When we come to write the history of climate politics in Australia, it’s possible New Year’s Eve 2019 will be seen as the moment everything changed. That was the day the nation – and indeed the world – watched in horror and despair as the people of Mallacoota fled to the beach to escape the wall of flame bearing down on their town.
They weren’t the only ones fleeing the fire that day. In towns from the Blue Mountains to the outskirts of Melbourne, communities were facing catastrophe. But there was something about the images from Mallacoota, the crowds of people and animals huddled on the sand in the eerie red light that somehow brought not just the scale but the uncanniness of the crisis home. “When Brueghel meets the Anthropocene,” a friend of mine tweeted about similar scenes in Malua Bay. More like Bosch, others replied.
It’s possible the reasons these images seem so resonant is the fact they are on a beach, a place that occupies a curious duality in Australian culture, serving as both the most potent symbol of our national myth of egalitarianism and a theatre for our deepest anxieties about both our nation’s origins and the possibility of invasion, whether by aggressors or by refugees.
As if to underline that ambivalence, another image appeared not long afterwards. Taken by Mallacoota resident Allison Marion, it showed her 11-year-old son, Finn, seated in the stern of a dinghy, one hand on the tiller of an outboard engine, his eyes above the mask that obscures his face wary and exhausted. Behind him the sky is deep orange, the sea barely visible through the murk. A decade-and-a-half ago the writer Robert Macfarlane wondered why the climate crisis lacked an iconography. It has one now.
But it’s difficult not to suspect New Year’s Eve was also the moment many Australians realised we were in uncharted territory, that the future so many of us had feared for so long had finally washed over us, and we were completely unprepared.
The catastrophe that is still playing out on the eastern seaboard, South Australia and Tasmania has been a long time coming yet still the sheer scale of it is difficult to comprehend. At the time of writing 27 people have been killed, and an estimated 8.4 million hectares have burned or are currently burning, an area larger than the whole of Ireland or Austria. More than 1,800 homes have been destroyed, along with many agricultural sheds and structures, and with them, lives and livelihoods. Thousands of people have been evacuated, and many more stranded for days or even longer with limited food, fuel or electricity.
The impact on livestock has also been horrifying. The National Farmers’ Federation estimates in excess of 100,000 sheep and cattle have been killed, and hundreds of thousands more will have to be euthanised in coming days. The Australian defence force has been mobilised to deal with their carcasses – “to dig the pits”, as the federal agriculture minister, Bridget McKenzie, put it earlier this week.
But the human and economic cost of the fires is dwarfed by their ecological impact. Scientists estimate close to half a billion mammals, birds and reptiles have been killed in NSW alone, driving threatened animals and birds closer to extinction. Speaking to Guardian Australia on 4 January, Prof Sarah Legge, a conservation ecologist at the Australian National University, said: “Even some species that are not snuffed out completely will struggle in the coming months. I think this is the end for a number of species.”
In many cases burned areas will never recover. Endangered plant species confined to small areas are likely to have been wiped out; likewise the sheer intensity of the fires will have destroyed not just the complex and highly diverse communities of organisms that populate the forest floor, but also the old-growth trees that shelter species such as gliding possums and provide nesting sites for many birds. As biologist Prof John Woinarski of Charles Darwin University put it: “There are no winners … These fires are homogenising the landscape. They benefit no species.”
Away from the fires the impact has also been considerable. In Sydney, the city has been shrouded in smoke since early November, the stink of burning constantly in the air. Breathing masks have become a common sight on the streets. My younger daughter’s school began keeping the children in at lunchtime. On one of the worst days a friend of mine who is an anaesthetist at one of Sydney’s major hospitals texted me to say they had been forced to cancel his surgeries because the air conditioners were pulling too much smoke into the operating room. In the city, fire crews were run ragged responding to fire alarms set off by the smoke, sending office workers spilling on to the streets. In Canberra, where the smoke has intensified in recent weeks, things are even worse: flights have been cancelled due to poor visibility, government departments have told workers to remain at home, and the National Gallery was forced to close due to fears about the smoke’s effect on its collections.
Amid the rolling emergency of the fires it’s easy to forget they are only the latest in a long line of disasters. Last summer fires tore through rainforest in north Queensland and devastated forests in Tasmania, while on the Barwon-Darling millions of fish and other riverine species died as a result of drought and long-term mismanagement of river systems – catastrophes that were followed by catastrophic floods in northern Queensland that killed four people and drowned up to half a million cattle.
Overseas the story is the same. In the middle of last year, fires spread through the Arctic, igniting not just grassland but boreal peatlands dried out by unusually high temperatures in the region. In Brazil fires destroyed nearly 10,000 sq km of rainforest, prompting warnings from scientists that the Amazon is now close to a tipping point, beyond which its collapse will be unstoppable. In March Cyclone Idai left more than 1,300 people dead in Madagascar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Indeed one report by British charity Christian Aid suggests the changing climate amplified the effects of no less than 15 major disasters in 2019, while in July last year the UN warned climate change is now causing an average of one disaster a week.
There has been a lot of talk about adapting to the new normal in recent weeks. But this is not the new normal. This is just the beginning. The rolling disasters we are now experiencing are the result of 1C of warming above pre-industrial averages. Even if the commitments enshrined in the Paris agreement are met – something that looks extremely unlikely – we are on track for well over 2C of warming by the end of the century, while on current trends we are headed for 3C or 4C.
A world that is 3C or 4C hotter will be almost unrecognisable. Large areas in equatorial and subequatorial regions will be effectively uninhabitable. Sea levels will rise by many metres. Ecosystems around the world will collapse, causing mass extinctions on land and in the oceans. Hundreds of millions of people will die, while hundreds of millions more will be displaced.
