A Letter From Canberra
The apocalyptic fires in Australia signal another future
Here in the Australian capital of Canberra, it feels like the apocalypse has come. A national catastrophe is unfolding, with each day bringing new shocks. And we have yet to reach Australia’s usual peak fire season, which typically doesn’t arrive until late January.
The wildfires have been burning now for three months, across a landscape already parched by drought and through vegetation wilting from fierce heat waves. So far, more than 12 million acres (some 5 million hectares) have been reduced to ash, an area 10 times larger than the lands burnt by the 2018 California fires. Historian Bodie Ashton estimates that if the fire front were a straight line, it would stretch from Los Angeles to New York and back again with hundreds of kilometres left over.
The south coast of New South Wales, usually packed at this time of year with families on holiday, was evacuated last week as one town after another was razed. In Victoria, thousands were trapped on a fire-ringed peninsula; the navy had to be mobilised to rescue them by sea.
At least 25 people are dead at the time of writing, and the fires are expected to keep burning for weeks. Almost 2,000 homes have been consumed by flames, with more lost each day. We Australians always imagined climate refugees would arrive by boat from sinking Pacific islands; now we have thousands of internally displaced persons from our own home-grown climate change disaster.
On South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, celebrated as a kind of Noah’s Ark for its abundance of biodiversity, the third of the island burnt out included most of the prime koala habitat. Around half of the resident 50,000 koalas have perished. Joeys that managed to survive the inferno buried in their mothers’ pouches are being brought in to rescue centres by the dozen. On the mainland, whole colonies of koalas have been wiped out. Heartrending pictures show the instinctively shy creatures, desperate for water, approaching humans.
Small mammals and reptiles fleeing the fire fronts find foxes and feral cats waiting for them. Wombats that have survived the fierce heat in their burrows emerge to see a black, ashen landscape with nowhere to go for food.
Beyond the anguish over animal welfare is the ecological damage. Whole ecosystems have been obliterated. While the Australian bush is remarkably resilient, some ecosystems will not recover from the shock. Extreme events like this one are often the catalyst for extinctions. Ecologists fear that endangered species, like the long-footed potoroo and the regent honey-eater, face extinction. On Kangaroo Island, the glossy black cockatoo and the dunnart (a beautiful mouselike marsupial) may be wiped out. Cameras used to monitor them have melted into what look like lumps of coal.
A leading ecologist estimates that a billion animals and birds have been killed by the fires. One billion. It’s carnage out there. A wildlife holocaust.
What have we done?
The Australian flag flies above Parliament House as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra, Australia, on January 1, 2020. | Photo by AP Photo/Mark Baker
Canberra, so far spared the flames, has for weeks been blanketed by thick, choking smoke blown in from the enormous fires to the east and southeast. For many days, the capital city has had the highest pollution index of any place in the world, higher than New Delhi and Beijing, with pollution often 10 or 20 times higher than the level deemed hazardous.
I brought back a couple of face masks from Beijing after being caught in the city’s 2017 “airpocalypse”; I never thought I would be pulling them out to use in my hometown, normally blessed with some of the cleanest air in the country.
Across the continent, last year was Australia’s warmest on record, with a mean daytime maximum 3.8°F (2.1°C) above the 1961–1990 average. December, the first month of summer, had the three hottest days on record. January 4, a Saturday, was Canberra’s hottest day since records began, reaching 111°F, or 44°C. In Penrith, on the outskirts of Sydney, the temperature reached a crushing 120°F, or 49°C, so extreme it takes the breath away merely to think about it.
Last year was also the driest year on record by far, intensifying a long and crippling drought that has left the forests vulnerable to violent conflagration.
These fires are freakish. Firefighters with decades of experience say they’ve never seen anything like it. The fires are so intense that they create their own weather systems, making their behaviour almost impossible to predict. A "fire-generated tornado" created a hot vortex that picked up a 10-tonne fire truck and flipped it over, crushing one of the crew.
How does that even happen? Such freak incidents reveal that we don’t have the concepts or experience to grasp what is happening. Those who are not fighting the fires, or providing support, watch the images mesmerised. Bushfires in previous summers have provided a spectacle to be enjoyed safely from living rooms in the cities. Not this time.
The fires have become a beast rampaging across the country. As firestorms roll over the landscape, those who stay to defend their homes tell of towering walls of flame raining embers. The sky was on fire, one said, setting everything alight. Trees don’t burn; they explode. The sound of the oncoming fire is a roar like a freight train, punctuated with the sound of animals screaming. After the fire passes, the landscape looks like a warzone.
These fires are sending us a message: “This is what Earth does when humans dig up and burn fossil fuels, trapping more heat on the planet.”
Australians who accept the increasingly urgent warnings from the world’s climate scientists are experiencing this disaster with particular dread. This is what we have feared would happen; but we expected it to take another two or three decades before it felt like the apocalypse had come. The future has arrived earlier than planned, and we are filled with trepidation for what the years ahead will bring.
It’s too awful to feel vindicated. Yet for many of us, it’s impossible to suppress an incipient rage against the political leaders and coal lobbyists who have only pretended to take the scientific warnings seriously, or dismissed them as fantasies.
