Why is so much of Australia habitable

Climate changeAustralia's fight against the effects of global warming

At the beginning of this year, the content of the Australian daily news was upside down. Not just for the public ABC News - on all channels. The lead was not, as usual, reports from politics, world events or business, but what else comes last: the weather.

January 2019 was Australia's hottest month since weather records were recorded, with the nationwide average temperature exceeding 30 degrees for the first time. In the Murray-Darling river system, millions of fish perished in scalding water, and colonies of bats fell dead from the trees as a result of the heat. There were blackouts, and in some places the power grids collapsed. In the cities, public life only worked in slow motion. Mona and Betty Cox still failed to keep a cool head in Adelaide.

"My skin hurts and my eyes sting, it's unbearably hot." - "I can't stand this heat, even though I'm just sitting there."

New heat records almost every day

Almost 50 degrees in the outback, 47 in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne groaned below more than 45 degrees. Heat records, some of them decades old, were surpassed every day, only to be broken again straight away. Meteorologist Agata Imielska from the Australian Weather Service appeared on the evening news more often than Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Donald Trump. After nine of the ten warmest years on record, she predicts that Australia will become an even hotter place in the future.

"The Australian continent has only got a little more than one degree warmer on average, but the problem is prolonged periods of extremely high temperatures. They are heating Australia, draining wetlands, rendering soils sterile and endangering our water reserves. We still expect in the future more of those heat waves and fewer cooler months. "

Between lack of water and monsoon rains

In the south and south-east of the country, drinking water reservoirs and drinking troughs dried up, in smaller towns water became so scarce that it had to be brought in by tanker. At the same time, about 3,000 kilometers further north, no one knew where to put it.

Floods in Australia (AAP via dpa / Dan Peled)
Queensland in northeast Australia. At the end of January there was a huge monsoon system off the coast - fed by the extreme heat inland and cooler trade winds soaked with seawater. The result was torrential rains. In one week, it rained as much over the city of Townsville with 200,000 inhabitants as it usually rained all year round. Queensland Prime Minister Anastasia Palasczuk had to declare a state of emergency.

"This is an unprecedented event. Nobody here in Townsville has seen anything like it in their lifetime."

The Ross River Dam, the city's drinking water reservoir, was well over capacity and threatened to burst. To prevent a tidal wave, the locks were opened and two million liters of water were drained every second. With consequences: More than 2,000 houses were flooded, the total damage is estimated at over 200 million euros. While climate researchers were still explaining the connection between the floods and extreme temperatures, the next disaster was already occurring at the other end of the continent.

Tasmania in Hell of Fire

Tasmania on fire, heaviest bushfires in decades. 200,000 hectares of forest burned down, up to 20 fires out of control. Ironically in Tasmania, Australia's climate change oasis. A green, cool island south of the mainland. Only half a million inhabitants in an area the size of Bavaria, a natural paradise of ancient forests, lakes, plateaus and moorland. Animal species like the Tasmanian devil only live there. However, with rising temperatures, previously humid stretches of land dry out more and more, more vulnerable ecosystems, which used to be shielded as if by a lifebuoy, are now defenseless. "A lightning strike is enough," says bushfire ecologist David Bowman, and the flames stopped at nothing.

Tasmania, actually an ecological oasis of Australia, is suffering more and more often from heavy bushfires (dpa / picture-alliance / NSW Rural Fire Service / AP)

"This is the early stage of climate change. Research tells us: The temperatures are rising, it is getting drier. What we need is more rain and cooler conditions, because otherwise we have to expect that there will be regular forest fires in the future, where there actually is even." shouldn't burn. "

Warnings of a global trend

Amanda McKenzie of the Australian Climate Council warns of a global trend.

Whether in Australia, California or Europe: The season for bushfires is getting longer and longer, the fires themselves are getting stronger and more devastating. Fighting them is no longer a sprint but a marathon.

