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The second is the irreversible scouring of the Earth’s most distinctive ecosystems. In Australia, this phenomenon has come for the country’s natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef. From 2016 to 2018, half of all coral in the reef died, killed by oceanic heat waves that bleached and then essentially starved the symbiotic animals. Because tropical coral reefs take about a decade to recover from such a die-off, and because the relentless pace of climate change means that more heat waves are virtually guaranteed in the 2020s, the reef’s only hope of long-term survival is for humans to virtually halt global warming in the next several decades and then begin to reverse it.
Meeting such a goal will require a revolution in the global energy system—and, above all, a rapid abandonment of coal burning. But there’s the rub. Australia is the world’s second-largest exporter of coal power, and it has avoided recession for the past 27 years in part by selling coal.
Though polls report that most Australians are concerned about climate change, the country’s government has so far been unable to pass pretty much any climate policy. In fact, one of its recent political crises—the ousting of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the summer of 2018—was prompted by Turnbull’s attempt to pass an energy bill that included climate policy. Its current prime minister, Scott Morrison, actually brought a lump of coal to the floor of Parliament several years ago while defending the industry. He won an election last year by depicting climate change as the exclusive concern of educated city-dwellers, and climate policy as a threat to Australians’ cars and trucks. He has so far attempted to portray the wildfires as a crisis, sure, but one in line with previous natural disasters.
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In fact, it is unprecedented. This season’s fires have incinerated more than 1,500 homes and have killed at least 23 people, Prime Minister Morrison said on Saturday.* There were at least twice as many fires in New South Wales in 2019 as there were in any other year this century, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Climate change likely intensified the ongoing epidemic: Hotter and drier weather makes wildfires more common, and climate change is increasing the likelihood of both in Australia. Last year was both the hottest and driest year on record in the country.
Perhaps more than any other wealthy nation on Earth, Australia is at risk from the dangers of climate change. It has spent most of the 21st century in a historic drought. Its tropical oceans are more endangered than any other biome by climate change. Its people are clustered along the temperate and tropical coasts, where rising seas threaten major cities. Those same bands of livable land are the places either now burning or at heightened risk of bushfire in the future. Faced with such geographical challenges, Australia’s people might rally to reverse these dangers. Instead, they have elected leaders with other priorities.