Australia’s wildfires are yet more evidence that it’s time we woke up to climate change, Elizabeth Kolbert writes.
Last week, thousands of people in the Australian state of Victoria were urged to evacuate their homes. “Don’t wait,” the alert warned. Bushfires were burning across the state; so large were some of the blazes that, according to Victoria’s commissioner of emergency management, they were “punching into the atmosphere” with columns of smoke nine miles high. The smoke columns were producing their own weather, generating lightning that, in turn, was setting more fires. Some time after residents received the evacuation warning, many of those in the most seriously affected region, East Gippsland, which is a popular tourist destination, received another alert. It was now too late to leave: “You are in danger and need to act immediately to survive.”
Just to the north of Victoria, in New South Wales, blazes have so far destroyed more than nine million acres. Meanwhile, in the state of South Australia, dozens of fires were burning last week, some of them uncontrollably. At least nineteen people have died in the fires, as have hundreds of millions of animals, including a significant proportion of the country’s koalas. More than two hundred and fifty thousand people signed a petition arguing that, in light of the devastation, Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks displays should be scrapped, but the celebration proceeded anyway, in part at the insistence of the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
“I can think of no better time to express to the world just how optimistic and positive we are as a country,” said Morrison, a Donald Trump-like figure who was on holiday with his family in Hawaii last month when, owing to all the fires, New South Wales declared a state of emergency. (It declared a second state of emergency last Thursday, ahead of what was expected to be another catastrophic weekend.)
In a Dantean sort of way, Australia’s holiday-season infernos provided a fitting close to 2019, which has been called “the year the world woke up to the climate crisis.” In India this past summer, a heat wave killed more than a hundred people in the northeastern state of Bihar, and in Japan a month later a heat wave sent an estimated eighteen thousand to the hospital. All-time temperature records were set in France, where a high of a hundred and eight degrees was reached in the town of Vérargues on June 28th, and in Germany, where the mercury in the town of Lingen hit a hundred and seven degrees on July 25th.
In Australia, records were broken only to be rebroken. On December 17th, maximum temperatures across the entire country, which is roughly the size of the continental United States, averaged 105.6 degrees. Then, on December 18th, they climbed to 107.4 degrees. The “feeling when you open the oven door” is how one Australian described the heat to the BBC. “It’s like that, but just the whole time.” Globally, it was the second- or third-warmest year since accurate measurements began. (The exact ranking is still to be calculated.) In either case, each of the past five years has been among the hottest five, and the decade counts as the warmest ten-year stretch on record. If 2019 was supposedly the year we “woke up to the climate crisis,” the twenty-tens have been called “the decade we finally woke up to climate change.”
What will the twenty-twenties bring? In geophysical terms, this question is almost too easy to answer. Temperatures will continue to rise. It’s virtually guaranteed that the coming decade will be warmer than the twenty-tens, which were warmer than the two-thousands, which were warmer than the nineteen-nineties, which—you guessed it—were warmer than the nineteen-eighties.
And with still higher temperatures will come still greater damage. Droughts will grow more punishing. (Australia’s horrific wildfires are, in large part, the result of what Australians are calling a “big dry,” which is now in its third year and has forced many towns to truck in water.) Warmer air holds more moisture, so the flip side of drought is deluge. (Last week, as Australia was roasting, flooding in Indonesia killed at least forty people.) Meanwhile, the planet’s ice sheets will continue to melt, leading to ever-higher sea levels, as will the Arctic ice cap. It’s possible that by 2030 the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free at the end of the summer.
Which brings us to the question of what it means to “wake up.” If in the past year (or the past decade) the world began to understand how dangerous climate change is, it certainly didn’t act like it. In the past ten years, more CO2 was emitted than in all of human history up to the election of J.F.K.
In 2015, in Paris, world leaders, including President Barack Obama, committed to holding the average global temperature increase to “well below 2°C.” They never committed to how they were going to do this, however, and last month, in Madrid, the creaky machinery of climate diplomacy came very close to breaking down altogether. The Trump Administration, which has filed to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement, and the Morrison government, which wanted to use an accounting trick to fulfill its Paris commitments, were explicitly blamed for the stalemate. Many commentators noted the irony of the situation. A headline in the Guardian put it this way: “AUSTRALIA TOOK A MATCH TO UN CLIMATE TALKS WHILE BACK HOME THE COUNTRY BURNED.”
Every decade is consequential in its own way, but the twenty-twenties will be consequential in a more or less permanent way. Global CO2 emissions are now so high—in 2019, they hit a new record of forty-three billion metric tons—that ten more years of the same will be nothing short of cataclysmic. Unless emissions are reduced, and radically, a rise of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) will be pretty much unavoidable by 2030. This will make the demise of the world’s coral reefs, the inundation of most low-lying island nations, incessant heat waves and fires and misery for millions—perhaps billions—of people equally unavoidable.
Really waking up, and not just dreaming to ourselves that things will be O.K., has become urgent—beyond urgent, in fact. To paraphrase Victoria’s fire authority: The world is in danger, and we need to act immediately to survive. ♦