As record fires rage, the country’s leaders seem intent on sending it to its doom.
Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious
- Great Barrier Reef is dying, its
- world-heritage rain forests are burning, its
- giant kelp forests have largely vanished,
- numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the
- vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.
The images of the fires are a cross between “Mad Max” and “On the Beach”: thousands driven onto beaches in a dull orange haze, crowded tableaux of people and animals almost medieval in their strange muteness — half-Bruegel, half-Bosch, ringed by fire, survivors’ faces hidden behind masks and swimming goggles. Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno. Flames leaping 200 feet into the air. Fire tornadoes. Terrified children at the helm of dinghies, piloting away from the flames, refugees in their own country.
The fires have already burned about 14.5 million acres — an area almost as large as West Virginia, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia. Canberra’s air on New Year’s Day was the most polluted in the world partly because of a plume of fire smoke as wide as Europe.
Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed and fear that some species of animals and plants may have been wiped out completely. Surviving animals are abandoning their young in what is described as mass “starvation events.” At least 18 people are dead and grave fears are held about many more.
All this, and peak fire season is only just beginning.
As I write, a state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales and a state of disaster in Victoria, mass evacuations are taking place, a humanitarian catastrophe is feared, and towns up and down the east coast are surrounded by fires, all transport and most communication links cut, their fate unknown.
An email that the retired engineer Ian Mitchell sent to friends on New Year’s Day from the small northern Victoria community of Gipsy Point speaks for countless Australians at this moment of catastrophe:
we and most of Gipsy Point houses still here as of now. We have 16 people in Gipsy pt.
No power, no phone no chance of anyone arriving for 4 days as all roads blocked. Only satellite email is working We have 2 bigger boats and might be able to get supplies ‘esp fuel at Coota.
We need more able people to defend the town as we are in for bad heat from Friday again. Tucks area will be a problem from today, but trees down on all tracks, and no one to fight it.
We are tired, but ok.
But we are here in 2020!
The bookstore in the fire-ravaged village of Cobargo, New South Wales, has a new sign outside: “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs.”
And yet, incredibly, the response of Australia’s leaders to this unprecedented national crisis has been not to defend their country but to defend the coal industry, a big donor to both major parties — as if they were willing the country to its doom. While the fires were exploding in mid-December, the leader of the opposition Labor Party went on a tour of coal mines expressing his unequivocal support for coal exports. The prime minister, the conservative Scott Morrison, went on vacation to Hawaii.
Since 1996 successive conservative Australian governments have successfully fought to subvert international agreements on climate change in defense of the country’s fossil fuel industries. Today, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of both coal and gas. It recently was ranked 57th out of 57 countries on climate-change action.
In no small part Mr. Morrison owes his narrow election victory last year to the coal-mining oligarch Clive Palmer, who formed a puppet party to keep the Labor Party — which had been committed to limited but real climate-change action — out of government. Mr. Palmer’s advertising budget for the campaign was more than double that of the two major parties combined. Mr. Palmer subsequently announced plans to build the biggest coal mine in Australia.
Since Mr. Morrison, an ex-marketing man, was forced to return from his vacation and publicly apologize, he has chosen to spend his time creating feel-good images of himself, posing with cricketers or his family. He is seen far less often at the fires’ front lines, visiting ravaged communities or with survivors. Mr. Morrison has tried to present the fires as catastrophe-as-usual, nothing out of the ordinary.
This posture seems to be a chilling political calculation: With no effective opposition from a Labor Party reeling from its election loss and with media dominated by Rupert Murdoch — 58 percent of daily newspaper circulation — firmly behind his climate denialism, Mr. Morrison appears to hope that he will prevail as long as he doesn’t acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster engulfing Australia.
Mr. Morrison made his name as immigration minister, perfecting the cruelty of a policy that interns refugees in hellish Pacific-island camps, and seems indifferent to human suffering. Now his government has taken a disturbing authoritarian turn, cracking down on unions, civic organizations and journalists. Under legislation pending in Tasmania, and expected to be copied across Australia, environmental protesters now face up to 21 years in jail for demonstrating.
