07 April 2020 - Article
This article was initially published by Forbes on January 14, 2020.
Wildfires are causing historic levels of destruction in southeast Australia. The fires have burned millions of acres of land, destroyed homes, claimed the lives of at least 25 people, and killed an estimated half a billion animals. While wildfires are a common summer occurrence in Australia, this season’s fires are more significant, worsened by drought and high temperatures.
As the wildfires rage, Australia prepares to take center court on the world tennis scene. In late January, the Australian Open begins in Melbourne. A series of tournaments held annually before the start of the Australian Open, starts sooner in Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide, areas that have been directly impacted by wildfires. Fires near Canberra have already forced the Canberra International tennis tournament to relocate to a city about 370 miles away. Canberra’s air quality has been rated among the worst of major cities in the world and deemed even too poor for the tournament to be held indoors.
With winds blowing smoke over Melbourne, air quality raised concerns over whether the Australian Open should take place. Athletes have complained about difficulty breathing while training in Melbourne for upcoming matches. Tennis officials in Australia do not plan on moving additional tournaments but have committed extra resources to monitor air quality, noting that the health of players, fans, and staff is a priority.
While the status of the Australian Open faces uncertainty, what is certain is the unprecedented fundraising efforts by athletes competing in the tournament. Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios, is donating $140 for every ace he hits during matches in Australia. Australian Ashleigh Barty, the top-ranked female player in the world, pledged her entire Brisbane International winnings to wildfire relief. Maria Sharapova donated $17,400 to wildfire relief. Samantha Stosur, Alex de Minaur, and John Millman are among the many other tennis players making pledges. The Australian Open Rally for Relief, a charity tennis event scheduled for January 15th, will also raise funds for wildfire relief. Superstars Serena Williams, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal are all scheduled to participate.
Celebrities and entertainers, Australian and otherwise, have also pledged funds to support relief efforts. Elton John, Chris Hemsworth, Kylie Jenner, Rebel Wilson, and Leonardo DiCaprio are among the individuals donating or raising money for wildfire relief. Ordinary citizens around the world have also pledged unprecedented amounts of money. Fundraisers have popped up all over social media. On Facebook, a wildfire fundraiser started by Australian actor, writer, and comedian Celeste Barber, has raised more than $34.5 million, the largest fundraiser ever on the platform.
Several actors used the Golden Globes on January 5th to encourage support for wildfire relief and demand action on the cause of the wildfires, climate change. American actor, Joaquin Phoenix, challenged his peers to minimize their environmental impact. Australian actor Russell Crowe, who skipped the Golden Globes due to wildfires near his Australian home, demanded immediate action on climate change in a statement delivered on stage by actress Jennifer Aniston.
While relief efforts are organized around the world, Scott Morrison, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister, has been criticized over his initial handling of the wildfire crisis. As fires raged, Morrison left the country for a vacation in Hawaii. Protesters, outraged over Morrison’s absence, gathered around his home in Sydney.
The protests were about more than his vacation. Australians have been unsatisfied with Morrison’s overall sluggish response to the climate crisis. While Morrison acknowledges the impacts of climate change, he has prioritized economic interests and the fossil fuel industry over policies designed to address the climate crisis.
Morrison, like other world leaders, has been unwilling to take any meaningful action on climate change despite Australia’s need to urgently limit emissions. Instead, Morrison and his government wait for rain and cooler temperatures, in addition to the countless Australian and international volunteer firefighters, to help address the disaster.
Money and resources will be spent on fighting fires and dealing with the devastation, as it should. But the world continues to wait for leadership to commit money and resources on meaningful action and measures that may help prevent these devastating fires and other extreme environmental events around the world.
It is not uncommon today for some to criticize athletes, celebrities, and entertainers for taking public positions on political and social issues. However, the wildfire relief efforts demonstrate the power and utility of celebrity public platforms to draw attention to and rally support for important causes. But, as celebrities and ordinary citizens around the world all show up for Australia wildfire relief, one can only wonder what new environmental crisis will again mobilize the global citizenry. Global campaigns are invaluable when it comes to fundraising for disaster relief and highlighting evidence of the climate crisis. However, it is yet to be seen whether the campaigns will sufficiently pressure political leadership to prioritize meaningful action on climate change.