"The danger of forest fires is now all year round, it burns more frequently during the winter months than in spring. We used to share crews and equipment with California fire departments, that is no longer possible - we now need every man and every fire-fighting helicopter ourselves. We would have to provide far more financial resources to curb climate change and deal with the daily consequences of extreme weather conditions. "

Spring tides could increasingly threaten the beaches popular with locals and holidaymakers in the future (dpa-Bildfunk / AAP / Glenn Campbell)

Large parts of Australia could become uninhabitable

Bushfires, floods, storms, periods of heat and drought cost not only human lives, but billions as well. So much that insurance companies are often no longer willing to insure many Australians' belongings against damage. "Extreme weather has ruined our business in many places," admits Tim Andrews, an insurance consultant. To check whether a private home or a company should be insured or not, Andrews uses an index that he uses, based on scientific data, to create a climate-related risk factor for each application. The amount of the insurance premium is determined accordingly or the policy is rejected. Tim Andrews believes that large, inhabited parts of Australia could become uninsurable due to climate change - unless taxpayers are held accountable in an emergency.

"Insurers are already weighing up: Has the risk of a flood in a certain area increased or decreased, or how great is the probability of a hurricane? Anyone who lives in a well-known bushfire region, for example, will not be able to afford the insurance premiums. A kind of disaster tax could help. But one of our greatest challenges in the future will be to only build houses in safe, suitable locations. "

Save what can be saved

On Narrabeen Beach in north Sydney. The crescent-shaped, gently curved bay just ten minutes by car from the city center is a Mecca for water-hungry people, surfers and the playground for families splashing around.

Engineer Ian Astley is living the Australian dream. A house with a view of the sea, steps to the beach, the surf as background music. At the end of his property, behind a waist-high hedge, there used to be a whitewashed picket fence with a garden gate, behind which a few steps led down to the beach. But the stairs, the fence and the hedge disappeared for two months, washed away by the meter-high waves of a spring tide.

Ian Astley tries to save what can be saved. Three truckloads of chunky boulders are supposed to stabilize the embankment and prevent it from losing any more of the land. If climate researchers are right, then Ian and his neighbors will have to expect even more extreme weather in the future. With even stronger storms and even higher tidal waves near the coast.

"We feel helpless and there is nothing we can do but wait for the next storm. We watch our properties slowly slide into the sea."

The streets and fields around the city of Townsville in northeast Australia after heavy rainfall (dpa / Andrew Rankin)

Alarming results

International climate experts agree: by the end of this century, the sea level on Australia's coasts should rise by at least 80 centimeters. The government has specially commissioned a non-partisan committee with coastal, climate researchers and urban planners to investigate the possible consequences. The result is alarming.

"If the prognosis is correct," admits Jenny George, the committee's spokeswoman, then sooner or later the owners of a million Australian private houses with sea views would be up to their necks.

"We saw beaches that were practically washed away. Beaches that were only there because they had been backfilled with tons of sand or were secured with sandbags. Countless houses on the coast were washed away and on the verge of collapsing. All over Australia we encountered the early consequences of climate change. "

Climate change has an impact on Australia's construction industry

No country in the world has built as close to the water as Australia. Over 20 of the approximately 25 million inhabitants live on the coast, all large cities are by the sea. The beach is part of the Australian identity, the symbol of a carefree, open outdoor and leisure society, the coastal regions are the backbone of economic prosperity. But more and more frequent spring tides and floods are literally gnawing at the Australian way of life. Ignoring the warning signs, believes economist Bruce Thom, would cost the whole country dearly.

"Most of our roads, railways, ports or airports are on the coast. Should sea levels rise, infrastructure worth 130 billion euros is at risk. The economic damage would be astronomical if we do not bring this problem under control."

