For many people in Fermanagh, with family and friends in Australia, the devastating fires of the past few weeks will have brought the reality of the climate crisis home like nothing before. The fires have caused the tragic deaths of at least 28 people, including brave firefighters and volunteers, the loss of 2,000 homes and terrifying trauma for survivors. The World Wildlife Fund in Australia estimates that over a billion animals, including koalas, kangaroos and wallabies, have been killed directly or indirectly by the fires. Some species will probably have been tipped over the brink into extinction, while millions of acres of precious habitat have been destroyed. And still they burn, with the summer only halfway over.

Climate change does not cause bushfires, but it undoubtedly makes them much, much worse, by raising temperatures, reducing humidity and increasing both wind speeds and the amounts of scrub ready to burn. This was not a surprise, an unexpected disaster, what the insurance companies call an Act of God. In October 2018, senior Australian health professionals and scientists made a statement, published in the Lancet medical journal, warning of exactly this kind of destruction. As they pointed out, ‘Climate disruption is already amplifying the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, bushfires, drought, and tropical storms, causing harm and damaging livelihoods.’ They begged the government to change its policies, to end subsidies to fossil fuel industries, to plan for a just transition to sustainability that supports workers, communities and families. They pleaded that it should play its part in keeping the Paris Agreement pledges and in supporting those small island nations whose very existence is under threat from the climate crisis. Their government did not listen.

But the people did. A survey last year, before the fires began, showed that 70% of Australians want their government to phase out coal altogether. And they are not alone. So-called ‘leaders’ who deny climate science and refuse to take vital action do not represent their people. In the United States, despite Donald Trump’s posturing, 72 per cent of people want more regulation of greenhouse gases. Here in the UK, a survey in September showed that only 23 per cent of people thought that the government was doing enough to confront the climate crisis. People care about this, and they deserve to be listened to.

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, has now acknowledged some of his and his government’s failings. It is a bitter heartbreak that it took so much suffering to bring him to this point. Now more time and money is to be spent on a Royal Commission, an enquiry to look into what went wrong. Perhaps we too can learn something from this tragedy, something about the urgency with which we need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, to adapt to life in a hotter, more chaotic world and to meet our responsibilities towards those bearing the heaviest burdens.

The climate crisis is the most urgent and serious environmental catastrophe which we face, but it is not the only one. Despite its unique and beautiful landscapes, its loughs, hills and seashores, Northern Ireland has for decades been notorious for its failure to protect and preserve those natural resources and the wildlife and human health which rely upon them. Air and water pollution, failures to deal properly with waste and the toxic effects of inappropriate industry, all these intertwine with climate change to poison our present and our children’s future.

It's time for change. The draft Programme for Government included in the New Decade, New Approach document promises a Climate Change Act and an independent Environmental Protection Agency for Northern Ireland. People from all backgrounds and from many respected organisations have been calling for these essential tools for many years. At last, it seems, they are within sight.

But we cannot be complacent, cannot assume that this is enough. As the title of Naomi Klein’s important and readable book about climate change reminds us, This Changes Everything. Business as usual is not an option, as Australia has learned: either we change how we live, or it will be forcibly changed for us, with terrible results.

As individuals we want to live sustainably, to heal the wounds of nature and of the poorest, and to leave a legacy of justice, peace and health to our children and grandchildren. But we cannot do this alone, without the right legal, economic and social structures. We have told our representatives what we want: clean water in our loughs, clean air in our school playgrounds, clean energy in our homes, proper planning for extreme weather events, better public and active transport, and the chance to build a healthy local economy without the threat of fracking. Now, after the wasted years, it’s time to make them happen.