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Planting seeds of change
Migrants are no strangers to adaptation, as making a new home is no small feat. But now they’re being challenged to adapt again as Australia’s changing climate throws up new pressures. And there are lessons for all Australians.
When Ms Yang first came to Australia from China in 2007, reducing her environmental impact wasn’t a familiar concept.
“The first thing I learnt here was sorting rubbish and recycling,” Ms Yang said.
“Yellow bins, green bins and black bins, I was watching how the neighbours did it and learnt from them.
“Now when our children come home from school, they tell us stories of how to protect the environment … and persuade us to use less plastic when packing their lunchboxes.”
Lu Yang, back right, with her family in Ballarat. ABC News: Kai Feng
Like many Australian families, Ms Yang’s family has learnt that reducing plastic pollution, while helpful, doesn’t bring down greenhouse gas emissions directly — but they’re already working on the latter, too.
“I used to design solar panels, so I understand that it’s green energy and it helps to save money. Now we have 100 panels on the roof,” Zhouxin Cai, Ms Yang’s husband, told the ABC.
He said in total the panels cost about $30,000 but along with a government rebate, the investment was quickly paying off.
“I used to pay $1,600 per month on electricity, but now I only pay $300 per month,” he said.
Mr Cai said he expected to recoup the cost of the panels within a couple of years.
Solar panels cover the roof of the family’s Ballarat motel. ABC News: Kai Feng
Today, China is an economic and political superpower, and in coming years, it may become a renewables one, too.
China remains the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, releasing 10.06 gigatonnes in 2018 — a gigatonne is equivalent to a billion tonnes — according to figures from the International Energy Agency.
But the country was also the world’s largest investor in renewables at $US90.1 billion ($125.6 billion) last year, according to the UN’s renewable energy advisory body.
This is a marked contrast with China of the last century, where sustainability was also a part of life, albeit not by choice.
Mr Cai’s mother, Xiuying Chen, is someone with lived experience of this.
She grew up in Nanjing, a city west of Shanghai, in the 1950s. It was a period she described as “really poor”.
It was a time of great resource scarcity for China, having just emerged from Japanese invasion and occupation, and the country’s 1949 Civil War.
By the late 1950s, tens of millions of people had died in the Great Chinese Famine.
“I was always hungry because there wasn’t enough food,” Ms Chen said.
“Sometimes we didn’t have power on during the day, we only had it during the night.”
The need to be sustainable grew to become a lifelong habit, and something she brought to Australia.
Xiuying Chen in her verdant Ballarat garden. ABC News: Kai Feng
“During the summer, we raised dozens of chickens,” Ms Chen said.
“I composted the chicken manure and the unwanted weeds or grass to fertilise the vegetables in the garden, they actually grew very well.”
Limiting waste is a habit she’s passing on to her grandchildren.
“When my grandchildren waste food, for example they eat the bread but don’t eat the crust, I’d educate them … I sometimes ate their leftovers,” she said.
How to talk to your parents about climate change
Young, articulate and passionate, Manjot Kaur has been a driving force in the student climate protests that put the issue back on the front pages in the lead-up to last summer.
Ms Kaur, a University of Sydney student, and former co-organiser of Australia’s School Strike 4 Climate protests, regularly commuted from her hometown of Mudgee to Sydney — about a three-and-a-half-hour drive each way — while also being active online and on the airwaves.
But it wasn’t until her Indian-born parents heard her being interviewed on local radio that the family spoke about the issue.
While her political activism may have impressed some parents, she said hers first viewed it with alarm because of government warnings against the demonstrations.
“They completely disapproved of me speaking out against the Federal Government,” Ms Kaur said.
“My parents grew up afraid of government and feeling powerless in local elections. They feared for me.
“When I first started attending protests I had to text and call them every few minutes, so they knew I was OK.”
Rather than rebel against her parents, Ms Kaur used their disapproval as a springboard to share her climate change knowledge.
“I was the only way my parents heard about climate change, even though they had already experienced it,” Ms Kaur said.
She said she helped “connect the dots” between her parents’ experience in rural India — a world of delayed monsoons, scattered rain, and unreliable crop yields — to the climate change science she learned in school.
“As the child of an immigrant, you play an important role in helping your parents navigate through society, whether that’s helping them understand government letters or ordering fish and chips,” Ms Kaur said.
“But with climate change, it felt there were two knowledge systems coming together.”
Today, Ms Kaur’s parents are on board with climate change adaptation, and have purchased a hybrid vehicle and installed solar panels on the family home.
