Sixty years ago, the movie On the Beach portrayed Australia as a distant land where humanity’s last survivors perished after a global apocalypse. I can’t be the only one who thought of that when 4,000 desperate people fled to a beach in southeastern Australia to escape horrific wildfires caused by extreme drought and heat and exacerbated by climate change.
The scale of the destruction is hard to fathom. Nearly 18,000,000 acres have burned (an area the size of Indiana). At least 27 people have been killed, with many more missing. Thousands of homes have been destroyed. The toll on wildlife could extend to a billion animals, including as many as 8,000 koalas. Some species might even go extinct. The choking smoke, responsible for air pollution levels 20 times greater than a hazardous level, reached New Zealand, a thousand miles away.
It’s heartbreaking, and the world’s first response has to be concern and compassion (find out how you can help fire victims here). But the nations of the world — and particularly their leaders — also need to see this tragedy for the warning it is. Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather, but not uniquely so. Sooner or later, every nation in the world will experience hazardous effects from the climate crisis. If we don’t cut emissions dramatically and rapidly, our world will become unrecognizable.
Perhaps one-third of all Australians will be directly affected by the current wildfires, which could burn for months, and some things will never be the same. Before this latest disaster, and in spite of a disinformation campaign by the country’s dominant Rupert Murdoch-owned media empire, most Australians believed their government should do more to curb climate change. Instead, they’ve gotten the opposite.
The Australian government is not only backpedaling on already weak emissions reduction targets but also preparing to ramp up coal exports. Australia already exports more coal and gas than any other nation, and it’s been ranked as having the worst climate policies of the 61 countries that account for 90% of greenhouse gas emissions. (If it’s any consolation, Australia, Donald Trump’s US is hot on your heels in second-to-last place.)
We must never forget that this is a global crisis. Today, tragedy has struck Australia. Tomorrow, it could happen in the US or anywhere — as it already has. And what needs to happen next in Australia is only what needs to happen everywhere. Anger and frustration must be channeled into a rejection of delusional policymaking like the Trump administration’s recent proposal to exclude climate change from infrastructure planning. If our leaders refuse to work on solutions and instead perpetuate — or even accelerate — problems, then we need better leaders.
Otherwise, we all could end up on the beach.