In the past year – one of the hottest on record – extreme weather has battered almost every corner of the planet. There have been devastating droughts in China and India, unprecedented floods and wildfires in the United States, and near-record ice melts in the Arctic. Yet the prosperous nations of the world have failed to take action to reduce the risk of climate change, in part because people in prosperous nations think they’re invulnerable. They’re under the misapprehension that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Tom Schelling puts it, “Global warming is a problem that is going to primarily affect future generations of poor people.” To see how foolish this reasoning is, one need only look at Australia, a prosperous nation that also happens to be right in the cross hairs of global warming. “Sadly, it’s probably too late to save much of it,” says Joe Romm, a leading climate advocate who served as assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration.
This is not to say that the entire continent will sink beneath the waves anytime soon. What is likely to vanish – or be transformed beyond recognition – are many of the things we think of when we think of Australia: the barrier reef, the koalas, the sense of the country as a land of almost limitless natural resources. Instead, Australia is likely to become hotter, drier and poorer, fractured by increasing tensions over access to water, food and energy as its major cities are engulfed by the rising seas.
To climate scientists, it’s no surprise that Australia would feel the effects of climate change so strongly, in part because it has one of the world’s most variable climates. “One effect of increasing greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere is to amplify existing climate signals,” says Karoly. “Regions that are dry get drier, and regions that are wet get wetter. If you have a place like Australia that is already extreme, those extremes just get more pronounced.” Adding to Australia’s vulnerability is its close connection with the sea. Australia is the only island continent on the planet, which means that changes caused by planet-warming pollution – warmer seas, which can drive stronger storms, and more acidic oceans, which wreak havoc on the food chain – are even more deadly here.