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.
That’s true – but it’s only part of the story. Thanks to record-high levels of carbon in the atmosphere, surface temperatures in the ocean near Australia last year were the highest ever recorded – nearly one degree above normal. And climate scientists have long warned that warmer oceans increase the risk of faster, more deadly hurricanes. “We realized way back in 1987 that CO2-induced warming would increase the speed limit on hurricanes,” Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, has said. “It surprised us how much power increase you got with just a little bit of increase in the sea-surface temperature.”
Murdoch’s papers also failed to point out that the more coal the country burns and exports, the fiercer its hurricanes are likely to become. “Unless we start reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere soon,” says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, “the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”
Australia, in fact, has been getting a glimpse of the global-warming future for more than two decades. What Australians call “The Big Dry” began in the early 1990s and quickly grew worse, with a dozen years of below-average rainfall. Drinking-water reservoirs for Melbourne, with a population of 4 million people, were soon depleted. Topsoil from farms started to dry up and blow away – one dust cloud was nearly 1,000 miles long and 250 miles wide. In Sydney, the dust storms were so bad they shut down the airport and ferry service, forcing people to stay indoors. In a single day, scientists estimated, several million tons of topsoil had been stripped from deserts and farms and blown out to sea. As Dianne Thorley, the mayor of a small city in the drought-stricken Murray-Darling Basin, told a reporter, “Australia is drying up, a little bit like a dried apple.”
In a sense, Australia is a creation of human ingenuity. Of the six inhabited continents, Australia is the driest. Except for a tropical belt in the north and some temperate areas in the southeast, the entire place is a desert. The fact that 22 million people can inhabit the continent is a tribute to engineers, who have figured out a way to extract enough water out of the ground and collect it in enough reservoirs to allow Australians to grow tomatoes and take hot showers whenever they please. Indeed, the greatest engineering achievement in Australia may be the construction of an elaborate network of canals and waterways that transformed the Murray-Darling Basin, a formerly scrubby wasteland covering 1 million square miles in southeastern Australia, into an agricultural wonderland. The basin now produces about 40 percent of the nation’s food, enabling Australia to become a major exporter of wheat.
But that engineering triumph has come at a cost. The industrial-scale farming operations that took over the basin have depleted nutrients in the soil, sucked rivers dry and replaced deep-rooted indigenous plants well-adapted to Australia’s extreme climate with shallow-rooted crops that need constant irrigation to survive. As a result, all the extra water being pumped into the land has raised the water table in many places, releasing salt deposits into the soil. “Salinity is not just poisoning the soil, it is also wrecking the water supply for people downstream,” says Billy Squire, an environmental activist in the basin. “It is a slow-motion disaster.”
Transforming a harsh desert into farms and shopping malls has also left large parts of Australia hugely dependent on seasonal rainfall. After all, engineers can redistribute water, but they can’t manufacture it. As the Big Dry dragged on, rainfall declined in the southern part of the country, where most of the people live and the majority of the food is grown, fueling the risk of catastrophic bush fires. The reasons for this change in rainfall patterns are complex, but many climate scientists believe that the Big Dry was driven by subtle shifts in the structure of Australia’s atmosphere caused by the dramatic buildup of carbon pollution. “The storm track, which brings rain-bearing weather to Australia, has shifted a few degrees south,” says Karoly, the University of Melbourne scientist. “Rain that had fallen on southwestern and southeastern Australia now falls on the ocean.” Global warming, in other words, shifted the continent’s vital rainfall out to sea.
For farmers in southeastern Australia, the minute shift in atmospheric conditions was devastating. In the Murray-Darling Basin, water reservoirs declined by two-thirds in the past decade, leading to severe water shortages for many farmers and ranchers. Thirsty cattle sickened and died. Rice yields declined by 98 percent. The basin’s waterways and canals, long considered an engineering triumph, turned into a network of mudholes and dried-up creek beds. Many farmers, unable to make it, were forced to sell or abandon their land.
In desperation, local water boards authorized crazy cloud-seeding experiments in a failed attempt to “manufacture” rain. Big cities also responded by trying to come up with a technological fix. In Melbourne, officials pushed through a controversial $3.5 billion project to build one of the world’s largest water-desalinization plants, capable of converting 110 million gallons of seawater into fresh drinking water every day – roughly a third of the city’s water consumption. “Desalinization is a very expensive way to create drinking water,” says James Bradfield Moody, the director of development at one of Australia’s top science agencies. “It is no replacement for rain.”
