It’s time to panic — right here — but first a quick detour. Tasmania is burning.
As I write this, fire is 500 metres from the largest King Billy pine forest in the world on Mt Bobs, an ancient forest that dates back to the last Ice Age and has trees over 1,000 years old. Fire has broached the boundaries of Mt Field national park with its glorious alpine vegetation, unlike anything on the planet. Fire laps at the edges of Federation Peak, Australia’s grandest mountain, and around the base of Mt Anne with its exquisite rainforest and alpine gardens. Fire laps at the border of the Walls of Jerusalem national park with its labyrinthine landscapes of tarns and iconic stands of ancient pencil pine . . .
Five years ago I was contacted by a stranger, Prof Peter Davies, an eminent water scientist. He wanted to meet because he had news he thought would interest me. The night we met Davies told me that the south-west of Tasmania – the island’s vast, uninhabited and globally unique wildland, the heart of its world heritage area – was dying. The iconic habitats of rainforest, button grass plains, and heathlands had begun to vanish because of climate change.
I was shocked. I had understood that climate change’s effects on Tasmania would be significant but not disastrous; the changes mitigated by Tasmania being surrounded by seas that were not heating as quickly as others: the island’s west would get wetter, the east a little warmer and drier, but compared to much of the world it didn’t seem catastrophic.
But it wasn’t so. . . .
Of course, we barely know where Tasmania is. But we know where Florida and Louisiana are. It would be a shame if they were underwater at high tide. Same with Lower Manhattan.
It’s Time to Panic, as you may have read in last Sunday’s New York Times.
“If we don’t take action . . . the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
Technology is racing to meet the challenge. Bill Gates is thinking a lot about cow farts and helping to develop meatless meat and self-contained toilets — watch his ultimately upbeat 7 minutes here if for some reason you missed Fareed Zakaria this past Sunday.
But in the meantime, shouldn’t we be eating much less meat? Boiling no more water than the amount of coffee we plan to drink? Turning the lights off when we leave the room? Setting the thermostat at least as low in the winter as we do in the summer; at least as high in the summer as we do in the winter?
Time to Panic argues: that stuff’s nice, but it is collective action, through politics, we need to take.
So in addition to walking or biking instead of driving, when you can, how about taking 1o minutes to read Time to Panic . . . and ten more to send it to your Republican friends?
Back to Tasmania:
. . . Then there was the startlingly new phenomenon of widespread dry lightning storms. Almost unknown in Tasmania until this century they had increased exponentially since 2000, leading to a greatly increased rate of fire in a rapidly drying south-west. Compounding all this, winds were also growing in duration, further drying the environment and fuelling the fires’ spread and ferocity. . . .
. . . Later Davies took me on a research trip into a remote part of the south-west to show me the deeply upsetting sight of an area that was once peatland and forest and was now, after repeated burning, wet gravel. The news was hard to comprehend – the enemies of Tasmania’s wild lands had always had local addresses: the Hydro Electricity Commission, Gunns, various tourism ventures. They could be named and they could be fought, and, in some cases, beaten.
But the new danger was not here. It was in the sky, it was carbon, and every year there was more of it. The name of the crime was climate change.
Six weeks ago, the future that Davies and others had been predicting arrived in Tasmania. Lightning strikes ignited what would become known as the Gell River fire in the island’s south-west. In later weeks more lightning strikes led to more fires, every major one of which is still burning. . . .
. . . Today Tasmania is burning. Its fires are so large that a firefighting team was reportedly called out in New Zealand to investigate a heavy smoke haze that turned out to have drifted across 2,500km of ocean from the Tasmanian fires. Firefighters are confronted with 1,629km of fire front, with fires having consumed 190,000 hectares, or 3% of Tasmania’s land, with authorities warning there is no sign of the fires abating for several weeks, and the potential for catastrophic consequences still a distinct possibility. . . .
Politics apparently plays a role in Tasmania, too. Where here we have an imbecilic Senate committee chairman holding up a snowball, the Tasmanians have a prime minister holding up a lump of coal.
. . . Scott Morrison’s proudest boast is that when the barbarians were at the gate, he stopped them. But now the truth is clear: the barbarians were never at the gate. They were always here, in the palace, in power, and they were blinding us with their lie that the enemies who would destroy our world were the wretched and powerless who sought asylum here. And all along our real enemy was them: those who held up lumps of coal in front of their throne, and laughed and laughed . . .
What has become clear over these last four weeks across this vast, beautiful land of Australia is that a way of life is on the edge of vanishing. Australian summers, once a time of innocent pleasure, now are to be feared, to be anticipated not with joy but with dread, a time of discomfort, distress and, for some, fear that lasts not a day or a night but weeks and months. Power grids collapse, dying rivers vomit huge fish kills, while in the north, in Townsville, there are unprecedented floods, and in the south heat so extreme it pushes at the very edge of liveability has become everyday.
And the future in which the people of Tasmania now find themselves, in the evacuation centres, camped in friends’ and family homes, fighting fires day after week after month, isn’t just frightening. It’s terrifying. While Morrison, now the prime minister, rushes around the country trying to scare the people about franking credits, he seems blithely unaware that the people are already scared – about climate change.
Climate change isn’t just happening. It’s happening far quicker than has been predicted. Each careful scientific prediction is rapidly overtaken by the horror of profound natural changes that seem to be accelerating, with old predictions routinely outdone by the worsening reality – hotter, colder, wetter, drier, windier, wilder, and ever more destructive. . . .
It is beginning to look as though Mars may once have had water on its surface. Perhaps life. Should we really assume, as the Republican Party largely does, that dumping 90 million tons of global-warming pollution a day into the atmosphere — day after day, week after week, year after year — won’t have an effect on that atmosphere? Won’t throw our fragile ecosystem out of kilter? Are we really such poor stewards of this miraculous blue marble as not to spring to Mother Nature’s defense?
It’s Time to Panic.
Quote of the Day
Governments are necessarily continuing concerns. They have to keep going in good times and bad. They therefore need a wide margin of safety. If taxes and debt are made all the people can bear when times are good, there will be certain disaster when times are bad.~Calvin Coolidge
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