Australia may be the canary in the climate change coal mine

Australia? It’s not the end of the world as we know it, but you might be able to see it from there, if it were not for all the smoke. Last week scattered bushfires burning close to Sydney converged and formed a “mega-fire,” casting a dense pall of smoke over the city, which is Australia’s largest and one of the world’s most beautiful. This week Sydney’s air quality plummeted, measuring 11 times the level deemed hazardous to human health. The smoke is so bad that fire alarms are being triggered in many parts of the city.

More than 100 fires are raging in three Australian states: New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria. So far, they have burnt more than 2.5 million acres of bushland. Mercifully, only a handful of human lives have been lost thus far, and only 800 houses have been destroyed. But firefighters are making little or no progress in extinguishing the blazes and little rain is expected before the end of January. With Australia’s summer rapidly approaching and daytime highs already exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit in many areas, no relief is in sight.

Australia is often referred to as “the lucky country” because of its strong economy and abundance of natural resources. But its luck may be running out. Severe drought, soaring temperatures, and the growing threat of bushfires on the world’s driest continent may ultimately destroy the quality of life enjoyed by its 25 million residents.

Sydney is increasingly threatened by water shortages. This week, the state of New South Wales imposed “level two” water restrictions to regulate the watering of gardens, and much tighter restrictions may be coming as reservoirs continue to shrink. If it doesn’t get drought relief, Sydney could be approaching a “Day Zero” when it runs out of water in the next few years.

Australia is a major exporter of wheat, but wheat production is expected to fall by 20 percent in the 2019/2020 crop year. Tourism is another major source of income, but if summer bushfires continue to threaten air quality and dump ashes on popular beaches, foreign visitors may look elsewhere for vacations.

Climate change is threatening Australia’s beloved koalas, with bushfires so far this year killing more than 1,000 of them. Conservationists warn they are in danger of becoming “functionally extinct” in New South Wales, Queensland, and other parts of Australia.

It’s too early to write off koalas as a species, but then Australia, like the rest of the world, is only in the early stages of climate change. The worst, almost certainly, is yet to come.

What happens in far-flung Australia may seem of little consequence to the rest of the world. But it may be a proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ with respect to climate change (which is ironic because it is one of the world’s biggest coal exporters). What we see there we can expect to see elsewhere. In fact, it’s already happening in other parts of the world.

Last year, wildfires in Siberia raised global alarm bells; this year it was the fires in Greenland. Wildfires also ravaged the Amazon basin and many parts of California and Southern Europe this year. Yes, many of these fires were caused by humans. But drought and record-high temperatures created the conditions that fueled them.

Sydney is not the only major city threatened by water shortages. In recent years, Cape Town, South Africa, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, have come dangerously close to a “Day Zero.” In the coming decades severe water shortages could imperil the future of cities like Djakarta, Mexico City, and even Tokyo.

The world is changing in front of our eyes. Victoria Falls ranks as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.  But months of drought have reduced the waterfall, which sits on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, to a virtual trickle of its former self. This fall, severe flooding, another potential indicator of climate change, caused extensive damage in another popular tourist attraction: Venice.

It’s too late to ward off climate change. It’s already here, and global greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise again. But it’s not too late to mitigate the worst effects. Climate action has become mission-critical to the future of the world, particularly for developing countries that will bear the brunt of some of climate change’s worst effects.

Let’s hope that the latest round of climate deliberations, COP25, which wraps up this week in Madrid, will give climate action much needed momentum. Absent a rapid course correction, luck may be running out for Australia, the lucky country, and for the lucky world we all inhabit.

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on December 13, 2019 in The Hill