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?
Insurers are at the vanguard of a movement to put a value today on the unpredictable future of a warming planet
When a wildfire engulfed the Canadian oil-sands boomtown of Fort McMurray two years ago, it hit insurance company Aviva PLC out of nowhere.
The British firm had been active in Canada since 1835. Its actuaries long believed wildfire risk to homes in the area was almost nonexistent, it says. Yet flames on the town’s outskirts roared across an area larger than Delaware, forcing 100,000 people to evacuate and leaving insurers with $3 billion in damages to cover.
“That is not a type of loss we have experienced in that part of the world, ever,” says Maurice Tulloch, the Toronto-based chief executive of Aviva’s international insurance division. “The previous models wouldn’t have envisioned it.”
Aviva studied the incident and concluded the wildfire was an example of how the earth’s gradually warming temperature is changing the behavior of natural catastrophes. Aviva increased premiums in Canada as a result.
The price of homes on the U.S.’s eastern seaboard battered by fiercer storms and higher seas is lagging behind those inland. The price of farmland is rising in North America’s once-frigid reaches, partly because of bets it will become more temperate. Investors are turning fresh water into an asset, a wager in part that climate change will make it scarcer.
.. After the Canadian wildfire, Aviva’s changes to its risk models filtered into its home-insurance premiums in Canada, which increased by roughly 6% since 2016, partly because of its research into catastrophe risks.
For most insurers, rates aren’t rising—yet. A flood of capital into the industry from pension and hedge-fund investors, driven by low interest rates, has increased competition and pushed down property-catastrophe reinsurance prices in the past decade.
And property insurance and reinsurance contracts typically last one year, so an insurer can recalibrate yearly as risks change. “Global warming may be occurring. Probably is,” says Warren Buffett, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which has a major reinsurance business. “But it hasn’t hurt the reinsurance industry. And people are pricing still as if it won’t, on a one-year basis.”
If reinsurance contracts covered 30 years, he says, “I’d be crazy not to” include the risks.
.. Insurers such as Swiss Re Group say hurricanes like Harvey and Florence, which caused widespread flooding, could represent a more common occurrence in the coming decades.
.. The insurance industry has historically changed after big disasters. Natural-catastrophe modeling took off after Hurricane Andrew struck Florida on Aug. 24, 1992, causing an estimated $15.5 billion of insured losses. Thirteen insurance companies were ordered liquidated
.. The climate has grown about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer since the late 19th century. A consensus of scientists puts blame substantially on emissions of greenhouse gases from cars, farms and factories.
.. Munich Re researchers found a significant increase in storms with hailstones larger than a penny in diameter between 1979 and 2016 in central and southern Europe, causing higher losses during that period.
.. A 2015 study from professors at Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the warming planet is increasing the chance that a major hurricane could enter the Persian Gulf, home to hundreds of billions of dollars of petroleum equipment and assets.
Such cyclones periodically hit Oman and Yemen but have never been observed in the Persian Gulf, climate researchers say. The researchers found that, with new conditions due to warming, some cyclones could enter the Gulf in the future and could also form in the Gulf itself.
.. A 2013 study in the journal Nature projected average flood losses for the world’s 136 biggest coastal cities could rise from $6 billion a year in 2005 to $52 billion a year by 2050 due to increased population and development. When taking climate change and a sea-level rise into account, flood losses could exceed $1 trillion a year by 2050, the study concluded, unless the cities invested about $50 billion annually in adapting.
.. But Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in August 2017, spent weeks absorbing 33 trillion gallons of water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It dumped more than 60 inches of rain and caused tens of billions of dollars in flood damage.
.. The probability of a Texas storm dropping about 20 inches of rain was about 1% a year between 1981 and 2000, but will likely increase to 18% a year by 2100
.. Increased flood damage also presents an opportunity to insurers. As more regions become exposed to flooding, insurers expect the market for flood insurance to grow.
.. Allianz, one of the world’s largest insurers, says it sold the retail business of U.S. insurer Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. in 2015 in part because climate change is increasing the risk of losses to coastal homes in California and Florida.