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Climate Change and the End of Australia

Want to know what global warming has in store for us? Just go to Australia, where rivers are drying up, reefs are dying, and fires and floods are ravaging the continent

October 3, 2011 5:43 PM ET
floodwaters environment disaster australia rolling stone 1141
The floodwaters of the Castlereagh River surround the township of Coonamble in Central West NSW.
Wolter Peeters/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

It's near midnight, and I'm holed up in a rickety hotel in Proserpine, a whistle-stop town on the northeast coast of Australia. Yasi, a Category 5 hurricane with 200-mile-per-hour winds that's already been dubbed "The Mother of All Catastrophes" by excitable Aussie tabloids, is just a few hundred miles offshore. When the eye of the storm hits, forecasters predict, it will be the worst ever to batter the east coast of Australia.

I have come to Australia to see what a global-warming future holds for this most vulnerable of nations, and Mother Nature has been happy to oblige: Over the course of just a few weeks, the continent has been hit by a record heat wave, a crippling drought, bush fires, floods that swamped an area the size of France and Germany combined, even a plague of locusts. "In many ways, it is a disaster of biblical proportions," Andrew Fraser, the Queensland state treasurer, told reporters. He was talking about the floods in his region, but the sense that Australia – which maintains one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints on the planet – has summoned up the wrath of the climate gods is everywhere. "Australia is the canary in the coal mine," says David Karoly, a top climate researcher at the University of Melbourne. "What is happening in Australia now is similar to what we can expect to see in other places in the future."

As Yasi bears down on the coast, the massive storm seems to embody the not-quite-conscious fears of Australians that their country may be doomed by global warming. This year's disasters, in fact, are only the latest installment in an ongoing series of climate-related crises. In 2009, wildfires in Australia torched more than a million acres and killed 173 people. The Murray-Darling Basin, which serves as the country's breadbasket, has suffered a dec­ades-long drought, and what water is left is becoming increasingly salty and unusable, raising the question of whether Australia, long a major food exporter, will be able to feed itself in the coming dec­ades. The oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, leading to the all-but-certain death of the Great Barrier Reef within 40 years. Homes along the Gold Coast are being swept away, koala bears face extinction in the wild, and farmers, their crops shriveled by drought, are shooting themselves in despair.

With Yasi approaching fast, disaster preparations are fully under way. At the airport, the Australian Defense Force is racing to load emergency supplies into Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters. Entire cities have shut down, their streets nearly empty as I drive north, toward the center of the storm, through sugar plantations and ranch land. Dead kangaroos sprawl by the side of the road, the victims of motorists fleeing the storm.

With the winds hitting 80 miles per hour, I'm forced to stop in Proserpine, where the windows are taped and sandbags are piled in front of doors. Palm trees are bent horizontal in the wind, and the shingles of a nearby roof blow off and shoot into the darkness. It's as if civilization is being dismantled one shingle at a time.

"Welcome to Australia, the petri dish of climate change," an Aussie friend e-mailed me the day before. "Stay safe."

In the past year – one of the hottest on record – extreme weather has battered almost every corner of the planet. There have been devastating droughts in China and India, unprecedented floods and wildfires in the United States, and near-record ice melts in the Arctic. Yet the prosperous nations of the world have failed to take action to reduce the risk of climate change, in part because people in prosperous nations think they're invulnerable. They're under the misapprehension that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Tom Schelling puts it, "Global warming is a problem that is going to primarily affect future generations of poor people." To see how foolish this reasoning is, one need only look at Australia, a prosperous nation that also happens to be right in the cross hairs of global warming. "Sadly, it's probably too late to save much of it," says Joe Romm, a leading climate advocate who served as assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration.

This is not to say that the entire continent will sink beneath the waves anytime soon. What is likely to vanish – or be transformed beyond recognition – are many of the things we think of when we think of Australia: the barrier reef, the koalas, the sense of the country as a land of almost limitless natural resources. Instead, Australia is likely to become hotter, drier and poorer, fractured by increasing tensions over access to water, food and energy as its major cities are engulfed by the rising seas.

To climate scientists, it's no surprise that Australia would feel the effects of climate change so strongly, in part because it has one of the world's most variable climates. "One effect of increasing greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere is to amplify existing climate signals," says Karoly. "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." 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.

With so much at risk, you might expect Australia to be at the forefront of the clean-energy revolution and the international effort to cut carbon pollution. After all, the continent's vast, empty deserts were practically designed for solar-power installations. And unlike the U.S. Congress, the Australian Parliament did ratify the Kyoto Protocol, pledging to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050. But it was an empty gesture. 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."

The morning after Yasi, I emerge from my hotel to find a few broken windows and downed trees. The flooding isn't as bad as had been feared, but the hurricane has still turned the region upside down: roofs blown off houses, trees down, sailboats in the streets, traffic backed up for miles. "This is bringing a world of hurt to people," one trucker tells me as we wait in line for the road to open.

In the following days, there is much speculation in the Aussie press about whether or not Yasi was "caused" by global warming. Most media outlets gloss over the complexities of the science – an unsurprising omission, given that Australia is home to Rupert Murdoch's media empire – and instead reassure readers that hurricanes have been hitting Queensland for thousands of years. One of the major drivers of the storm, they insist, was a particularly strong La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific.

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