Seeing what is happening to Australia, even from this remove, is sickening, for its people, for its wildlife, and for what it bodes for the future of significant swathes of the planet.
As most readers know, I lived in Sydney from 2002 to 2004. Even though Australia had been moving in a neoliberal direction, it was still well behind the US and UK. It was strongly egalitarian. People mixed across lines. Even in a commercially-minded town like Sydney, the prevailing ethic was to work hard and play hard. It had fine amenities like its public transportation system and beaches.
Of course, this was also the same Australia that joined the Iraq “coalition of the willing” even though 94% of the population, a level pretty much never seen in polling, had opposed the invasion.
When I was there, the business community was pushing hard for liberalized immigration, which they eventually won, pushing Australia’s population growth rate up to one of the highest levels in the OECD. This occurred despite many citizens voicing concerns about Australia already being at a high-than-sustainable population level, particularly in combination with its high level of agricultural exports, which amounted to underpricing its most scarce natural resource, potable water.
I remember the two days when I was a Sydney resident when brush fires got close enough to Sydney to turn the sky a sickly yellow and give an acrid smell to the air when it blew from inland to the harbor. That was disconcerting, yet it’s a pale shadow compared to what is happening now.
Now one can say that first-worlders are spoiled, that residents of parts of China and India endure pollution levels on an ongoing basis that are health-threatening, as large swathes of New South Wales and Victoria are now. But the suddenness of of the change, and the severity of destruction of habitat and livestock in a country that was already more ecologically fragile than most understood, is grim.
By way of background, why Australia is going up like a torch. From a November 20 article in Science:
Driven in part by a severe drought, fires have burned 1.65 million hectares in the state of New South Wales, more than the state’s total in the previous 3 years combined…
David Bowman, a fire ecologist and geographer and director of the Fire Centre at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, spoke with Science about the crisis. The flames have charred even moist ecosystems once thought safe, he says….
Q: What is unusual about these fires?
A: The geographical scale and intensity—it’s happening all up and down the country. The very early start to the fire season across eastern Australia. The scale of housing loss.
We’re seeing recurrent fires in tall, wet eucalypt forests, which normally only burn very rarely. A swamp dried out near Port Macquarie, and organic sediments in the ground caught on fire. When you drop the water table, the soil is so rich in organic matter it will burn. We’ve seen swamps burning all around.
Even Australia’s fire-adapted forest ecosystems are struggling because they are facing increasingly frequent events. In Tasmania, over the past few years we have seen environments burning that historically see fires very rarely, perhaps every 1000 years. The increasing tempo, spatial scale, and frequency of fires could see ecosystems extinguished.
Q: What is the role of climate change?
A: You have to ask: Has there ever been a fire event of 1.65 million hectares that’s burnt a large area of what is generally considered fire-proof vegetation, and also occurred simultaneously with fires in other regions of Australia and California? What is happening is extraordinary. It would be difficult to say there wasn’t a climate change dimension. We couldn’t have imagined the scale of the current event before it happened. We would have been told it was hyperbole.
This is teaching us what can be true under a climate changed world. The numbers, scale, and diversity of the fires is going to reframe our understanding of bushfire in Australia. This is a major event which will have huge intellectual and policy legacies.
Supporting our hypothesis that agriculture in Australia made a precarious situation worse, from The Conversation in October:
First, it’s important to understand that drought is a manifestation of interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, and land. In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology uses rainfall deficiencies to identify regions that are under drought conditions. Anyone on the land doesn’t need to be reminded, but the current drought is seriously bad. These maps show the patterns of rainfall deficiency over the past 36 and 18 months, highlighting the severity and extent of what we call meteorological drought.
Widespread rainfall deficiencies over the last 36 months (left) and 18 months (right) Australian Bureau of Meteorology
But along with the main driver – low rainfall – droughts can also be exacerbated by water loss through evaporation. This depends not only on temperature but also humidity, wind speeds, and sunshine. Temperature will clearly continue to rise steadily almost everywhere. For the other factors, the future is not quite as clear.
Water loss also varies according to vegetation cover. Plants respond to higher carbon dioxide levels and drought by closing the tiny holes in their leaves (the stomata) and this can actually reduce water loss in wet environments. However, in water-stressed environments, projected long-term declines in rain may be compounded by plants using more water, further reducing streamflow. Actually, we can glean a lot from studying hydrological drought, which is measured by a period of low flow in rivers.
The point here is droughts are multidimensional, and can affect water supply on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. A seasonal-scale drought that reduces soil moisture on a farm, and a decade-long drought that depletes reservoirs and groundwater supplies, can each be devastating, but in different ways.
An ABC story from last March, which recall is the end of the Australian summer: State of the drought shows dams empty and NSW drowning in dust:
The hot dry summer has stripped the soils of moisture, water storages are down in every state and territory, and New South Wales is drowning in dust…
Lynette Bettio, a climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, said the big dry was affecting large parts of NSW, eastern South Australia and parts of the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia….
She said the dry was the result of intense high pressure over Australia that made frontal systems weaker and less frequent than usual.
“We’ve just come off a record-warm summer, and that extreme heat that we saw, especially those heatwaves in December and January, certainly exacerbated those drought conditions and really added to the intensity of the impacts.”
And the coming months aren’t looking good, Dr Bettio added.
“For autumn, for rainfall, there’s really an increased chance of below-average rainfall across much of eastern Australia.”
So worsening conditions were likely even before the super hot days set in.
Lambert found this National Museum of Australia article on the Federation Drought of 1895 to 1903, which gives some perspective on contemporary droughts and fires. Very much worth reading in full. Some key bits:
Historical accounts and scientific analysis indicate that South-Eastern Australia experienced 27 drought years between 1788 and 1860, and at least 10 major droughts between 1860 and 2000.
