Today is the northern hemisphere winter solstice and we’ve already seen a year with many climatic records broken and numerous record-breaking disasters, especially with all the tornadoes and droughts and heat waves. Already the global average temperature estimates for 2011 are coming in, and it looks like it will once again break all previous records for the warmest year in history (which was previously broken by 2010, and before that by 2009). The reports we’re hearing from the media about even more rapidly melting polar ice caps and the vanishing of glaciers around the world are not reassuring.
But in the southern hemisphere, it is summer solstice today, and there the signs are even more ominous. Australia has just gone through years of one climatic disaster after another, capped by 2011 with record flooding, wildfires, drought, and even an gigantic typhoon named Yasi. As this article points out, or an article in the December 2011 issue of Discover magazine discussed, many climate scientists view Australia as a harbinger of the future. It is far more vulnerable to changes in climate than most other regions, since it is a small continent located in the southern high-pressure belt of deserts, with only limited wet areas along the coast and the tropical north. It has few mountains or other topographic features that modify climate or trap rain and snow compared to most other continents, so it can be whipsawed through climate changes much faster than other regions. As the article’s author quoted in an email he received from an Aussie friend, “Welcome to Australia, the petri dish of climate change. Stay safe.” Or as David Karoly, the leading climate researcher at the University of Melbourne, put it, “Australia is the canary in the coal mine. What is happening in Australia now is similar to what can expect in other places in the future. One of the effects of increasing greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere is to amplify existing climate signals. Regions that are dry get drier, and regions that are wet get wetter. If you have a place like Australia that is already extreme, those extremes just get more pronounced.”
Australia has seen more extreme climatic events in the past decades than in all of its previous recorded history. It has gone through decades-long drought, and heat waves of 115° for weeks, leading to historic wildfires in 2009 and each year since then which have wiped out millions of acres and killed 173 people. Its topsoil built over generations is blowing away, causing record dust storms reminiscent of the “Dust Bowl” years in the U.S. in the 1930s. Its groundwater supply has nearly vanished, leading to nationwide water shortages, and severely damaging the crops that were developed when it had enough water to irrigate them. When the drought finally broke last summer, the region suffered through record flooding instead, which was even more destructive of farmlands and cities. Even the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s great gem of biodiversity (and an important magnet for tourist dollars as well as science) is rapidly dying from bleaching caused by warmer, more acidic oceans. With the loss of the Great Barrier Reef (and many other reefs around the world), scientists predict a collapse of the food chain and mass extinction in the oceans (including important fisheries) that will dwarf any of the geologic past.
As the article’s author, Jeff Goodell, explains:
Adding to Australia’s vulnerability is its close connection with the sea. Australia is the only island continent on the planet, which means that changes caused by planet-warming pollution – warmer seas, which can drive stronger storms, and more acidic oceans, which wreak havoc on the food chain – are even more deadly here.
How bad could it get? A recent study by MIT projects that without “rapid and massive action” to cut carbon pollution, the Earth’s temperature could soar by nine degrees this century. “There are no analogies in human history for a temperature jump of that size in such a short time period,” says Tony McMichael, an epidemiologist at Australian National University. The few times in human history when temperatures fell by seven degrees, he points out, the sudden shift likely triggered a bubonic plague in Europe, caused the abrupt collapse of the Moche civilization in Peru and reduced the entire human race to as few as 1,000 breeding pairs after a volcanic eruption blocked out the sun some 73,000 years ago. “We think that because we are a technologically sophisticated society, we are less vulnerable to these kinds of dramatic shifts in climate,” McMichael says. “But in some ways, because of the interconnectedness of our world, we are more vulnerable.”
With nine degrees of warming, computer models project that Australia will look like a disaster movie. Habitats for most vertebrates will vanish. Water supply to the Murray-Darling Basin will fall by half, severely curtailing food production. Rising sea levels will wipe out large parts of major cities and cause hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage to coastal homes and roads. The Great Barrier Reef will be reduced to a pile of purple bacterial slime. Thousands of people will die from heat waves and other extreme weather events, as well as mosquito-borne infections like dengue fever. Depression and suicide will become even more common among displaced farmers and Aborigines. Dr. James Ross, medical director for Australia’s Remote Area Health Corps, calls climate change “the number-one challenge for human health in the 21st century.”
And all this doesn’t even hint at the political complexities Australia will face in a hotter world, including an influx of refugees from poorer climate-ravaged nations. (“If you want to understand Australian politics,” says Anthony Kitchener, an Australian entrepreneur, “the first thing you have to understand is our fear of yellow hordes from the north.”) Then there are the economic costs. The Queensland floods earlier this year caused $30 billion in damage and forced the government to implement a $1.8 billion “flood tax” to help pay for reconstruction. As temperatures rise, so will the price tag. “We can’t afford to spend 10 percent of our GDP building sea walls and trying to adapt to climate change,” says Ian Goodwin, a climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney.
