Some 4,600 kilometres across the pond, a humble Fijian coffee shop is urging its customers to “caffeinate generously”.
As scenes of apocalyptic red skies and injured wildlife are broadcast to horrified onlookers across the globe, Weta Coffee has pledged its support — and profits from Monday’s sales — to Australia’s firefighting efforts.
The Pacific may seem like an unlikely source of solidarity in light of Australia’s chequered relationship with its neighbours on climate action and our tug-of-war with China over foreign aid in the region.
But it’s not about politics for owner Mue Bentley Fisher, who insists “the connections are deep”.
“We want to help a member of our Pacific family in need,” she says.
“All politics aside, we’re all concerned about the devastation in Australia… There isn’t anyone in Fiji who doesn’t have some sort of connection to Australia.”
Australia isn’t used to being the target of philanthropy — we see ourselves as donors not recipients, despite the comparable decline in our foreign aid budget
But as the nation’s east coast braces for weeks of fires, one thing is clear: the world is watching — with its heart, and pockets, open.
‘The rest of the world is utterly perplexed’
Nearby Papua New Guinea, which has since established its own fundraising appeal, has offered to deploy 1,000 soldiers and firefighters to Australia, while an online fundraiser — backed by a slew of celebrities, including US singer Pink and country star Keith Urban — has raised in excess of $41 million from donors as far as Romania.
But while few would argue that our fire services shouldn’t receive extra funding, or that those most affected don’t need the support, the bushfire crisis and subsequent influx of foreign aid has raised questions about Australia’s global standing.
@TimCostello tweet: As happened in Jan 2004 when Aussies were glued to the tragedy in the Asian tsnunami – this summer we are transifxed by our own nationak disaster.
“In terms of our reputation, I think the rest of the world is utterly perplexed,” said former World Vision CEO Tim Costello.
“The LA Times, I think back in 2009, had a front page saying, ‘if you want to see the future of climate change, look at Australia’.
“I remember people scoffing in Australia. Well, 10 years on, the world has seen what is going on down there.”
An international talking point
The unfolding scenes have proven a lightning rod for national and international concerns around the warming climate, and the subsequent political response to it.
Australia’s plight was again catapulted into the global consciousness when Russell Crowe used his Golden Globes acceptance speech to call for climate change action — a sentiment echoed by Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who labelled the bushfire crisis a “climate disaster”.
An attempt by Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly to downplay those arguments on UK television backfired when he was accused of being a “climate change denier” with his “head in the sand” by weather expert Laura Tobin and broadcaster Piers Morgan.
“[International media] were predicting this [climate change]… International press, they reported it, and followed our tardy action on climate change, our dodgy accounting to get credits, our strange argument that because we’re 1.4 per cent of emissions we can’t make a difference,” Mr Costello said.
“This strange perception that because we’re small, we won’t lead, I think has the world perplexed.”
The economic cost of the bushfire crisis
The potential reputational damage to Australia as a result of the bushfire crisis is not limited to international headlines, however.
According to Terry Rawnsley, the head of economic analysis at SGS Economics and Planning, the economic cost to fire-affected regions could be up to $1.9 billion this financial year, while the national economic output is predicted to have been hampered to the tune of $500 million.
Mr Rawnsley said those figures were based on the number of reported insurable losses and previous bushfire modelling, including the 2018 Tathra fires.
He said while smaller communities would bear the brunt of the economic impact, the bushfire crisis has “definitely had an impact on Australia’s global image”.
“It’s definitely front page news across the world, and it’s not really the image you want to be presenting when you want tourists to come to Australia,” Mr Rawnsley said.
“Even people around skilled labour thinking about coming to Australia, it might give them pause for thought.
“And also, it might create longer-term uncertainties about companies wanting to invest here if there is a perceived climate change risk for investment.”
It comes amid a warning from a major investor group that companies should expect shareholders to apply pressure over climate change risks into the future.
Emily Chew, the chairwoman of Climate Action 100+ — whose members include Allianz, QSuper, AustralianSuper and AMP Capital, among others — told the Australian Financial Review that it was not “going to go away as a topic in the minds of the public”.
‘Celebrities can play a great role’
In light of the bushfires, Tourism Australia has paused parts of its star-studded Matesong advertising campaign, and the local and national tourism sectors are bracing for the anticipated impact of the crisis.
Gabby Walters, an associate professor at the University of Queensland and an expert in crisis management for the tourism industry, said no-one would be immune from the potential implications.
@Pink tweet: I am totally devastated watching what is happening in Australia right now with the horrific bushfires.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re affected by the fires or not — if you’re in Australia, according to the rest of the world, it could mean you’re on fire,” Dr Walters said.
The added call to action by celebrities — including US singer Pink, Australian country star Keith Urban and tennis star Ash Barty — has only galvanised international interest.
“Drawing awareness is good, we need that awareness for the donations and for safety,” said Dr Walters, describing it as a “double-edged sword” for tourism.
“The other side of the sword is that yes, it does create some image and reputational damage [for Australia]. So it’s about encouraging those celebrities to not disappear now.
“Celebrities can play a great role… but all they need to do is get on their social media and say ‘come pay us a visit’.”
According to David Beirman, a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology Sydney, the domestic tourism industry will eventually recover — but it will take time.
“I did a project recently for Tathra … which had a terrible bushfire in 2018 [and] it recovered very effectively,” Dr Beirman said.
“The difference here is, there’s probably 100 different Tathras in Australia today.”
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