And while her parents remain supportive of her activism, their concerns for her safety weren’t completely unfounded, as she said her identity had put her in difficult situations.
“I face personal, misogynistic and racist attacks on social media,” Ms Kaur said.
“Everything you do as a person of colour becomes a reflection of your entire community.
“Going to a protest and risking arrest is very different for a white person, than it is for me, or for an immigrant.”
Climate-conscious without knowing it
Ying Zhang is a senior epidemiologist at the University of Sydney who researches the intersections between climate and health, especially in the Asia-Pacific.
She said many migrants from “resource-poor” countries brought with them practices that lower carbon footprints, such as growing and harvesting homegrown produce, and repurposing excess waste.
While this lifestyle may also be associated with aspirational Instagram pages or affluent inner-urban housing developments, living sustainably comes naturally for many migrant families.
“They have a closer relationship with the environment, may be more concerned about natural resources, and have been living a more energy-efficient life than many local Australians,” Dr Zhang told the ABC.
Kim Nguyen, a Vietnamese-born bakery owner from Melbourne, grows organic vegetables in a community garden and likes to preserve leftovers through pickling.
Efforts like these, which cut down Ms Nguyen’s reliance on imported goods, help reduce her family’s emissions by avoiding buying food that needs to travel far distances.
Growing your own food also helps bring down emissions by reducing the amount of food that ends up in landfill.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged countries to tackle food waste as part of efforts to bring down global emissions.
Decomposing foods in landfill release methane gases, which are 28 times more powerful than other greenhouse gases over a century.
A 2016 study from the University of Melbourne estimated the Victorian capital’s food waste generated 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions annually, with about 60 per cent of the waste generated before it reached the consumer.
All of this detail however isn’t the reason Ms Nguyen grows her food.
On climate change, she said she didn’t know “anything about it at all”.
“I want organic vegetables for my family,” Ms Nguyen said.
“I think when you grow your own veggies, it’s better for your health for your family.
“If you grow it you only pick what you need, if you go to the shop they have to sell a bunch.”
‘We are not safe anywhere from climate change’
For some migrants, the idea of climate change hindering Australia’s safety and prosperity may be a foreign one, particularly for those who emigrated in search of a higher quality of life.
This even included Dr Zhang’s mother who migrated from China to Australia for health reasons.
“She thought Australia was doing as much as it could because this is such a developed country, and she said, ‘Why should we be concerned about the environment?’” Dr Zhang said.
While Australian cities aren’t usually cloaked in smog like many other cities in the industrialised world, the country’s clearer skies often belie the fact that Australia is one of the worst polluters per capita — most migrants escaping polluted cities come from countries that emit less per capita than Australia.
One of these countries is Bangladesh.
Abdul Bhuiyan, from Sydney’s outer south-west, is a Bangladeshi migrant who emigrated to Australia in 2008 to “escape” natural disasters back home.
Abdul Bhuiyan in his Sydney garden. ABC News: Richard Hoskins
Bangladesh, which lies on the Ganges Delta, is particularly vulnerable to tropical cyclones, associated storm surges, and flooding.
By 2050, Bangladesh’s large cities may also become the first in the world to experience heatwaves that exceed the “survivability threshold” — where conditions become dangerous even in the shade — if greenhouse gases continue to be emitted at current levels, according to climate modelling from Woods Hole Research Center.
Climate modelling also suggests that South Asia will experience more severe natural disasters, while in Australia, modelling suggests the continent will be drier, hotter, and more prone to devastating bushfires.
The Ganges River delta seen from space. NASA Johnson
These predictions for Australia crystallised for Mr Bhuiyan during the last Australian bushfire season, in which more than 30 people were killed, millions of acres of land burnt, and about 3 billion animals died or were displaced.
“The 2019-2020 bushfire crisis we will never forget. It was like a ticking time bomb,” Mr Bhuiyan said.
“My family used to call me every day to check if I was safe. The vision of the fires were really scary, that made them really concerned about my wellbeing.”
Last year’s bushfire season had a number of fires that generated their own weather systems. Supplied: DELWP Gippsland
Bushfire smoke from Australia’s east coast cloaked parts of New Zealand in smog over summer. Joshua Stevens/NASA EOSDIS/LANCE/GIBS/Worldview
In New South Wales alone, the fires burned through more than 5.4 million hectares — an area greater than the total size of Denmark or the Netherlands.
They were exacerbated by New South Wales’s tinderbox status in the lead-up to the season, with the Bureau of Meteorology stating that a “widespread and severe” lack of rainfall, drought, and above-average temperatures contributed to the high fire danger.