The strangest irony of the whole situation is that politically, Australia is in a bind. The right wingers in Australia are very powerful, with huge financial backing from the powerful coal companies, and many of them deny the scientific evidence of the global climate change, even as the warning signs are occurring all around them. With all its vast deserts, one would expect Australia to be at the forefront of solar energy, and moving quickly to ameliorate the climate problems that it has produced. And yet the opposite is the case: energy conservation efforts have had little traction in Australia, since coal is still cheaper. As Goodell writes:
Australia remains deeply addicted to coal, which not only provides 80 percent of its electricity but serves as its leading export. Perhaps more than any other nation on earth, Australia is trapped by the devil’s bargain of fossil fuels: In the short term, the health of the nation’s economy depends on burning coal. But in the long term, the survival of its people depends on quitting coal. Australia’s year of extreme weather has reawakened calls for a tax on carbon pollution, but it is far from clear that the initiative will pass, or, in the big picture, whether it will matter much. “What we are ultimately talking about is how climate change is destabilizing one of the most advanced nations on the planet,” says Paul Gilding, an Australian climate adviser and author of The Great Disruption. “If Australia is vulnerable, everyone is vulnerable.”
And the saddest part of this irony is that even if Australia could switch from coal to solar and reduce its own carbon footprint, it would still need to sell its coal to China and the rest of Asia. In short, there are no easy solutions. As Goodell describes it:
“Living on the beach is pretty much the Australian dream,” he says as we pass beach town after beach town. At Narrabeen Beach, a broad sweep of sand 15 miles north of Sydney, Goodwin points out where residents have been forced to truck in sand in an expensive and hopeless effort to keep the beach – and the homes along it – from being washed away by increasingly strong storm surges. If the seas rise by at least three feet this century, as the current scientific consensus expects them to, every one of the structures along the beach will vanish. “In fact,” Goodwin says, “the way things are going, they could be gone within a decade or two.”
“Do the people who live there know that?” I ask.
“Some of them do, but they don’t care,” he says. “Or they don’t think about it. Australians have a hard time imagining the future will be any different than the present.”
Australians aren’t alone in their denial, of course. But there is a sense of fatalism here that is absent in America, a feeling borne by having lived for long years in a harsh climate, of being able to take whatever nature dishes out. It is why Australians don’t leave their houses during raging wildfires, and why they build cites in landscapes where no cities should be built. When it comes to dealing with Mother Nature’s nasty moods, Australians have a kind of outback machismo, a justifiable sense of pride for having built a nation in one of the most extreme climates on the planet. But as the catastrophes multiply, so too do the psychic costs of living with it. As a recent report by Australia’s Climate Institute concluded, “Higher rates of drug and alcohol misuse, violence, family dissolution and suicide are more likely to follow more extreme weather events.” In 2006, during the prolonged drought in the Murray-Darling Basin, the government estimated that an Australian farmer committed suicide every four days.
It’s too soon to say for sure, but it may be that the deadly weather of the past few years will open people’s eyes to the risks of living on a superheated planet. In July, Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced her proposal for a carbon tax in Australia. The plan would levy a modest price of $25 a ton on carbon for several years, then morph into a carbon-trading scheme in 2015. It’s a complicated proposal, full of loopholes and subsidies for Big Coal, but if it passes, it would be a big step in the right direction. “It’s a critical time,” Ross Garnaut, the government’s key climate adviser, told reporters. “Each year, the growth in emissions makes it less likely that we’ll be able to avoid severe damage from climate change. So the requirement to take action is urgent.”
It’s not just floods and drought and wildfires that are spurring action to cut carbon pollution. It’s also the fear of being left out of the economic benefits of clean technology. “With its deserts and sunshine, Australia should be the solar-energy capital of the world,” one California entrepreneur tells me. “Instead, they are still passing out subsidies to the coal industry.” Or as one Australian blogger put it, “Australia is currently exporting typewriters to a global economy moving quickly toward computers.”
But as the demand to take action grows, so too does the corporate and political push-back. The coal industry is a powerful force in Australia, and it is rolling out the usual tired arguments that a tax on carbon would devastate the economy and send jobs scurrying overseas. The country’s opposition leader, echoing the language of right-wing deniers in Congress, dismisses climate change as “absolute crap.” But as befits the Australian psyche, the scare tactics here are even bigger and nastier than in America. The rhetoric over global warming has grown so heated, in fact, that climate scientists at the Australian National University have been assigned security protection after several weeks of abusive e-mails and phone calls. For their work in understanding what is happening to their country, some scientists have even received death threats.
Let’s hope that the Australian “canary in the coal mine” can help us better understand and prepare for what is already happening in the U.S. and around the world.
A look at our future?,