In Bellawongarah, the sunset is replaced by a minute of silence. Then the “evening symphony” begins.
The soft rustle of trees gives way to a cacophony of croaks and hoots as nature comes alive.
Nestled between Berry and the Kangaroo Valley in the NSW Shoalhaven region, around 130 people call the picturesque mountain community home.
Surrounded by temperate rainforest and rolling valleys, it’s easy to understand Bellawongarah’s grip.
However, in recent years, something has changed.
First, the frogs and snakes disappeared, and with them the nocturnal melody of amphibians – the side effect of a drought that relegated the dams to a “turbid puddle” and dried up the once wet rainforest.
Then the bushfires came.
As Eleanor’s parents’ property was spared, as she watched wildlife seek refuge in her backyard from the hell that surrounded them, the magnitude of the situation became clear.
“It was pretty scary because for months we could just smell the smoke in the air just going up the hill,” she says.
“But it also made me want to take action and speak out after seeing the effects of climate change on my own life and my own community.”
For young Australians, it’s personal
Young Australians are at the heart of the climate crisis and, in the face of extreme weather events across the country, it is a story shaped by personal experience.
Our World, Our Say – the largest national consultation of children and young people on climate change and disaster risk, led by the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience and World Vision – surveyed 1,447 young Australians aged from 10 to 24 years old.
The 2020 report found that more than 80% of participants over the age of 16 were concerned or extremely concerned about climate change.
More than 90% of respondents said they had experienced at least one natural disaster in the previous three years, while 63% believed that disasters occur more often.
“We had to evacuate with the bushfires, which was obviously a major experience that I will always remember,” says Eleanor.
“And so people just think, ‘Oh, it’s just climate change, it’s just global warming’. But it has such far-reaching consequences.”
As swaths of Australia’s east coast grapple with the fallout from sustained rainfall and flash flooding, the conversation has once again turned to the country’s climate response.
But this time, it is the young people who make their voices heard.
As tens of thousands of students descended on School Strike For Climate rallies across the country last month, flood-affected teenagers spoke of becoming “climate refugees”.
“Have you ever had to flee your home, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm, scared because you don’t know what’s going to happen, or if you’re going to survive, or if your home will still be okay, or if your friends are well?” Ella O’Dwyer-Oshlack, 13 – who lost her home in the Lismore flood disaster – told crowds outside Kirribilli House.
“It’s not something I would wish on anyone.”
Direct exposure to extreme weather events can have adverse consequences
New Australian and international evidence suggests that children and young people who are directly exposed to extreme weather events are at risk of a range of psychological effects.
A study looking at the impact of the Black Summer of 2020 bushfires on young people – led by researchers at the University of New England – found that those directly exposed to the crisis reported significantly higher levels higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress, adjustment disorder symptoms, and drug and alcohol use than those who were not.
The study – which involved a survey of 740 young people in New South Wales aged 16 to 25 – also found that those who were directly exposed were more likely to believe that climate change was going to affect them, or them. people they knew. .
Associate Professor Amy Lykins says more emphasis needs to be placed on strengthening support services in regional and rural communities to build psychological resilience to the challenges that climate change will bring.
“Creating that and building that community capacity is really important to help provide better opportunities for resilience in the future,” she says.
With black summer fires preceded by severe droughts in some areas and followed by floods in others, experts also point to the cascading and cumulative effects of successive major weather events, which can affect people’s ability to cope. to re-establish.
Unhappiness and sadness are not always the answer
As young people find themselves on the frontlines of climate change, the classroom has become a battleground of sorts.
In Western Australia, a survey of schools’ response to climate change is currently underway, while Victoria’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan project explores what can be done to ensure that schools and services early childhood education are able to “withstand more extreme weather conditions”.
Although the complexity of climate change may make it seem like there is not much to do on an individual level, in a classroom in Canberra, a teenager is trying to change the climate around climate change, a pupil at that time.
For the high school student, it is a subject as exciting as it is difficult.
When he first joined his school’s environmental group, he was faced with a dilemma: how do you get a group of teenagers to think recycling is interesting?
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we do something really different?’ If it’s funny, it’s memorable and people are more likely to remember the messages,” says Joji.
During their monthly assembly, the group holds wheelie bin races and “Binja Warrior” style obstacle courses, where competitors must dodge obstacles to put trash in the bin.
It’s an unconventional strategy designed to “bridge the gap between our actions and our impacts”, and create a connection between the smell of sorting bins and the camaraderie of competition.
“Our work in the environmental group has shown that people care, that they are able to change their habits for the good of the environment,” says Joji.
“There are small things we can do to solve some of these climate problems.”
“We can just slow it down”
Reflecting on the future, Joji is candid: “I think there is still time for a change.”
“There is definitely still time and if we change our habits now, we can prevent climate change from becoming a big problem in the future,” he says.
For Eleanor, who has seen the changes on her property firsthand, it’s a feeling that brings up mixed emotions.
It is up to the younger generations to find a solution to climate change, she says.
After fires ravaged the landscape around Bellawongarah, the rains followed – and with them the once-lost frogs and snakes returned.
Nowadays, life looks almost like it once did.
However, wood ducks no longer breed there, Eleanor says, while animals once deterred by the temperature and altitude now feel at home higher up the mountain.
“It’s not just about big things like melting icebergs,” she says.
“Climate change can affect everyone and even in the smallest of ways.”
The ABC’s Heywire competition is open to all regional Australians between the ages of 16 and 22.
The annual competition provides a platform for the younger generation, in pockets of Australia who rarely see the spotlight, to “tell it like it is”.
If you are between 16 and 22 years old and want to know more about the ABC Heywire contest, go to the ABC Heywire website.