We’ve been told for years that among wealthy nations, Australia is the most vulnerable to the effects of a warming climate. Yet the Australian government is dominated by climate science deniers who will not concede that the infernos are coming more often and with more fury because of global heating. The current government, led by conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has stood in the way of deeper cuts to global carbon emissions—most recently in December at the Madrid climate conference—and is actively encouraging the development of the huge Adani coal mine in Queensland.
I used to believe that only catastrophes manifestly caused by climate change would break through the psychological walls of denial. But I was mistaken. It’s now clear that the deniers would sooner see the whole country destroyed than admit they have been wrong. Their houses could burn down, their families could be incinerated, and still they would find a way of dismissing the scientific evidence.
Prime Minister Morrison, who was forced by public anger to return from a holiday in Hawaii as the country burned, is deploying all of the skills he learned in his previous profession as a marketing executive to blame factors other than climate change. Morrison is infamous for taking a lump of coal into the House of Representatives to taunt the opposition. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you. It’s coal,” he chortled, as other government members jeered.
(It’s worth noting that the prime minister belongs to a Pentecostal church. Unlike mainstream Christian denominations, popular Pentecostalism has no doctrine of stewardship, which may explain Morrison’s emotional disconnect from the devastation being wrought on the natural environment.)
For all the contempt Morrison is attracting for his denialism, we should keep in mind the distressing fact that the Australian public re-elected his government last May. It was an election in which the Labor Party made a point of differentiating itself from the Conservatives with a strong commitment to cutting carbon emissions. Climate change was the foremost issue during the campaign, and environmentalists did everything they could to make it an issue that could swing the election. But it was not enough.
The influence of denialism in the right-of-center parties has been enabled by a long-running campaign by the Rupert Murdoch–owned media to undermine public confidence in climate science. Its behaviour during the fire crisis has been disgraceful. The Murdoch media has downplayed the seriousness of the fires in its coverage of the story and promoted any claim that throws doubt on the link between climate change and the fires, including blaming environmentalists for standing in the way of hazard-reduction burning (they don’t oppose it and, in any case, do not have the power to stop it).
Murdoch media have published stories feeding a conspiracy theory, favoured by the alt-right, that the fires are caused by a surge in arson, with one prominent story in its "serious" national paper, The Australian, claiming that police had taken legal action against nearly 200 arsonists. The “arsonists” are mostly people fined for using BBQs during total fire bans, discarding cigarette butts, and setting off firecrackers.
Yet the hashtag #arsonemergency was soon trending on Twitter (with the story retweeted by Donald Trump Jr.) even after a cyber expert showed that the trend is partly driven by bots. We don’t know who programmed the bots; but if there is a conspiracy, that’s where it’s to be found.
In December, with the fires raging, The Australian reached a new low in journalism with a story from an “expert” (in fact a well-known denialist activist) claiming that the national weather forecasting agency, the Bureau of Meteorology, has been falsifying the figures to “cool the past” so as to make Australia appear to be warming. This lunacy is retailed across the Murdoch platforms and feeds conspiracy theories. Now, some government members are calling for an investigation of the agency.
It’s hard to know how the trauma will express itself once the fires have burnt themselves out and the nation begins to pull itself back together. There will be gratitude for the firefighters who fought to the point of exhaustion. There will be help for the traumatised and determination to reconstruct shattered lives. Stories of stoicism will circulate. A man standing in front of the rubble of his house was asked what he would do next. His reply? “Just suck it up and move on.”
The political fallout from the fires is also hard to guess. At the very least, we can expect an outpouring of disgust at the political leaders who have failed us so utterly, and an upsurge in activism demanding change. Last year saw a surge in climate protests, most inspiringly by the School Strike for Climate. Some 300,000 people took to the streets in September, with around 150,000 in Melbourne alone, perhaps the biggest demonstration in the city’s history.
Since then, students’ summer holidays have been haunted by daily images of apocalyptic scenes, a dreadful glimpse of the future that waits for them. As soon as school resumes, students are likely to take to the streets in greater numbers, angrier and more fearful. And their parents are taking notice.
Adding to the mix, a powerful new force has entered the national debate over climate change: firefighters.
Early in 2019, 23 former chiefs of fire and emergency services formed a coalition and sought a meeting with the prime minister to warn him of the impending calamity and the need to prepare. It’s global warming, they said, with the weather extremes now far more extreme.
But their meeting requests were ignored.
Now the government has rebuffed their request for a bushfire crisis summit, so they have decided to convene their own for late March. “Firies” are revered in Australia, and the admiration for them has reached new heights in recent months as they have fought, and sometimes died, to protect others.
The newfound activism of the former fire chiefs presents an acute political difficulty for the government. The Australian has attempted to make them out to be environmental activists, but the public is listening to them, and their message is stark.
Beneath the emotional outpouring and the political turmoil, something deeper will soon begin. We will mourn—mourn for those who have died, for the communities destroyed, for the magnificent forests lying charred and silent, and for the uncountable birds and animals incinerated or starving to death because their habitat is gone.
And we will grieve for something harder to define: the death of the future. These fires, like climate-change-induced disasters around the world, are upending our ways of thinking about the world. Somehow, we must begin to imagine a different future on a warming Earth, one that is increasingly unfriendly to human civilization.