Smaller cities, unable to afford such costly projects, turned to even more desperate measures. Toowoomba, an agricultural town perched on a plateau 80 miles inland from Brisbane, found its drinkingwater reservoir down to only seven percent of capacity. The regional council floated the idea of building a $68 million treatment plant that would essentially turn sewage into drinking water – he first of its kind in Australia. Despite reassurances that the recycled water would be safe to drink, residents rejected the proposal, unable to get their minds around the fact that they were going to have to drink their own piss. Instead, the council voted to build a 20-mile pipeline to draw water from another reservoir. It also decided to tap the Great Artesian Basin, a deep aquifer that underlies nearly a quarter of the continent, further depleting the only source of fresh water for much of inland Australia. “It’s the water equivalent of burning the furniture to heat your house,” says Moody.
Last summer, it finally rained in southern Australia. In fact, it flooded. Many farmers in the region took that to mean the Big Dry was over. More likely, it was only a short reprieve. Climate models show that the drought is likely to worsen in the coming decades. “When it comes to water, we are living beyond our means in Australia,” says Moody. “In the long run, the life we have created here is unsustainable without major changes.”
Without water, Australia not only dries up – it also burns. Wildfires have long been a routine part of life here, and Australians considered them a manageable risk. But all that changed in late January 2009, when the temperature in Melbourne spiked to 110 degrees for three days in a row. The public transportation system literally collapsed, as steel trolley rails bowed in the heat, and hundreds of thousands of homes lost power. John Brumby, the state premier of Victoria, held a press conference warning that the coming Saturday, February 7th, would be the “worst day in the history of the state.” By that point, thanks to the Big Dry, rainfall had been below normal for nearly a decade, sucking the moisture out of the soil and making trees and plants as brittle as matchsticks. “The state is just tinder-dry,” Brumby warned, calling on Victorians to prepare for the worst.
In the hills above Melbourne, Jane O’Connor and her husband spent the morning clearing dry brush from around their home and watering the roof. The fire conditions were nightmarish. The temperature had hit 115 degrees – the hottest day on record. Humidity was only six percent, and a strong wind was blowing from the northwest. “We knew the situation was bad,” says O’Connor, a 56-year-old publishing executive, “but we felt we were prepared for it.” Even when the radio reported that fires were sweeping through the hills 30 miles away, she and her husband made no move to head for safety. “We weren’t too worried,” she recalls.
Then, as O’Connor watched in horror, a wall of smoke that had seemed far to the south suddenly began racing toward her home. “By the time we realized the trouble we were in,” she says, “it was too late to evacuate.”
The firestorm sweeping across the hillside was like nothing she – or anyone – had ever seen before. A wall of flame moving at eight miles per hour was incinerating everything in its path. O’Connor hurried to stuff wet towels under the doors while her husband soaked down the yard with a hose. But within minutes, she heard a deafening roar. Looking out the window, she saw a “hurricane of fire” – flames shooting 70 feet into the air, fanned by the high winds created by the storm’s thermal vacuum. As trees burst into flames, O’Connor and her husband narrowly escaped to a nearby house that was more fire-resistant.
For the rest of the night, she and her neighbors watched the hills burn. “We could see houses igniting, diesel tanks exploding,” she recalls. Officials later reported that 600 fires broke out in Victoria that day, some with flames 300 feet high capable of killing people nearly a quarter mile away. One researcher estimated that the amount of energy released by the fires in a single day was equivalent to 1,500 atomic bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima.
The next day, when O’Connor returned to her home, nothing was standing but the chimney. The fire had been so hot it had melted the windshield of her car. “Everything we had was gone,” she says. Not far from her house, nine people died in a brick home they had taken refuge in, including a mother and five children.
You might think that surviving such a harrowing encounter would make O’Connor more attuned to the risks of living on a superheated planet, but it hasn’t. “I think the jury is still out on the science of climate change,” O’Connor says from the safety of her air-conditioned office in Melbourne. “Australia has always had wildfires, and this could be just part of a natural cycle. I think it’s too soon to tell.”