The Millennium Drought (2001–09) was one of the most severe. In 2017 drought set in again across parts of New South Wales and Queensland.
The Federation Drought received its name because it coincided with Australia’s Federation. Many consider this drought, which affected almost the whole country, to have been the most destructive in Australian recorded history, owing to the enormous toll it took on sheep and cattle numbers….
In 1892 Australia had 106 million sheep, two-thirds of which were in the eastern states. By 1903 the national flock had almost halved to 54 million. The nation lost more than 40 per cent of its cattle over the same period, nearly three million in Queensland alone.
Drovers sought feed for hungry stock along travelling stock routes (known as the ‘long paddock’) or moved stock to pastures on the east coast and southern mountains where conditions were less dire.
Droving took an immense toll on sheep and cattle with losses of up to 70 per cent recorded, particularly in regions where watering points could be 100 kilometres apart. In 1902 local newspapers reported that more than 2000 steers lay dead along the Goondiwindi to Miles route in Queensland….
Dame Nellie Melba, November 1902:
I have seen with my own eyes the brown, burnt paddocks extending for hundreds of miles, with no vestige of grass left upon them. I have seen starving sheep leaning against the fences, too weak to move … It is simply appalling.
Then the losses were to agricultural wealth. What happens to already over-valued-looking residential real estate, particularly given that Australia also has high levels of credit card debt? And Australia’s banks are already very exposed to housing? Even though bank tightening took some air out of the bubble starting in 2017, prices started moving up again smartly earlier this year.
Even when I was in Oz, it was stunning how much banks were willing to lend against incomes. Having borrowers spend 50% of their earnings on property payments was seen as not unreasonable. My impression that level of personal leverage has become pretty common. This take is confirmed by this transcript from a Real Vision video earlier this year, courtesy John Mauldin:
Australia’s household debt to GDP was 120.5 per cent as of September last year, according to the Bank for International Settlements, one of the highest in the world. In 2007, Ireland was sitting at around 100 per cent.
At the same time, the RBA puts Australia’s household debt to disposable income at 188.6 per cent. Ireland was 200 per cent in 2007, while the US was only 116.3 per cent at the start of 2008.
RBA figures also show more than two thirds of the country’s net household wealth is invested in real estate. In 2008, that figure was 83 per cent in Ireland and 48 per cent in the US. Meanwhile, 60 per cent of all lending by Australian financial institutions is in the property sector.
A sampling of today’s stories. First, from the BBC, Australia fires: Thousands flee to the sea as fires race to coast:
Several holiday spots along the coast between Sydney and Melbourne are currently cut off by fire fronts….
Residents in the NSW holiday towns of Bermagui and Batemans Bay also fled on Tuesday morning to the waterfront or makeshift evacuation sites near the shore.
Locals told the BBC they had “bunkered in” as the front approached, raining ash on the beaches.
“It was bloody scary. The sky went red, and ash was flying everywhere,” said Zoe Simmons in Batemans Bay.
In Mallacoota, one of the worst-affected spots on Tuesday, residents fled to the beach or took up shelter in fortified homes when they heard the warning siren go off at 08:00 local time.
“It should have been daylight but it was black like midnight and we could hear the fire roaring,” said David Jeffrey, a local business owner. “We were all terrified for our lives.”
“There’s a rock wall that they’ve built to keep back the sea, and that was where we were going to jump into the water if the radiant heat had hit,” he added….
Temperatures exceeded 40C (104F) in every state and territory at the start of the week, with strong winds and lightning strikes bolstering the flames.
Meteorologists say a climate system in the Indian Ocean, known as the dipole, is the main driver behind the extreme heat in Australia.
From ABC, Mallacoota residents and holidaymakers describe ‘apocalypse’ as bushfire approaches Victorian town, via the Rev Kev: “Many weird images. Pitch black in the late morning and now everything red. Is this what climate change looks like?”
Residents and holidaymakers in Mallacoota in Victoria’s far east have described the sky turning from pitch black to blazing red as fire raced towards the seaside town.
Residents also reported hearing gas cylinders explode in the Mallacoota town centre…
“Unless you’re here, you can’t even imagine what it’s actually like,” she [Facebook user Jann Gilber] says in one of the videos.
“It’s hard to breathe, even with a mask on.”
“This is really scary now, it’s just red, everywhere.
“The wind is intermittently howling, which brings more embers.”…
In a video uploaded to social media, a man wearing a cloth over his face and ski-goggles broadcasted from a boat, pointing at Mallacoota behind him.
“It’s f***ing chaos,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”..
Mallacoota resident Don Ashby told ABC Gippsland that fire sirens went off shortly before 8:30am as the bushfire reached the edge of the town.
“The agreement was when all the trucks turn the sirens on that was when the fire hit and everybody had to go and get down to the waterline,” he said.
He said he could not see anything as the sky turned black and ash fell as the roar of the bushfire came closer.
“It s like the darkest, darkest night,” he said…
Later, authorities said the fire had bypassed the town following a wind change, news that was met by cheers from the town’s jetty.
But CFA chief officer Steve Warrington said houses had burnt down on the outskirts of town.
One of many tweets by resident @brendanh_au:
— Brendan (@brendanh_au) December 30, 2019
From another Down Under reader:
— Dan (@danbakes) December 31, 2019
He also just sent this summary of a live broadcast from ABC:
1. South Coast of Australia to lose telecommunications tonight.
2. Australian military will be rescuing Australians that fled to Victoria shores.
3. Just announced that Australian government has requested international help with fires. Basically, send your fire fighters.
And on the black humor front:
Australia needs its fabulous luck in spades right now. But has it finally run out?