The government's climate committee has created flood hazard zones for all inhabited coastal regions of Australia - computer simulations that show which areas are threatened at what level. Researchers calculate: for every meter the sea level rises, the coast moves 100 meters inland. Municipalities are already increasingly rejecting building applications for plots that are at risk of flooding in the future. In Byron Bay on the east coast, homes will have to be demolished or relocated - at the owner's expense - if the sea comes closer than 20 meters to the property's fence. Felicity Lewis from the Australian Association of Cities fears that millions will have to be spent today to prevent billions from being dumped later.

"Many insurance premiums are now so high that they have become almost unaffordable for homeowners and landowners. The disadvantage is that building codes in coastal regions are regulated differently in practically every state. This is a great challenge for local governments."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is unreasonable on climate protection (AFP / Mark Graham)

Criticism of the Australian government

Flood barriers such as Ian Astley's stone wall on Narrabeen Beach are just tinkering with symptoms, but the causes of extreme weather conditions are largely ignored by the government. According to surveys, almost 90 percent of Australians fear the consequences of climate change more than they fear terrorism. It is all the more incomprehensible for the journalist Eryk Bagshaw that the conservative government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison - secretly, quietly and quietly - said goodbye to the resolutions of the Paris climate conference and the introduction of statutory emission targets.

"Conservatives always have to assure their electorate that they take climate change seriously. Nevertheless, the government has not had a well thought-out energy policy or a serious climate policy for years. The last time there was an attempt by powerful interest groups that was only half-hearted, it was torpedoed."

The interest group that has absolutely no interest in tightened climate laws is coal mining, Australia's second largest export industry. When the Labor government at the time wanted to introduce emissions trading to limit Australia's emissions in 2010, the plan was literally undermined by a multi-million dollar media campaign by the coal lobby.

There was a change of government that Conservative Liberals took over. New mines or the expansion of existing pits were waved through unbureaucratically, coal-fired electricity was preferred, and the promotion of alternative energies such as wind, solar or wave power was neglected. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a climate change skeptic. For a budget debate he brought a lump of coal into Parliament, held it up at the lectern and spoke of the black gold to which Australia owes its prosperity. Amanda McKenzie from the non-partisan climate council was "stunned", as she says, in the stands. Prime Minister Morrison is Australia's Emperor Nero, who is only fiddling while Rome is on fire.

"Many, including myself, are asking themselves: What should the future look like for my children if I have already witnessed such severe climate changes during my lifetime? Will large parts of Australia still be habitable in 2050 with constantly rising temperatures? Politicians must act today. The The only ones who react are individual state and local governments that are shutting down coal-fired power plants or wanting to be as carbon-neutral as possible. If we actually achieve the emissions targets of the Paris Climate Conference, then only through their initiatives and not through the government doing nothing. "

Schoolchildren get mobile for more climate protection

Truancy against climate policy. Last November, thousands of students took to the streets instead of classes in 20 Australian cities. "We want our future back", they shouted and protested because, in their eyes, the government was doing far too little against climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia: Coral death clearly shows the impact climate change has on the environment. (dpa / picture alliance / James Cook University)

In May there will be elections in Australia, the Labor Opposition wants to make climate policy the main topic. Record heat in the south and floods of the century in the northeast, millions of dead fish in overheated river systems and massive coral deaths on the Great Barrier Reef, devastating bushfires in Tasmania and spring tides on the coasts: the consequences of climate change have never been more visible or noticeable. Nonetheless, the government insists that nothing that little Australia does or doesn't do can change it anywhere in the world. For the Tasmanian author and environmental activist Richard Flanagan, this is a declaration of bankruptcy. He wonders: If not act now, then when? The Australian way of life is at stake. No more and no less.

"Australian summers are no longer a time of innocent joy. We await them with uneasiness and a fear that lasts not a few days but often weeks or months. Our rivers are dying, our electricity supply collapsing. Extreme weather all over the country is becoming more and more common and a nuisance, threatens our lives and our quality of life. The future is not only terrifying, it scares me. "