Climate experts say otherwise. According to Australia’s top scientists, a hotter planet equals a much higher risk of catastrophic fires. Even in a “low global-warming scenario” with modest increases in carbon pollution, catastrophic fires will ravage Victoria every five to seven years by 2020, and every three to four years by 2050. Under a “high global-warming scenario” – essentially the track the world is on today – catastrophic fires will occur every year in some regions. As Peter Marshall, a leader of the Australian firefighters union, put it in a letter to the prime minister, “The science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster.”
Two days before Yasi hit, I was 45 miles off the coast of Australia, swimming with sea turtles and parrotfish on the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is a festival of color and life: corals in bright-pink mounds, blacktip reef sharks, silver jacks and angelfish. But whenever I got too carried away by the beauty of the reef, my underwater guide, David Kline, a researcher at the University of Queensland’s Coral Reef Ecosystems Lab, would point to a cluster of ghostly corals and nod. I knew what he meant: These underwater skeletons had been killed off by the warming ocean – a sign of the trouble ahead for one of Australia’s most important ecosystems.
Climatewise, what’s happening to the reef is in many ways the opposite of a hurricane: Instead of a dramatic blowdown, it’s an incremental collapse. Rising ocean temperatures, as well as the sea’s increasing acidity, are slowly killing off coral reefs around the world. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the best-managed reefs on the planet – commercial fishing, a major problem in other areas, is severely restricted. But even here, the increasingly hot, acidic seas mean that the reef is unlikely to survive much beyond 2050. As J.E.N. Veron, former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, has put it: “What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way.”
For most Australians, the decline and fall of the Great Barrier Reef is impossible to imagine. “What the polar bears are to northerners, the reef is to us,” says Karoly. The reef itself, which is roughly 9,000 years old, is the largest structure ever made by life on Earth, extending some 1,250 miles along the coast. It is home to an incredible diversity of life: 5,000 types of mollusks, 1,800 species of fish, 125 kinds of sharks. It is also a major economic engine for Australia, drawing 2 million visitors a year and generating $6 billion in revenue.
Exactly how the reef will decline, and what can be done about it, is the subject of much of the work at the Heron Island Research Center. The island is a narrow spit of land on the southern end of the reef, just large enough for a slightly dilapidated resort on one end and a collection of dormlike sleeping quarters and labs at the other. The station is run by the University of Queensland, and during the summer, it’s overrun by scientists studying everything from shearwater mating habits to the effects of rising ocean acidity on the navigational abilities of clown fish.
Corals are strange animals. Each one is made up of flower-shaped polyps that build their skeletons on the outside, allowing tiny algae to live inside and provide energy to the coral via photosynthesis. The coral grows by excreting calcium carbonate, which provides the skeleton for new polyps. The reef itself is nothing more than a collection of millions of these polyps, and the brilliant colors of the corals are the manifestation of the different types of algae that live within them. This symbiotic relationship between the coral and algae is fragile. If the coral is exposed to bright light at the same time as high temperatures, it can cause the algae to produce toxic levels of oxygen. To survive, the coral expel the toxic algae, which leaves them pale and sick – a condition marine scientists call “bleaching.” In most cases, the coral never recovers.
As the Earth heats up, bleaching has become increasingly common at reefs around the world. A mass bleaching in 1998 killed 90 percent of the corals in the Indian Ocean. Last year, reefs bleached throughout the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean and off the coasts of Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Unless we find a way to cool the planet, 95 percent of the reefs on the planet, including the Great Barrier Reef, are expected to be subject to severe bleaching by 2050.
In the long run, ocean acidification is an even bigger threat to the reef than warming seas. Acidification, which occurs as the ocean breaks down the CO2 in the atmosphere into carbonic acid, inhibits the ability of corals to create their calcium-carbonate skeletons. Kline participated in a study that showed a 40 percent decline in calcification rates of certain corals on the Great Barrier Reef in the past 30 years. By the end of the century, if nothing changes, the world’s oceans are expected to be 150 percent more acidic than they were before the Industrial Revolution – creating a loss of corals that will be irreversible. “The potential consequences of such acidification are nothing less than catastrophic,” says Veron. “The ocean is going to suck up CO2, and there is not much we can do about it – other than get serious about cutting the amount of CO2 we dump into the atmosphere.”
