Reclaiming Our Climate Stories

By Rowan Sylva

It is a common retort among climate change deniers to state that the, “the climate has always been changing” – a classic case of missing the point. The effect of this argument, however, is that advocates of climate action may shy away from discussing catastrophic climate events of the past. It is my view that this is wrong. By learning and talking about the climate catastrophes of the past, we can gain an understanding of the horror that a hotter world will bring, examine precedents and take hope from the stories of our ancestors’ survival. In this series of guest posts I will discuss stories from out deep past. It may be that climate change stories are, in fact, among the oldest and most resilient of all art forms. And it is time for climate action advocates to reclaim these stories for they are not anecdotal evidence against anthropogenic climate change; they are documents that attest to the awesomely destructive power of the planet.

My first story comes from aboriginal Australia, from the Guntai people of south Gibbsland. It is among the best known of dreamtime stories – the story of Tiddalic the frog. The story goes that Tiddalic awoke one morning with a burning thirst. He drank the rivers till they became a trickle. He sucked all the water from the wells till they ran dry. He consumed the lakes and billabongs till they became nothing but cracked mud. The trees wilted and died. Many animals perished with thirst, so too did men and women and they were forced to wander the land in search of water. The remaining animals knew that if they did not act against the greed of Tiddalic they would also die. They beseeched him to let the water out, but to no avail. So they devised to make him laugh and release the water that way. They tried jokes and many tricks on him, but the frog would not laugh.Eventually the eel tickled the belly of Tiddalic and he laughed. All the water that he had consumed rushed out of him and became a flood. The flood became so great that it drowned the land and all that remained were the tallest mountains. Men, women and animals were swept away in the flood. Many did not survive some were isolated on islands where they were rescued by Palacan, but that is        a different story.

Aboriginal Australia is the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, with some sacred sites being continually occupied for up to 45,000 years by an artistic culture (Stonehenge is a mere 5,000 years old). The existence of such early civilisation in Australia, puts their arrival in the contentment at an interglacial period when Australia had a lush and bountiful climate. People thrived there for roughly ten thousand years. With the occurrence of heavy glaciation roughly (22,000 – 15,000 years ago), the Australian environment became brutally hostile. The forests dried out and were replaced with sandy deserts and barren savannahs. The sea level dropped by some 40 meters and CO2 levels were half preindustrial levels; many peoples and animal species did not survive. This was followed by the end of the glacial period which caused roughly thirty percent of the Australian continent to fall below sea level, eliminating coastal peoples and isolating Tasmania and New Guinea from the Australian mainland. Aboriginal cultures survived these catastrophic climate events and Tiddalic the Frog is one among many dreamtime stories that tells of the land and peoples lost to climate change.

The story carries with it no obvious moral, but as the twenty-first century rolls on and droughts and floods ravage human population we can think of the greed of Tiddalic. We can think of the rising flood water and the loss of peoples. And we can scorn the ignorance of people like Tony Abbot, who claim that climate change is a modern political fad, unworthy of our attention, or indeed that climate action should be actively opposed. The traditional owners of Australia know better. If you’re interested in learning more about pre-European Australian history check out the ABC documentary First Footprints. All photos are by Daniela Gast