Murray-Darling Basin, Australia — Frank Eddy, his hands as dry and cracked as the orchards he tends, explained what damage a decade of drought has done.
“Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It’s devastation,” he said. “I’ve got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his (truck), crying his eyes out. Grown men — big, strong grown men. We’re holding on by the skin of our teeth. It’s desperate times.”
A result of climate change?
“You’d have to have your head in the bloody sand to think otherwise,” Eddy said.
They call Australia the “Lucky Country” with good reason. Generations of hardy castoffs tamed the world’s driest inhabited continent, created a robust economy and cultivated an image of resilient people who can’t be held down.
Australia exports itself as a place of captivating landscapes, brilliant sunshine, glittering beaches and an enviable lifestyle.
Look again. Climate scientists say Australia — beset by prolonged drought and deadly bush fires in the south, monsoon flooding and mosquito-borne fevers in the north, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse in agriculture and killer heat waves — epitomizes the “accelerated climate crisis” that global warming models have forecast.
With few skeptics among them, Australians appear to be awakening: Adapt to a rapidly shifting climate and soon.
Scientists here warn that the experience of this island continent is an early cautionary tale for the rest of the world.
“Australia is the harbinger of change,” said paleontologist Tim Flannery, Australia’s most vocal climate-change prophet. “The problems for us are going to be greater. The cost to Australia from climate change is going to be greater than for any developed country. We are already starting to see it. It’s tearing apart the life-support system that gives us this world.”
Connection to climate
Many here believe Australia has a death toll connected to climate change: the 173 people who died in February 2009 during the nation’s worst-ever wildfires, and 200 more who died from heat the week before.
A three-person royal commission has convened to decide, among other things, whether global warming contributed to massive bush fires that destroyed entire towns and killed a quarter of Victoria state’s koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife.
The commission’s proceedings mark the first time anywhere that climate change could be put on trial. And it will take place in a nation that still gets 80 percent of its energy from burning coal, the globe’s largest single source of greenhouse gases.
The commission’s findings aren’t due until August, but veteran firefighters, scientists and residents believe the case has already been made. Even before the flames, 200 Melbourne residents died in a heat wave that buckled the steel skeleton of a new 400-foot Ferris wheel and warped train tracks like spaghetti. Cities experienced four days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher with little humidity, and 100-mph winds. In areas where fires hit, temperatures reached 120.
On the hottest day, more than 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropped dead out of trees in one Melbourne park.
“Something is happening in Australia,” wrote firefighter Dan Condon of the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade in an open letter. “Global warming is no longer some future event that we don’t have to worry about for decades. What we have seen in the past two weeks moves Australia’s exposure to global warming to emergency status.”
The possibility that a high-profile royal commission may find a nexus between climate change and the loss of human life is significant for many scientists here.
“That will be an important moment in its own right,” said Chris Cocklin, a climate change researcher at James Cook University in Townsville, in Queensland state, and lead author on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.
“It may mean that climate change will be brought to the fore in a way that has never happened before.”
Effects on wildlife
Scientists paint a bleak picture of wildlife competing for space on peaks in the country’s alpine region. Williams and other biologists predict as much as 50 percent animal extinction in the region by the end of the century.
Chief among the candidates for extinction is the rare white lemuroid ringtail possum, a singular species that Flannery describes as “our panda.”
The pale creatures live high in trees in the 4,000 square miles of moist forest in northeast Queensland. They can’t tolerate, even for hours, temperatures above 86 degrees.
Williams’ research found that the possum was gone from one of the animal’s two historical ranges, and in the other it “has declined dramatically, to the point where you can barely detect it.”
Scientists are frustrated that such dramatic anecdotal and empirical evidence hasn’t sparked action from Australia’s government.
They suspect the inaction can be partly explained by examining the nation’s relationship with coal. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and relies on it for 80 percent of its electricity. That helps make Australia and its 21 million people the world’s highest per-capita producers of greenhouse gases in the industrialized world.
Cocklin said the power of the coal companies and the massive receipts they bring in render the industry politically untouchable.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says climate change is high on his agenda, but many here are disappointed by his pledge to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by only 5 percent by 2020.