Beyond the reef, acidification also damages shell-creating creatures throughout the ocean, from crabs and oysters to the billions of tiny pteropods that form a key part of the marine food chain. Recent research has shown that even organisms that don’t have shells, such as krill, have a difficult time surviving in more acidic waters. “One possible consequence of ocean acidification is the collapse of the food chain,” says Donna Roberts, a marine biologist who heads the country’s research on ocean acidification. “If the krill vanish, will the whales be able to find other food sources? What about all the fish that depend on fish that eat pteropods – can they adapt? It is not at all clear how the ocean food chain will react if you pull out the organisms at the bottom.”
One likely scenario: the triumph of the jellyfish. Since jellyfish don’t build shells, a world with more acidic seas may give them an evolutionary advantage. Roberts says she’s already seeing a lot more jellyfish on her research trips. “One of the consequences of burning fossil fuels may be that we’re creating an ocean of jellyfish,” she says.
I ask Kline about this one day as we walk along the reef at low tide. Reef sharks dart ahead of us, and rays float past in the shallow water like underwater butterflies. “The reef is not going to die overnight,” he says, trying to sound optimistic. “The complexity of the ecosystem will decline. It will become full of weedy, opportunistic species – a junkyard reef.”
I play devil’s advocate. “Some people would say, ‘So we lose the Great Barrier Reef. Sad, but so what?’ It’s not like the human race won’t go on.”
Kline stops and picks up a sea cucumber – an ugly, slug-shaped animal that is endangered by overfishing. “It’s true, the human race could probably survive without the Great Barrier Reef,” he says. He mentions the tourist business the reef brings to Australia, the protection it provides against storms along the coast and the value of its creatures to science and medicine. “But for me, it’s not that rational,” he says, settling the sea cucumber gently back into the water. “It just comes down to the fact that the reef is one of the wonders of the natural world – and we’re going to trash it just because we don’t want to drive smaller cars or pay a little extra to put solar panels on the roof?”
When the Big Dry ended last September and it finally started raining in the town of Toowoomba, everyone practically fell to their knees in gratitude. “We were hurting real, real bad,” says Tom Jenkins, the head of a farming cooperative, who shows me pictures of parched land, cracked and dry. It looks like the Mojave Desert. “Every drop of rainfall seemed like a gift,” Jenkins says. “It was like our long nightmare was finally over.”
But then the rains kept coming. By late December, the ground was saturated and fields were flooding. The two creeks that ran through town, both of which are usually no more than a trickle in midsummer, overflowed their concrete culverts and spilled into the streets. Water flowed into the foyer of the shopping mall at the center of town. In the countryside, roads flooded out, and hundreds of acres of watermelons – a key crop in the region – were swamped.
And still the rain kept coming. In early January, eight inches of rain fell in five days. Gas stations closed, farmers wrote off an entire season, and the city came to a halt. But incredibly, the rains did not. “I didn’t know the sky could hold that much water,” says Wayne Reis, who runs a furniture store in the center of town.
The fact that the sky can hold more water is precisely what happens in a warming world. “Global warming is lifting more water vapor into the air, increasing the intensity of torrential downpours,” concludes a recent report from Australia’s Climate Institute. A two-degree increase in ocean temperatures can boost rainfall by nearly 10 percent. But scientists can’t predict where that extra rain will fall, or how far beyond the norm any given weather system might go.
On January 10th, four inches of rain fell on Toowoomba in just a few hours, and by that afternoon, what had been a manageable soaking turned into a catastrophe of such suddenness and force that it defies any attempt to describe it. Within minutes, both creeks in town swelled into a 20-foot-high wall of water. It tore through downtown, sending residents scrambling for higher ground, swamping stores in the mall and floating books in the public library. Office workers took a video of the waters rushing into their parking lot and carrying off their cars, sending them bouncing along the torrent like rubber duckies. The video, viewed some 7 million times on YouTube, became the iconic image of the Toowoomba flood.
