If you had told me, even six months ago, that a climate disaster like this one would strike a place like Australia, I probably would not have expected global wall to wall media coverage — seeing these Sydney opera house against an eerie backdrop of orange smoke makes for spectacular footage, but it’s perhaps less ripe fodder for social media than watching the Kardashians evacuate the valley by Instagram story — but I would have expected a lot more than this. That’s not because of high-minded faith in the media, or public interest in harrowing stories like these. It’s for a more sinister reason: for decades now, in the U.S. and Western Europe, we have paid much, much more attention to even small-scale suffering by the force of natural disaster when it strikes parts of the wealthy west than we ever muster for those suffering already so dramatically from climate change in Asia and especially in the global south.
That set of prejudices is a moral outrage, and an especially concerning feature of the global response to climate change, which is already punishing the developing world in ways almost no one in the wealthy west would consider conscionable — if they let themselves see it. But it has also proven maddeningly stubborn, and I would have expected the same prejudices would bind the sympathy and empathy of millions across the U.S. and Europe to the plight of a mostly white, English-speaking “First World” former colony like Australia, however far away, in the face of disaster.
The global response to the bushfires has suggested, unfortunately, something more like the opposite: that no bind of tribal alliance or allegiance is strong enough that we won’t discard it, if discarding it allows us to see the suffering of those living elsewhere on the planet as insignificant to our own lives. These fires are just one disaster, of course, and the planet has many test cases like it ahead. But it would be among the most perverse grotesqueries of climate change if it brought about the end of these kinds of global prejudices — not to be replaced with a sense of common humanity but a system of disinterest defined instead by ever smaller circles of empathy.
– David Wallace-Wells, nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/12/new-south-wales-fires-in-australia-the-worlds-response.html