“Australia is a burning nation led by cowards,” wrote the leading broadcaster Hugh Riminton, speaking for many. To which he might have added “idiots,” after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack blamed the fires on exploding horse manure.
Such are those who would open the gates of hell and lead a nation to commit climate suicide.
More than one-third of Australians are estimated to be affected by the fires. By a significant and increasing majority, Australians want action on climate change, and they are now asking questions about the growing gap between the Morrison government’s ideological fantasies and the reality of a dried-out, rapidly heating, burning Australia.
The situation is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the ruling apparatchiks were all-powerful but losing the fundamental, moral legitimacy to govern. In Australia today, a political establishment, grown sclerotic and demented on its own fantasies, is facing a monstrous reality which it has neither the ability nor the will to confront.
Mr. Morrison may have a massive propaganda machine in the Murdoch press and no opposition, but his moral authority is bleeding away by the hour. On Thursday, after walking away from a pregnant woman asking for help, he was forced to flee the angry, heckling residents of a burned-out town. A local conservative politician described his own leader’s humiliation as “the welcome he probably deserved.”
As Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, once observed, the collapse of the Soviet Union began with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. In the wake of that catastrophe, “the system as we knew it became untenable,” he wrote in 2006. Could it be that the immense, still-unfolding tragedy of the Australian fires may yet prove to be the Chernobyl of climate crisis?
If humanity burns through all its fossil fuel reserves, there is the potential to warm the planet by perhaps more than 10 degrees Celsius and raise sea levels by hundreds of feet.
This is a warming spike comparable in magnitude to that so far measured for the End-Permian mass extinction.
.. The last time it was 4 degrees warmer there was no ice at either pole and sea level was hundreds of feet higher than it is today.
.. in the coming centuries it’s not impossible that we might be headed back to the Eocene climate of 50 million years ago, when there were Alaskan palm trees and alligators splashed in the Arctic Circle.
.. “Lizards will be fine, birds will be fine,”
.. Huber says that, mass extinction or not, it’s our tenuous reliance on an aging and inadequate infrastructure—perhaps, most ominously, on power grids—coupled with the limits of human physiology that may well bring down our world.
.. “The problem is that humans can’t even handle a hot week today without the power grid failing on a regular basis,” he said, noting that the aging patchwork power grid in the United States is built with components that are allowed to languish for more than a century before being replaced.
.. By the year 2050, according to a 2014 MIT study, there will also be 5 billion people living in water-stressed areas.
.. “Thirty to fifty years from now, more or less, the water wars are going to start,” Huber said
.. “None of the economists are modeling what happens to a country’s GDP if 10 percent of the population is refugees sitting in refugee camps.
.. If people don’t have economic hope and they’re displaced, they tend to get mad and blow things up. It’s the kind of world in which the major institutions, including nations as a whole, have their existence threatened by mass migration.
.. Huber calculated their temperature thresholds using the so-called wet-bulb temperature, which basically measures how much you can cool off at a given temperature. If humidity is high, for instance, things like sweat and wind are less effective at cooling you down, and the wet-bulb temperature accounts for this.
.. Wet-bulb temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius or higher are lethal to humanity.
.. Above this limit, it is impossible for humans to dissipate the heat they generate indefinitely and they die of overheating in a matter of hours, no matter how hard they try to cool off.
.. 7 degrees Celsius of warming would begin to render large parts of the globe lethally hot to mammals.
.. truly huge swaths of the planet currently inhabited by humans would exceed 35 degrees Celsius wet-bulb temperatures and would have to be abandoned.
.. “In the near term—2050 or 2070—the Midwest United States is going to be one of the hardest hit,” said Huber. “There’s a plume of warm, moist air that heads up through the central interior of the US during just the right season, and man, is it hot and sticky. You just add a couple of degrees and it gets really hot and sticky.
.. the Hajj, which brings 2 million religious pilgrims to Mecca each year, will be a physically impossible religious obligation to fulfill due to the limits of heat stress in the region in just a few decades.
.. “You want to know how societies collapse?” Huber said.