How bad could it get? A recent study by MIT projects that without "rapid and massive action" to cut carbon pollution, the Earth's temperature could soar by nine degrees this century. "There are no analogies in human history for a temperature jump of that size in such a short time period," says Tony McMichael, an epidemiologist at Australian National University. The few times in human history when temperatures fell by seven degrees, he points out, the sudden shift likely triggered a bubonic plague in Europe, caused the abrupt collapse of the Moche civilization in Peru and reduced the entire human race to as few as 1,000 breeding pairs after a volcanic eruption blocked out the sun some 73,000 years ago. "We think that because we are a technologically sophisticated society, we are less vulnerable to these kinds of dramatic shifts in climate," McMichael says. "But in some ways, because of the interconnectedness of our world, we are morevulnerable."
With nine degrees of warming, computer models project that Australia will look like a disaster movie. Habitats for most vertebrates will vanish. Water supply to the Murray-Darling Basin will fall by half, severely curtailing food production. Rising sea levels will wipe out large parts of major cities and cause hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage to coastal homes and roads. The Great Barrier Reef will be reduced to a pile of purple bacterial slime. Thousands of people will die from heat waves and other extreme weather events, as well as mosquito-borne infections like dengue fever. Depression and suicide will become even more common among displaced farmers and Aborigines. Dr. James Ross, medical director for Australia's Remote Area Health Corps, calls climate change "the number-one challenge for human health in the 21st century."
And all this doesn't even hint at the political complexities Australia will face in a hotter world, including an influx of refugees from poorer climate-ravaged nations. ("If you want to understand Australian politics," says Anthony Kitchener, an Australian entrepreneur, "the first thing you have to understand is our fear of yellow hordes from the north.") Then there are the economic costs. The Queensland floods earlier this year caused $30 billion in damage and forced the government to implement a $1.8 billion "flood tax" to help pay for reconstruction. As temperatures rise, so will the price tag. "We can't afford to spend 10 percent of our GDP building sea walls and trying to adapt to climate change," says Ian Goodwin, a climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney.
With so much at risk, you might expect Australia to be at the forefront of the clean-energy revolution and the international effort to cut carbon pollution. After all, the continent's vast, empty deserts were practically designed for solar-power installations. And unlike the U.S. Congress, the Australian Parliament did ratify the Kyoto Protocol, pledging to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050. But it was an empty gesture. Australia remains deeply addicted to coal, which not only provides 80 percent of its electricity but serves as its leading export. Perhaps more than any other nation on earth, Australia is trapped by the devil's bargain of fossil fuels: In the short term, the health of the nation's economy depends on burning coal. But in the long term, the survival of its people depends on quitting coal. Australia's year of extreme weather has reawakened calls for a tax on carbon pollution, but it is far from clear that the initiative will pass, or, in the big picture, whether it will matter much. "What we are ultimately talking about is how climate change is destabilizing one of the most advanced nations on the planet," says Paul Gilding, an Australian climate adviser and author of The Great Disruption. "If Australia is vulnerable, everyone is vulnerable."
The morning after Yasi, I emerge from my hotel to find a few broken windows and downed trees. The flooding isn't as bad as had been feared, but the hurricane has still turned the region upside down: roofs blown off houses, trees down, sailboats in the streets, traffic backed up for miles. "This is bringing a world of hurt to people," one trucker tells me as we wait in line for the road to open.
In the following days, there is much speculation in the Aussie press about whether or not Yasi was "caused" by global warming. Most media outlets gloss over the complexities of the science – an unsurprising omission, given that Australia is home to Rupert Murdoch's media empire – and instead reassure readers that hurricanes have been hitting Queensland for thousands of years. One of the major drivers of the storm, they insist, was a particularly strong La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific.
That's true – but it's only part of the story. Thanks to record-high levels of carbon in the atmosphere, surface temperatures in the ocean near Australia last year were the highest ever recorded – nearly one degree above normal. And climate scientists have long warned that warmer oceans increase the risk of faster, more deadly hurricanes. "We realized way back in 1987 that CO2-induced warming would increase the speed limit on hurricanes," Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, has said. "It surprised us how much power increase you got with just a little bit of increase in the sea-surface temperature."
Murdoch's papers also failed to point out that the more coal the country burns and exports, the fiercer its hurricanes are likely to become. "Unless we start reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere soon," says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, "the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future."
Australia, in fact, has been getting a glimpse of the global-warming future for more than two decades. What Australians call "The Big Dry" began in the early 1990s and quickly grew worse, with a dozen years of below-average rainfall. Drinking-water reservoirs for Melbourne, with a population of 4 million people, were soon depleted. Topsoil from farms started to dry up and blow away – one dust cloud was nearly 1,000 miles long and 250 miles wide. In Sydney, the dust storms were so bad they shut down the airport and ferry service, forcing people to stay indoors. In a single day, scientists estimated, several million tons of topsoil had been stripped from deserts and farms and blown out to sea. As Dianne Thorley, the mayor of a small city in the drought-stricken Murray-Darling Basin, told a reporter, "Australia is drying up, a little bit like a dried apple."
In a sense, Australia is a creation of human ingenuity. Of the six inhabited continents, Australia is the driest. Except for a tropical belt in the north and some temperate areas in the southeast, the entire place is a desert. The fact that 22 million people can inhabit the continent is a tribute to engineers, who have figured out a way to extract enough water out of the ground and collect it in enough reservoirs to allow Australians to grow tomatoes and take hot showers whenever they please. Indeed, the greatest engineering achievement in Australia may be the construction of an elaborate network of canals and waterways that transformed the Murray-Darling Basin, a formerly scrubby wasteland covering 1 million square miles in southeastern Australia, into an agricultural wonderland. The basin now produces about 40 percent of the nation's food, enabling Australia to become a major exporter of wheat.
But that engineering triumph has come at a cost. The industrial-scale farming operations that took over the basin have depleted nutrients in the soil, sucked rivers dry and replaced deep-rooted indigenous plants well-adapted to Australia's extreme climate with shallow-rooted crops that need constant irrigation to survive. As a result, all the extra water being pumped into the land has raised the water table in many places, releasing salt deposits into the soil. "Salinity is not just poisoning the soil, it is also wrecking the water supply for people downstream," says Billy Squire, an environmental activist in the basin. "It is a slow-motion disaster."