Thousands of people, unaware of the sudden danger, were caught in the midst of their daily lives. Donna Rice, a 43-year-old mother of four, was running errands downtown with two of her children – Jordan, 13, and Blake, 10 – when her Mercedes stalled at a busy intersection. “I could see they were in trouble,” says Warren McErlean, a truck driver who tried to push Rice’s car out of the rising floodwaters. But the water was coming hard and fast, and it knocked him off his feet. Another man, secured by a rope to a lamppost, waded out and managed to grab Blake. By the time he came back, the raging water was flipping the Mercedes over. Rice and Jordan scrambled onto the roof of the car – “I saw the panic in their eyes,” says McErlean. The rescuer grabbed them and tried to hold on, but the water was too strong. Rice and Jordan were washed away.
Within a half-hour, the water subsided. An hour later, cars were driving through the debris-strewn intersection. Rice’s body was found a mile away behind a flour mill. Jordan’s body was found wedged under a fig tree. The floodwaters continued down into the Lockyer Valley, bursting through smaller towns and sweeping buildings, cars and people away. All told, 22 people died from the flash floods.
Eventually, the floodwaters from Toowoomba and the surrounding region all poured into the Brisbane River, which flows through Australia’s third-largest city. The river rose 15 feet above normal, breaking its banks and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. Low-lying areas of downtown Brisbane – “Brisvenice,” people were calling it on Twitter – were soon underwater. One blogger, writing by candlelight on his iPad, worried that the city seemed dangerously close to a total breakdown. “Despite the casual stoicism with which most people are addressing the flood – this ‘natural disaster’ – the sense that food, water, electricity and connectivity is so fragile does give pause for thought,” he wrote. “How far away is this form of civilization from something deeply uncivilized?”
A few weeks after the flood, on a Saturday afternoon, religious and civic leaders in Toowoomba gather in front of the town’s library to hold a service for the residents killed in the catastrophe. “No one thought anything like this could happen here,” Bill Cahill, a member of the regional council, tells me. A stolid, respectable citizen if there ever was one, Cahill believes it is time to get beyond the argument about whether global warming is man-made and start preparing for a new, more extreme climate. “For the past decade, we suffered from terrible drought,” he says. “Suddenly, we get some rain, this creek floods” – he points to what is now a muddy trickle in a narrow concrete culvert – “and we are nearly swept away.”
Cahill points out that trying to control nature can actually backfire. Efforts to channel the creeks that flow through town – paving over their natural creek beds and forcing them into concrete culverts – had only served to amplify the flood, rather than preventing it. “We think we understand how to build a city, how to handle whatever nature throws at us, but we really don’t,” Cahill says. “We can do a lot of fancy engineering – but sometimes, that just makes us more vulnerable.”
A week after yasi hit, I drive up the coast from Sydney with Ian Goodwin, a broad-shouldered scientist in flip-flops and shorts. Now in his early fifties, Goodwin has spent most of his life studying how global warming will change the coast of Australia. He grew up surfing on these waters, and still rides the waves every day that he can. More than most scientists, he understands exactly how much Australia has to lose.
“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.
When I ask Goodwin about this, he rolls his eyes. “It’s all politics,” he says as we walk along the sea wall at Manly Beach, the birthplace of surfing in Australia. “Would a price on carbon be a step in the right direction? Of course. But Australia is a big economy, hooked on growth and the extraction of natural resources – like coal. That is not going to change anytime soon.”
Goodwin points out the swanky hotels and beach houses and restaurants along the water. “With three feet of sea-level rise, this is all gone,” he says. “The beach, the hotels, the houses – the sea will cut right through to Sydney Harbor. Manly Beach will vanish. Lots of other beaches will go too, but this one is particularly iconic.” The destruction could be slowed by building a massive sea wall, Goodwin says, but it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it wouldn’t save the beach in the long run. The same thing goes for most beaches in Australia, as well as for Sydney itself – which is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels, given the extensive development along the water.
But what about the prime minister’s drive to put a price on carbon pollution? Couldn’t that save coastal areas like Sydney? Goodwin shakes his head. “We could transform Australia’s energy system to 100 percent solar tomorrow, and if we keep exporting coal to China, it won’t really matter much in the big picture,” he says. “But if we stop exporting coal, our economy will fall apart. So it’s a stalemate.”
We walk for a while, watching all the happy people strolling along the boardwalk and drinking wine in cafes and surfing the waves. The sun is shining, and everything is lovely. Too bad that it all has to go.
This story is from the October 13, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.