How Long Will Australia Be Livable?

Facing a future of fire, drought, and rising oceans, Australians will have to weigh the choice between getting out early or staying to fight.

Evacuees flee Australia's ongoing bushfires.
Anadolu Agency / Getty

When tiny flakes of white ash started falling like warm snow from a sky sullen with smoke, we left. We had lived for weeks with the threat of two huge bushfires hanging over our small Australian town, advancing inexorably toward us from the north and the south. My hometown of Blackheath, perched at the top of the Blue Mountains, surrounded by stunning but drought-parched Australian wilderness, was in the center of this flaming pincer.

The kids had just come home from their final day of school in December when our neighbor messaged to say there were concerns that the northern fire, which had already burned through nearly 2,000 square miles of national park, would hit Blackheath that night. Fire authorities had warned of dire conditions in the following few days: high temperatures, low humidity, and wind.

So we fled east down the mountains, heading for the coast and the relative safety of Sydney, nearly 60 miles away. We returned five days later to our scorched land, the house untouched thanks to the courageous actions of neighbors and firefighters.

Australians pride themselves on being battlers, on facing down terrible odds and triumphing against whatever this land of droughts and flooding rains—and bushfires—can throw at us. Yet one of the most defining moments in modern Australian nationhood was actually a retreat. In one of the greatest military-campaign failures of World War I, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—the ANZACs—staged an ingenious escape from the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 after a bitter, futile eight-month battle with Ottoman forces.

“This is our Gallipoli; this is our bushfire Gallipoli,” says David Bowman, a professor of environmental-change biology at the University of Tasmania. He’s talking about the bushfires that began in the spring of September 2019, that have burned in every state and territory, that have claimed at least 24 lives, that have destroyed nearly 1,800 homes, and that have turned more than 8.4 million hectares of land into lifeless charcoal. They have led to one of the largest peacetime evacuations in Australia’s history, as fire authorities in two states instructed tens of thousands of holidaymakers and residents to remove themselves from the path of several flaming juggernauts. In an echo of the Gallipoli retreat, thousands had to be rescued from beaches by the Australian navy and air force. In the face of these unprecedented fires, Australians appear to be listening less to the inner voice of the Aussie battler, and instead heeding the pleas and warnings of fire authorities.

Eleven years ago, the mind-set of bushfire response was different. Before the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in the southeastern state of Victoria, which killed 173 people over two cataclysmic days in 2009, the accepted wisdom on bushfires was “stay and defend, or leave early.” After Black Saturday, a new category of bushfire warning was introduced, labeled “Code Red” in Victoria, and “Catastrophic” in New South Wales. The unambiguous message of the new warning was “for your survival, leaving early is the only option.”

It appears the message is cutting through, says Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. “With the magnitude of these fires, and particularly with the fires that occurred in the Blue Mountains and Mallacoota—in heavily populated areas—that we didn’t end up with a Black Saturday–type fatality list is a sign that something is different in these fires.”

But what happens after the fires have passed through, and Australians return to either their intact homes or smoking ruins, dead cattle, a blackened moonscape where crops once grew? The lucky ones give thanks and get on with their life. The unlucky ones grieve, rage, shake their fist at Fate—and defiantly rebuild on the same ground. The battler spirit triumphs again, but for how long?

As the country suffers through one of its worst droughts on record, and heat waves shatter temperature records not once but twice within the same summer week, some are asking whether Australians can afford to keep returning to the same parched, scorched landscapes that they have occupied not just since the European invasion two and a half centuries ago, but for tens of thousands of years before that. Even before climate change, survival—particularly of agriculture—in some parts of Australia was precarious. Farmers were so often rescued from the very edge of disaster by long-overdue rains that arrived just in time. Now the effects of climate change are making that scenario even less likely, and this bushfire season and drought are but a herald of things to come.

If people are to continue living in these places, “they’ve got to drastically change their relationship with the surrounding environment; they’ve got to drastically change the surrounding environment in order to be able to survive and reduce their vulnerability,” says Ross Bradstock, the director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong. “Another option is the retreat from flammable places.”

After the Black Saturday bushfires, the state government attempted to buy back land from people in the most high-risk areas who had lost their homes in the fires. Very few took up the offer. Now there’s a record-breaking drought on top of the fire threat. Dubbo—a regional New South Wales town with a population of more than 38,000 people—has all but run out of water, with its dam at just 3.7 percent of capacity and the river supplying it forecast to dry up by May of this year. Towns in Queensland are relying on charity handouts of water, even as a planned coal mine in the region is set to access billions of gallons of groundwater. The largest remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia—along with many others that have long thrived on their traditional lands—is also running out of drinking water.

Then there are the heat waves. On January 4, 2020, western Sydney became one of the hottest places on the planet, at 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48.9 degrees Celsius). “That’s uninhabitable; you can’t live in that,” Bradstock says. And there are floods—one-in-100-year floods have laid waste to Queensland twice in two years—and climate-change-related sea-level rise, which is predicted to be a significant issue for a nation whose population is concentrated in a narrow strip of land around its coastline.

To abandon parts of this land, though, will be a tough sell to people who have “stay and fight” ingrained in their soul. “There is definitely something about the Australian way that people want to stay and defend, and don’t necessarily want to think about moving away from the bush,” says Catherine Ryland, an urban planner and a bushfire-resilience expert. She would like to see more conversation around the idea of planned retreat—rebuilding in low-risk locations, reducing development in high-risk areas, and even relocating existing, unaffected communities, which she describes as the “biggest, bravest, boldest step.” And some experts are starting to consider what such steps would look like: The Planning Institute of Australia has released a national settlement strategy, for instance. It highlighted both the large parts of Australia more and more at risk from the adverse impacts of climate change and the dearth of effective planning for climate change or disaster-risk reduction.

“Everyone is suddenly starting to realize that we actually need to plan better for those things, instead of just keep sprawling out into the bush or closer to the ocean,” Ryland says.

Bowman argues that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working, so like the ANZACs at Gallipoli, we have to rethink our strategy. He has put forward the deliberately provocative idea that Australia shift the timing of its summer-holiday period to avoid having massive numbers of holidaymakers—and the businesses that rely on their coin—being displaced by bushfire. But really, he says we need far, far greater cultural change.

“We’re talking about real money, talking about bunkers, safe sites, massively changing our firefighting capacity, fire preparation, communication systems, our understanding of what nature is, our understanding of what being Australian is, our understanding of the value of water, the understanding of our relationship to other life forms, our understanding of what fire is,” he says.

It’s a big ask, and will not happen overnight. As we spoke, another day of frightening bushfire weather was forecast. Bowman had already seen the bush burn across the valley from his holiday house in Tasmania.

“I’m just worrying like hell about tomorrow.”