Has Australia Reached a Climate Tipping Point?
Credit…James Ross/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images
SYDNEY, Australia — Australia the untouchable bubble is no more.
Only a few months ago, I joked with friends who had just returned from life in the northern hemisphere that, with the state of the world at that moment, our distance from the rest of the world felt more like comfort than tyranny. Australia felt like a prosperous and benign island.
But as they say on the internet, life comes at you fast. We Australians found ourselves at the center of global events when our land erupted in flames. In recent months, fires have burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 30 people. More than a billion animals perished.
Many of us had feared that our good luck would someday come to an end, but we never imagined that the end would be so sudden, so cinematic, so biblical. We have become a portent of what the world can expect if it does not act on climate change.
So let me tell you what this portentous summer has been like, as it draws to a close. It has been a summer when even city life has not been insulated from nature, when our existence has been reduced to those ancient elements: earth, air, water and fire.
In Sydney, it started long before summer with drought creeping up slowly, leaving scraps of yellow grass and dirt where lawns used to be. The government tightened water restrictions, and in my household we shaved our showers down to three minutes. We collected the tepid shower water in buckets, then hauled it out to the garden, trying to keep our sad plants alive.
Then came the fires. Not the sight of fires, but the smell. Smoke drifted across the city and refused to leave. At first, it was so strong and new that it woke me from sleep, and I wandered the house thinking it was coming from somewhere inside. On my morning walk, the bridges and high rises in the distance almost disappeared, mere shapes in a fog.
On the worst nights of the fires, I tuned in to the regional radio stations of the national broadcaster, for reasons I can’t explain. A sense of solidarity? Flames were coming for people in their beds, in the middle of the night, announced with the dire and haunting words we became used to over these terrible months, “It’s too late to leave; shelter in place.”
The summer barbecue talk was all cognitive dissonance. “Aren’t the fires terrible? And so many animals lost; it’s heartbreaking. We need to do more about climate change. But anyway, how was your trip to Japan? We are thinking of taking the kids next year — was the snow OK?” Conversations of a country driven off a cliff, suspended in the air for one moment before the fall.
By late January, the smoke cleared a little. It was replaced by what my daughter calls “sky dirt,” blown in from inland dust storms. Sky dirt coated all the cars and houses in a fine, brown layer. Soon after, we swam in the surf and the sky was clear again, but the salt water was flecked with tiny fragments of burned leaves.
Then came the floods and the heaviest rainfall in 30 years. Rain blew sideways, and the house creaked. We carted buckets in the opposite direction, bailing out our small lawn as it drowned in several inches of water. And it struck me that this — a sudden and opposite problem after months of drought — illustrated the impossibility of simply “adapting” to climate change.
How do you adapt when the changes coming are not simply new patterns but the very loss of a predictable pattern? How do you adapt to chaos? How do you affordably prepare a home simultaneously for drought, wind, rain, smoke, dust, fire, blackouts, rising sea levels, falling trees, floods, hail and record-breaking temperatures?
In my part of Australia, the fires are out, for now. The air is hot and wet, and smells like a laundry. Ants trail the walls, and the parks and gardens are all long grass and mosquitoes. In the city, it would be easy to forget what the nation has gone through, and what people beyond the city are still going through.
The time has come for us to put away childish things and reckon with climate change, to do what we can to prevent a future in which extreme weather is more intense and more frequent. This time around, it was Australia that suffered, that served as a warning of our planet’s climate change future. Many other places will follow in the coming years.
So far, our national government has shown itself to be unequal to the task of taking climate change seriously. Its failures have revealed glimpses of the worst flaws of our national character, if such a thing exists: the stolid selfishness of my money, my holiday, my family, my right to burn coal. We need to feel international pressure to do more, and we deserve consequences for not doing as much as we should.
While we are fighting for political action, we also need to ask ourselves hard questions as individuals and communities. The question I have been asking myself is, what does it matter that I accept the science of climate change if I continue to live my life as if climate change were a hoax? Who cares how many people accept the data if we are still consuming, traveling, investing, eating, dressing, voting and planning for the future as if global warming were imaginary?
Over this summer, I have come to see there could be real opportunity to realign our lives in ways that are not only less resource intensive, but also better. In one tiny lesson from the season, we were able to significantly reduce our water usage by using gray water from the shower and the washing machine on the garden. Taking more care with the garden has lent a sense of pleasure and industry to our home. Looking back, it seems like madness that we ever used fresh drinking water from a hose to water plants.
I have also set myself the challenge of buying only secondhand clothes for as long as I can. This has saved money and given me a new hobby. We also are composting our fruit and vegetable scraps for the first time and looking at better places to invest our retirement savings. Many people I know are doing the same.
But fending off a sense of hopelessness with small changes will not fend off climate change. What is really needed is political action on carbon emissions at both a national and global level.
It is my dream that Australia is somehow transformed by this summer in a way that leads us to help drive that change, rather than simply serving as a sad example to others.
Lisa Pryor, a medical doctor, is the author, most recently, of “A Small Book About Drugs” and a contributing opinion writer.
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