The Fires Are Out, but Australia’s Climate Disasters Aren’t Over
RAINBOW FLAT, Australia — Standing in thick mud between burned trees and a concrete slab where his house had been, Peter Ruprecht admitted that he was not sure how or when to rebuild.
He was still dizzied by what Australia’s increasingly volatile climate had already delivered: first a drought, then a devastating bush fire, then a foot of rain from a tropical storm.
“It’s unstoppable,” said Mr. Ruprecht, a former dairy farmer. “We speak about the warmth of Mother Nature, but nature can also be vicious and wild and unforgiving.”
Australia’s hellish fire season has eased, but its people are facing more than a single crisis. With floods destroying homes not far from where infernos recently raged, they are confronting a cycle of what scientists call “compound extremes”: one climate disaster intensifying the next.
Warmer temperatures do more than just dry out the land. They also heat up the atmosphere, which means clouds hold more moisture for longer periods of time. So droughts get worse, giving way to fires, then to crushing rains that the land is too dry to absorb.
One result of that multiplier effect for Australia — a global bellwether for climate change’s effects — is that rebuilding after a disaster becomes far more complicated. Many Australians in disaster zones complain that their government, after dismissing climate change for years, has yet to outline recovery plans that are clear and that take future threats into account.
At the same time, the economic costs of a changing climate are skyrocketing. Philip Lowe, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, warned recently that Australia was already paying a price, and that it would only go up.
“Addressing climate change isn’t something that is any responsibility of the Reserve Bank of Australia, but what we do have a responsibility to do is to understand the economic and the financial implication of climate change,” he said. “The economic implications are profound.”
Tourism has already taken a major hit. In the longer term, Australia should expect agricultural output and property values to suffer, according to a recent study by the Climate Council, an independent advocacy group. It said property losses related to climate change could reach 571 billion Australian dollars ($384 billion) by 2030, and 770 billion ($510 billion) by 2100.
The insurance industry is already scrambling to adjust. The drenching storms of the past month led to a rush of damage claims and left tens of thousands of homes without electricity, prompting insurers to declare a catastrophe for the sixth time in five months. Such declarations, which speed up payouts, have become more frequent and more costly in recent decades.
Now, more disasters are threatening to overlap.
In Conjola Park south of Sydney, where fires over the New Year holiday destroyed 89 homes, the lake recently flooded, causing still more damage. Up and down Australia’s east coast, trees killed by drought, charred by flame and toppled by thunderstorms have crushed cars and homes.
Neither insurers nor residents are sure which disaster to blame. One thing that’s clear is that the stacking crises put people at risk and multiply their anxieties.
“I don’t like going anywhere,” said Karen Couzins, who lives in Nattai, about 95 miles southwest of Sydney. School has been canceled because of blocked roads, and simply getting groceries has become dangerous, she said.
“The trees are just falling across roads all over the place,” Ms. Couzins said. “I’ve just come back from a drive on the road. I saw a car with the front end all damaged; a tree fell on their car.”
The extremes have been especially severe north of Sydney, where Mr. Ruprecht and his wife are living in a converted metal shed, for now.
First came the drought, which wore on for years, leaving farms and forests dusty, brown and brittle. When the fires arrived in October and November, before summer had even officially started, anyone with knowledge of the bush knew there would be months of pain and struggle.
“It was a bomb ready to go off,” said Ian McMullen, 56, a third-generation timber owner, who estimates that he lost a half-million Australian dollars to the fires.
He was sitting on a bench near the shore in Hallidays Point, talking to a friend from childhood, Tim McNamara, who owns a nearby cattle farm. They said they had been discussing climate change even before I arrived, because they could not help it.
In front of them, huge waves rose like muddy mountains, the usually clean water full of ash and debris from the fires. Cyclone Uesi had weakened before drifting so far south, but its mere appearance pointed to yet another climate trend: the drift of tropical weather into areas where it had not been before.
Up the road, in a shop for local artists, 63-year-old Jenny Dayment said, “Change is certainly happening all around us.” She cited little things, like rising humidity and shifts in the bird population.
After so many years of people praying for rain, the recent downpours have been bittersweet, Mrs. Dayment said. Even as they have turned the ground green again, they have brought the ominous crack of falling trees.
“Maybe we’ll get some normalcy back in our day-to-day routines,” she said. “But people are going to be wary for a very long time. I don’t think we can ever be the same.”
Her daughter’s house had burned to the ground, she said. She pulled up a photo of what was left: a fireplace surrounded by crumpled chaos. Her daughter was not sure what to do next; she and her husband were thinking about buying temporary container housing.
The Ruprechts also cannot decide on the next step. Mr. Ruprecht said the biggest challenge had been “the absence of structure in government.”
“Most inhabitants of first-world countries view themselves as being quite resilient,” he said. “This has tested that.”
Like many others in areas affected by climate-induced extremes, the Ruprechts have listened carefully to federal and local officials, but they hear mixed signals. Sometimes there are hints of “don’t rebuild, it’s too dangerous”; at other times, moving quickly and keeping the economy humming seems to be the priority.
“It’s really affected our confidence to rebuild,” Mr. Ruprecht said. “Without some sort of vision and leadership, we’re not quite sure what to do.”
Scientists say Australia should have been better prepared, because what is happening has long been predicted.
In 2015, to take one example among many, the country’s Academy of Science declared that “for Australia, a warmer future will likely mean that extreme precipitation is more intense and more frequent, interspersed with longer dry spells.”
“We’ve been writing about climate change being a stress multiplier for many years,” said Lesley Hughes, a climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. “It’s absolutely been foreseen that our climate is becoming more variable and more severe.”
Lucinda Fischer, 32, the Ruprechts’ daughter, said the government was “kind of the blind leading the blind.” The only way forward, she said, is for the public to get more involved, and for officials to step back and assess what went wrong, and what needs to happen next time.
“It’s not a question of if we’re going to have another disaster,” she said. “It’s when, and how we’re going to deal with it then.”
Michelle Elias contributed reporting from Sydney.