Even at 2C our world will be irrevocably altered. According to the IPCC’s special report, Global Warming of 1.5C, released in October 2018, 2C of warming will lead to significant increases in both the incidence and severity of heatwaves and extreme weather events, dramatically affect food production, especially in south-east Asia, south and central America and sub-Saharan Africa, leading to a “rapid evacuation” of people from tropical countries. Tropical diseases will spread into formerly temperate areas. Sea levels will rise by up to a metre by 2100, and continue rising for centuries afterwards. The impacts on the natural world will be similarly devastating: extinction rates will soar, ocean acidification and warming waters will devastate marine life and coral reefs will disappear almost entirely within a decade or two.
In fact, the IPCC’s advice is that to have any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, we must hold warming to only 1.5C above pre-industrial averages. At 1.5C, the world will be a much harder, less hospitable place than the one we once knew. Heatwaves, droughts and disasters like those of recent weeks will be more commonplace. Shortages of food and water will affect only half as many people as they will at 2C, and the number of people displaced might be held to only 50 million. Natural systems and biodiversity will be irreparably damaged, but we might save 10% of coral reefs, and sea level rise might be held to only half a metre by 2100.
This is not an accident
As best-case scenarios go, this is pretty bleak. But it gets worse. Because in order to have any chance of holding warming to 1.5C, net global emissions need to reach zero by 2050, with close to half that reduction taking place over the next 10 years. This isn’t going to be achieved by installing solar panels or making meat-free Monday part of our lives. It demands the transformation of every aspect of our economies and societies in the space of a few years. In a world where emissions are still rising year on year, where rightwing populism is on the march and the international order looks shakier by the day, the odds of this happening look vanishingly unlikely.
The brutal truth, in other words, is that things are going to get worse whatever we do. A lot worse. And probably quickly.
None of this is a secret, yet individually and collectively we have grown skilled at not thinking about it. After all, how could we? Acknowledging the truth would demand we recognise not just the scale of the problem and its intractability, but also our part in it. The writer Amitav Ghosh has described this elision of reality as “the great derangement”. Yet with each new freak weather event or shattered record or unprecedented disaster, it has become harder to keep pretending things are OK, harder to keep the sense of rising panic at bay.
As the old joke goes, denial is a mighty river. Yet even it has its limits. Fifty years ago the American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified what she believed to be the five stages of grieving. First comes denial, then anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. These stages are not necessarily clear-cut – witness the growing anger of the millions of people who joined climate marches around the world in recent months – but I suspect that for many people New Year’s Day was the point where denial finally stopped being an option, and their grief and terror finally coalesced into fury.
We should be angry, of course. Incandescently angry. Because where we are is not an accident. It is the result of decades of inaction by our political leaders, of campaigns of lies and disinformation by fossil fuel companies and their enablers in politics and the media, of pandering to special interests and privileging greed over the futures of our children. In any other field, people who knowingly ignored expert scientific advice would be held liable for the death and destruction that flowed from their actions. Yet our prime minister, the leader of a party that has done more to prevent action on climate change in this country than any other, a party that systematically ignored warnings from fire chiefs and scientific agencies in the lead-up to the disaster and was, even as the country burned, working to reduce emission reduction targets at the Madrid climate summit, refuses to countenance changes to his government’s climate policies.
How do we live when reality sinks in?
But the real question is what do we do when the anger subsides? How do we live once our disbelief at the scale of the disaster fades and we are left to grapple with the knowledge the world we knew has gone? Climate scientist Joëlle Gergis has written about her increasing tendency to burst into tears, as “the reality of what the science is saying manages to thaw the emotionally frozen part of myself I need to maintain to do my job. In those moments, what surfaces is pure grief”.
Kübler-Ross’ model grew out of her experiences with the terminally ill, but our predicament is not entirely dissimilar. There is no magic bullet or miracle cure that will save us. We cannot make this better. Instead we face a future in which the only certainty is uncertainty and loss, a future in which the choices we have made will shape the lives of generations to come for centuries, and mostly for the worst.
Faced with this reality we can sink into depression and despair. Or we can go further, admit the old world has gone, and begin to fight to make things better. This will not be easy. As the intransigence of Scott Morrison and his government and the organised campaigns of disinformation about the causes of the fires already circulating on social media demonstrate, the forces opposing change are powerful, and will fight to the end.
But there are other forces at work as well. As if to underline the historic failure of the federal government, it was ordinary people who stepped into the breach in the aftermath of the fires, offering money, food, places to stay. I can’t have been the only one moved to tears by the sight of truckies and tradies gathering in Bairnsdale to help residents and holidaymakers stranded in the Gippsland, or the images of members of the Muslim community in New South Wales and Victoria who travelled hundreds of kilometres to cook food for exhausted firefighters and shattered communities. “We can’t fight fires but we can put a barbecue on,” one of the men told the ABC.
Their actions are a reminder that if we are to find a way forward we will need kindness as well as anger, empathy as well as rage, humility as well as righteousness. Yet we also need to recognise that just as acceptance frees the terminally ill, it can liberate us to imagine a way forward. The philosopher Donna Haraway speaks of the imperative of “staying with the trouble”, of not shying away from reality but instead inhabiting the present in all its complexity, terror, hope and joy and recognising our kinship with those around us. Perhaps it is time we all learned to do that, time we learned to recognise our own hopes and fears in other people.
Because that is what many of us glimpsed in the faces of the people on the beach in Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve. We saw ourselves, our shared future, the terror and pain of what is coming. And we could no longer look away.
• This story was amended on 13 January 2020 to correct a statement that the National Library in Canberra closed due to air pollution. It has remained open throughout the bushfire crisis.