The unprecedented conditions have seen many Australians rethinking their attitude to climate change. A good friend of mine farms just outside Canberra. A few years ago the drought was so severe that his 300 year-old gum trees died of thirst. Then the rains came on so violently that they stripped the precious topsoil, filling his dams with mud and sheep droppings. Last week he watched as his cousin’s property at Yass was reduced to ashes.
When I called he was trying to secure his own historic homestead from fire. He asked me if I thought the family would still be farming the area 50 years from now. All I could say was that it depended upon how quickly Australia and the world reduced their greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia’s average temperature has increased by just 0.9?C over the past century. Within the next 90 years they are on track to warm by at least another 3?C. Having seen what 0.9 of a degree has done to heat waves and fire extremes, I dread to think about the kind of country my grandchildren will live in. Large parts of the continent will be uninhabitable, not just by humans, but by Australia’s spectacular biodiversity as well.
The extreme conditions last week have raised the political heat around climate change. The Greens party condoned an anti-coal activist who created a false press release claiming that ANZ bank had withdrawn support for a major coal project, causing its share price to plunge.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Warren Truss of the National Party of Australia said it was simplistic to link the hot spell to climate change and “utterly simplistic to suggest that we have these fires because of climate change.”
Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and the mining lobby is exceptionally strong. As calls to combat climate change have increased, the miners have argued that “mom and dad investors” will lose out if any effort is made to reduce the export or use of fossil fuels.
However, the smart money is no longer backing fossil fuels. In South Australia, wind energy has gone from 1 percent to 26 percent of the mix in just seven years, and nationally solar panel installations are 13 years ahead of official projections. Last year, Australia led the world in terms of number of individual solar installations.
And finally, with a carbon price in place, Australia’s emissions curve is beginning to flatten out. Despite these efforts, Australians are already enduring the kind of conditions they had hoped to avoid if strong, early action had been taken. Now, more than ever, they are in a race against time to avoid a truly catastrophic outcome.