Last year was Australia’s hottest year on record, which was preceded by the hottest Australian summer on record in 2018-19.
Mr Bhuiyan’s 600-square-metre garden buckled under these conditions, with normally vibrant chillies and squashes bearing marks of heat stress, while other crops perished.
Mr Bhuiyan’s lemons survived the heat. ABC News: Richard Hoskins
Last summer’s record heat deformed Mr Bhuiyan’s chilli crop.ABC News: Richard Hoskins
These were some of the chillies that just survived.ABC News: Richard Hoskins
He said many of his South Asian friends, who previously viewed Australia as a safe haven from natural disasters, changed their opinion after the summer fires.
“When we migrated to Australia, we thought we were safe from these types of extreme natural events,” Mr Bhuiyan said.
“But when we witnessed the last drought and bushfire events then we realised we are not safe anywhere from the effect of climate change.
“It’s not the issue of one country … and we cannot escape it.”
Translating the climate crisis
Dr Zhang says Australia’s ethnic minorities are more susceptible to climate change’s deadly consequences. ABC News: Brendan Esposito
The University of Sydney’s Dr Zhang said research already suggested that Australia’s migrants face particular climate change risks, which have at times resulted in fatal consequences.
“We have seen people die because the weather is too hot. Australian heatwaves kill more people than other natural disasters,” Dr Zhang said.
“When we compare the death and hospital admissions related to heatwaves among different subpopulations in the community, we found higher risk from the CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) community.
“The current Federal Government doesn’t realise how important climate change is to the whole community, the economy, the sustainability of this whole society.”
Historically, Australia has languished at the bottom of global scorecards on climate change action. A recent UN, UNICEF and Lancet report on child wellbeing ranked Australia 174th on its sustainability index.
This year’s Climate Change Performance Index — an annual report looking at the emissions reductions of 61 countries responsible for 90 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — saw Australia ranked just above Iran in 56th place.
But a spokesperson for Angus Taylor, Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, dismissed the report, and said it “ignored key facts and statistics”.
“Australia’s [Paris Agreement] 2030 target of reducing emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels is, on a per capita basis, more ambitious than the targets the European Union, Germany, Canada, New Zealand or Japan have committed to over the same period,” the spokesperson said.
They also cited Bloomberg data stating that Australia invested $7.7 billion in renewable energy projects in 2019, which outperformed the US, UK, Germany and Japan on a per person basis.
But Australia’s current emissions tell a different story using per capita metrics — it’s one of the world’s largest emitters using that yardstick.
Australia’s emissions initially peaked in 2007 and reduced under the Labor government’s carbon tax, which the Abbott government repealed in 2014.
Since 2015, Australia’s total emissions have increased, and until last year the Government’s own projections had found it would not meet its 2030 target of a 26–28 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels.
To meet the target, the Government is now planning to use “carry-over credits” from the previous Kyoto scheme, adopted in 1997. What that means is Australia’s actual emissions will only reduce by 16 per cent by 2030.
No other country is using carry-over credits from Kyoto, and using them is not a recognised part of the Paris Agreement.
And for activists such as Ms Kaur, government shouldn’t be “absolving itself of responsibility” when it comes to direct emissions reduction.
“It should not be my family’s responsibility to go out of our way to try and do the right thing,” Ms Kaur said.
“The idea that individuals must reduce their emissions is a Eurocentric narrative that absolves fossil fuel corporations and governments of responsibility.
“We need the voices of immigrants; we need the voices of South Asians because they’re the ones who have that lived experience of what climate change is doing beyond our shores.”
Ms Kaur says governments and corporations shouldn’t rely on individuals alone to reduce global warming. ABC News: Brendan Esposito
In 2017, a report by the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI) found that just 100 companies — mostly coal and oil producing companies — had been responsible for 71 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
While some Australians may not be as well versed in the detail such as this, that hasn’t stopped them from trying to make a difference in ways they understand, such as Ballarat’s Yang-Cai family.
As the beneficiaries of Victoria’s solar panel rebate scheme, Ms Yang said her family “advocates” for government encouragement of “scientific, energy-saving and efficient products”.
But as observers of Australia’s climate change policy wars have seen, the wait for large government-led solutions after the collapse of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) may be longer than people anticipate.
“We have more and more evidence to prove the health, economic, and environmental impacts of climate change worldwide,” Dr Zhang said.
“We will need the whole of society to act.”
But the Yang-Cai family isn’t going to be marching in the streets anytime soon.
Instead, they are doing what millions of migrants have done before them, working hard to build a life for themselves, and along the way make Australia a better place.