international community saw a crisis before their eyes and donated. This is morally right in my eyes, and completely ethical. I believe it is absolutely ethical to donate to Australia. Although it has a strong economy and position within the developed world based upon their exploitation of fossil fuels, its government was quite absent during this crisis. After all, donating to a climate catastrophe shows a level of consciousness, which is progress in itself.
Written by Jess Mahon