TODAY'S PAPER
41° Good Evening
41° Good Evening
Crews monitor fires and begin back burns between

Crews monitor fires and begin back burns between the towns of Orbost and Lakes Entrance in east Gippsland, Australia, on Thursday. Credit: Getty Images / Darrian Traynor

The fire was consuming Mallacoota, where Don Ashby had lived for decades. He already had evacuated his family from the coastal town in southeastern Australia to the safety of Melbourne. Now, watching the relentless march of the flames, he was resigned to losing his house, which he later did.

"When people look back," he told the BBC last week, "they'll say this was the end of something."

Ashby might have been referring to life as it has been known in Mallacoota, a resort town swelled by vacationers in summer, the season now in Australia. Rebuilding towns is difficult, restoring the tourist trade might be harder.

More consequential would be if Ashby was foreseeing a different end — the death of ignorance about what's going on in Australia.

The fires ravaging the continent have burned 15 million acres — nearly three times the acreage burned in California's wildfires in the last five years combined — destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed at least 18 people.

The images have been horrifying — skies alternately black and blood-red, air choked with soot and swirling embers, people wearing breathing masks and goggles, smoke blanketing Sydney hundreds of miles away. Huge portions of Australia look like some Mad Max landscape, while victims hemmed in by flames in places like Mallacoota huddle on beaches like Dunkirk's survivors, waiting for a miracle rescue from sea.

But the fires are only one of many natural calamities to beset Australia, all of which have at their root a warming climate. And they underscore dramatically the mushrooming threats to other corners of the world, including ours.

The country's exquisite Great Barrier Reef is dying, its technicolor corals bleached by a warming ocean. As the reef goes, so does habitat for myriad fish, turtles and birds, and the $4.5 billion it pumps annually into Australia's economy.

Australia's giant kelp forests have largely disappeared; rising ocean temperatures attracted an invasive species of sea urchin, which devoured the kelp, turning a rich and complex ecosystem teeming with marine biodiversity into an underwater wasteland. 

The nation’s world-heritage tropical rainforests, long considered "permanently wet," are burning for the first time, endangering rare species; recovery is uncertain.

The continent's severe and ongoing drought has left many communities with dangerously little water. Some already are trucking it in. Many residents put buckets at their feet during showers, to reuse the water.

As for the fires, bush fires are common in Australia but scientists say record-low rains, record-high temperatures and strong winds, all influenced by climate change, have made this burn season worse.

Words like "apocalypse" and "dystopian" are overused these days, but they are utterly appropriate descriptors of the bleak future this portends.

Australia's prime minister, Scott Morrison, a climate change skeptic and coal industry supporter — the nation produces one-third of all the coal exported worldwide — once waved a lump of coal in parliament as he exclaimed, "This is coal — don't be afraid!" Morrison, who went on vacation in Hawaii as the fires wreaked havoc, was scorned by New South Wales residents when he returned and paid them a visit. But his words of support were undercut by his actions, like his defense of coal mining for the jobs it produces. Morrison has promised to ban climate change protests, but insists Australia will meet its very modest 2030 emissions targets; the UN says that's "unlikely."

Morrison is like one of those Washington state drivers buried last week by tumbleweeds, ensconced in their cars, incapable of seeing what's going on outside. Except in Morrison's case, even the tumbleweeds are on fire.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Columns