This is what climate change looks like

New Year’s Eve started out quietly. There was the early dinner with hidden vegetables, the negotiations over more story books, and insistence on milk in a blue cup. We put the toddler to bed and flopped on the couch with a glass of wine.

The evening became quieter still. There were no neighbourhood BBQs, no parties, no fireworks, no celebrations. Before dark, a vast plume of thick smoke rolled into our already smoky city.  

It was utterly confusing. We watched the plume approach, thinking is that dust, or …? Visibility decreased, darkness fell, our house filled with smoke, our minds with fear. We went to bed early but spent the night checking the news and social media for updates and discussing whether to disconnect our smoke alarms.

The New Year was thick, red and hazy. Our city felt abandoned, the streets were empty, the birds gone. Everything sat under layer after layer, week upon week, of dust and smoke and ash.

By mid-morning, we had made the decision one of us would take the kid and leave for fresh air elsewhere. The other would stay and ready our home and pets for the oncoming catastrophic fire weather.

I flew out to Hobart that evening. Many families made the same decision to split up. Those that were left stayed in, blocked gaps with wet towels and watched the news.

Meanwhile, emails came in from reporters with cheery greetings about the New Year. Happy New Year? I was exhausted. I was angry. I was scared.

By then, we’d already had over 5 weeks of the smoke hazard. Every night the wind changed and brought an acrid reminder of homes razed, millions of animals burned alive and dear friends on fire grounds with children waiting at home.

The smoke had pervaded our house, our place of love and solace. We’d had weeks indoors but the smoke had still pervaded our bodies. Our 2-year-old would beg to be allowed outside. I had chronic headaches and we hadn’t slept properly for weeks.

When I saw the blue sky in transit to Hobart, I wept. The following morning, I wept at children on slides and swings.

Those first days of the year I felt adrift. I obsessively read news and emergency alerts. Smoke poured further into buildings and homes, Canberra’s business and services began to close. Thousands were evacuated and others in the region’s community were lost to us.  

I tried to focus on our luck and privilege, our options to leave, our home and community waiting for us, our health. There were many positives. We eventually got news that all our friends were safe. Organic networks of help emerged, trading air purifiers for housing for P2 masks for pet sitting. Colleagues from overseas contacted me with offers to host my family, starting immediately. People are wonderful.

But every time I opened our suitcase, smoke would emerge. Everything stank – the stroller, the kid’s pyjamas, her bunny toy. I cultivated a holiday for her, but I was overwhelmed by anger, sadness, grief. We had babycinos while every place of our hearts, of our childhood holidays, was turned to dust and ash and dead animals.

More emails came through with the usual pleasantries about having nice weekends or a good day. I felt untethered. What was the value of responding to these? What was the value of our scientific work at all?

The familiarity of bushfire smoke made the situation in Canberra difficult to explain. Everyone felt they could appreciate it based on their experience of previous smoky days. The smoke’s persistence, heaviness, health impacts and power to evoke panic couldn’t be adequately articulated.

Kind colleagues sent through links to volunteer groups, suggestions for positive people to talk to, ideas for discussion and fora on ‘what next’ and assurances that this was a turning point in climate discourse in Australia.

I just couldn’t. I deleted news and social media and emails from my phone. I sat in my grief. I embraced my anger at the betrayal of scientific information and warnings derided for decades. I let myself feel rage for my daughter and her future.

Back in Canberra and back at work now, everyone is profoundly fatigued from our red summer. Our summer of hazy red sunrises, red warnings of extreme fire danger, red weather forecasts of yet another oncoming heatwave, and rolling news footage of red flames engulfing our hearts.

Eventually, I had the enthusiasm to respond to emails and media requests for comment. International media asked about the fires and the drought and the heatwaves. What was it like, what was it from, what of our future?

This is what climate change looks like.