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Dispatch from AustraliaJean McNeil

Jean McNeil
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  1. Scribbly gum forest


We inch westward on a sluggish commuter train. The trees look African – acacias? – but on closer inspection are not. Everything initially looks African or European (my two points of reference) but then isn’t. It is 35 degrees. Of my trip to the Blue Mountains, everyone in Sydney says, ‘oh good, you’ll be cooler there.’ Outside the train window a man jogs, slowly, in the hammer-like heat.

My friend Jacinta says the Blue Mountains can be ‘spooky.’ This is the second time I hear this. The first is when my friend Beth, who lived there for the best part of eight years, tells me the First Nations people used the area as a seasonal hunting ground and ceremonial place. There was something powerful here, not quite happy about white settlers building permanent structures. ‘People disappear. They go for a walk and don’t come back. It’s very Picnic at Hanging Rock.’

I meet my friend Margo in Katoomba, a cool town close to the apex of the mountains. We go for a walk in the forest. Some trees are scorched. On others, the bark peels off in long wallpaper rolls. There is a tree called Scribbly gum. It looks as if someone has been drawing serpentines and doodles on it. There is a watery, mulch-fern smell to the land. Vermilion lichen clings to the rocks. Even so, it is hard not to think of this vast forest on fire, and to fear for it. Bush fires are burning now, not far away. There is a piece in the news about the fact that their smoke can be seen from satellites. I look up the images. The fires look like rainstorms on meteorological maps. Which they are, in a way – reverse rainstorms.

Margo and I hang over the railing at the area’s many lookouts. Thin waterfalls with thousand-foot drops cascade all around us. The blue of the Mountains is actually several hues – topaz, indigo, a viridian I’ve only ever seen before in Italian Renaissance paintings, never in the land itself.

We walk up and down precipices in the forest. The Eucalyptus trees are commanding, painfully pale. ‘They’re really dangerous,’ Margo says. ‘Their branches fall off all the time, without any warning. A girl camped under one and she was killed instantly. Poor girl. She didn’t know the country.’


  1. Blowout

Two nights before I go to the Blue Mountains I attend a Town Hall meeting called by Sydney Climate Action Group. It is in a gigantic auditorium on the University of Sydney campus. The overhead lights flicker in a way that remind me of malfunctioning spaceships in blockbuster sci-fi films.

I sit with Dany Celermajer, the deputy director of the Sydney Environment Institute and the author of Summertime, an instant classic about the terrible bush fires of 2019-20, and my colleague from the University of Sydney’s Creative Writing programme, Beth Yahp. We take our seats as an elder from the Gadigal people of the Eora First Nations, the original inhabitants of the area, approaches the stage, a possum fur cloak draped around her shoulders. She opens the meeting by calling upon the custodians of the land. Then the speakers are introduced: Richard Denniss, Director of the Australia Institute, Natasha Abhayawickrama, an organiser for the School Strikes for Climate, and Adam Bandt, the leader of the Australian Greens.

‘The way to fight climate change is simple.’ Richard Denniss begins. ‘Just stop investing in fossil fuels.’ He pauses. Silence fills the auditorium. ‘That’s it.’ Uncertain laughter ripples through the audience. Not because we don’t believe him; we do. But few people put it so plainly. ‘What we need to seek,’ Dennis says, ‘is a just transition to renewables – real carbon cuts, not carbon trading.’

I’ve only recently arrived in Australia and I do not know the detail of the new government’s climate policy, beyond the fact that they actually have one – a sea change from ‘ScoMo’, a.k.a Scott Morrison.  In May 2022, Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party supplanted ScoMo’s Liberals. Many Australians think that fears about climate change instilled by the cycle of bush fires and floods was the defining issue in the change of government. In September 2022 the Albanese government passed into legislation its Climate Bill, which included an emissions reduction target of 43 percent by 2030, and enshrining its commitment to net zero by 2050.

I could find very little information online on the topic of that night’s meeting, the government’s latest climate change policy. It is called the Safeguard Mechanism, a neutral enough term that sounds more like a measure to protect children. The news articles I can find bristle with terminology such as ‘fugitive methane emissions’; ‘abatements’; ‘buffers’ and ‘blowout’. After wading through several pieces I figure out that the scheme presents complex ways in which fossil fuel companies can buy up carbon credits to offset their own polluting practice.

How many new fossil fuel projects has the Albanese government already green-lighted?’ Deniss asks us. ‘A hundred and seventeen.’ Dany, Beth and I trade glances. That doesn’t sound like divestment.

Denniss cites some facts I was unaware of. Australia is, after Saudi Arabia and Russia, the number three exporter of fossil fuels in the world. It is the biggest exporter of natural gas in the world. (I thought that was Qatar, which turns out to be number two; Qatar at least tax natural gas at 20%; Australia – no tax). The value of Australia’s subsidies for the fossil fuel industry? Eleven billion dollars.

‘This policy will do nothing,’ Denniss says. ‘If we were to cut only one of the 117 planned fossil fuel projects it would do more good than the entire safeguard mechanism.’

It’s Natasha Abhayawickrama’s turn. She assures us that despite giving over a good part of her high school years to activism as the lead organiser of the Australian School Strikes, she is both gainfully employed and at university. She begins casually, almost bashful, but quickly slips into efficient outrage.

‘What other issue would we be told threatens civilisational collapse, and the government does nothing? We are living in a collapsing climate. There were bush fires last week because it was 36 degrees for two days. What happens when it is 36 degrees for a month, day in, day out? We want carbon cuts, not offsets. This plan is creating loopholes for the fossil fuel industry. Meanwhile parts of western Sydney have been the hottest places on the planet! They’re trying to fool us! Where is the media coverage?’

A round of applause fills the blinking-light auditorium.

That day before the event I downloaded the temperature map of the country I’ve used to illustrate this piece.

Outside my window, the Sydney beach was packed with swimmers. It was mid-March and at 5.30 pm it was 29 degrees. Two weeks later the safeguarding bill was passed. But very few people have heard of it. And fewer still know what it means.

As I take my trip to the Blue Mountains, I am still digesting the content. Even a left-of-centre (or what passes for it in Australia) government can be captured by the fossil fuel industry. That is the first lesson. The second is that the seductive but disorienting wealth I see around me has likely been built on this industry, at least in part – all the up-to-the-minute equipment in the city’s many gymnasia, its flotillas of white Range Rovers, its seaside show homes and ‘coffee culture’ and spectral yachts.

‘It’s so strange, I’m still adjusting to normality,’ Margo says as we walk among the Scribbly gum trees. ‘We had the fires, we didn’t know if we would have to leave, and then Covid.’ I have the impression she feels far less certain about the world now. We stop beside a scorched tree. Apart from the burnt-tyre marks on some of the trunks, the trees seem to have regenerated.

‘The bush needs fire, everyone knows that,’ Margo says. ‘But not on this scale. The animals can’t escape.’ Although before I get my train down to the hot plains of the city, she tells me a story about a band of koalas that climbed down, far, far into the mountain canyon. They survived there, in a stand of trees by a cool, dark river.


JEAN McNEIL is the author of fifteen books. She was the winner of the 2016 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival’s Grand Prize for her memoir Ice Diaries, based on the year she spent as writer in residence in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey. She is Director of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.