BRUNY ISLAND, Australia — The name of the future is Australia.
These words come from it, and they may be your tomorrow: P2 masks, evacuation orders, climate refugees, ocher skies, warning sirens, ember storms, blood suns, fear, air purifiers and communities reduced to third-world camps.
Billions of dead animals and birds bloating and rotting. Hundreds of Indigenous cultural and spiritual sites damaged or destroyed by bush fires, so many black Notre Dames — the physical expression of Indigenous Australians’ spiritual connection to the land severed, a final violence after centuries of dispossession.
Everywhere there is a brittle grief, and it may be as much for what is coming as for what is gone.
The dairy farmer Farran Terlich, whose properties in the South Coast were razed in a firestorm that killed two of his friends, described the blaze as “a raging ocean.” “These communities are destroyed across the board,” he said, “and most people are running dead.”
Dead, too, is a way of life.
Many homes will not be allowed to be rebuilt in threatened areas. Where they are allowed, they may not be affordable because of new building codes; if built, they may not be insurable. Local economies, like local ecosystems, may never recover.
A new survey estimates that more than half of all Australians have been directly affected by the fires, with millions suffering adverse health effects. The economic damage keeps growing, the total cost placed at about $100 billion Australian dollars (more than $68 billion), and rising. Gross domestic product is already impacted. Australia’s central bank has announced that it may be forced to buy up coal mines and other fossil fuel assets to avoid an economic collapse.
“This is what you can expect to happen,” said Richard Betts, a professor of geography at Exeter University in Britain, if the temperature increases by an average of three degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. “It tells us what the future world might look like.”
To describe this terrifying new reality, a terrifying new idea: “omnicide.” As used by Danielle Celermajer, a professor of sociology at the University of Sydney specializing in human rights, the term invokes a crime we have previously been unable to imagine because we had never before witnessed it.
Ms. Celermajer argues that “ecocide,” the killing of ecosystems, is inadequate to describe the devastation of Australia’s fires. “This is something more,” she has written. “This is the killing of everything. Omnicide.”
What does the future look like where omnicide is the norm?
According to the American climatologist Michael Mann, “It is conceivable that much of Australia simply becomes too hot and dry for human habitation.”
Australia’s situation is now no different from that of low-lying Pacific islands confronting imminent destruction from rising seas. Yet when last August those states protested against the Australian government’s refusal to act on climate change, Australia’s deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said, “I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive.”
Today Australia has only one realistic chance to, you know, survive: Join other countries like those Pacific nations whose very future is now in question and seek to become an international leader in fighting for far stronger global action on climate change. But to do that it would first have to take decisive action domestically.
Anything less and Australia will be lost to its climate catastrophe as surely as Tuvalu will be to rising oceans.
“We say emissions are going down and they are going up. We say investment in renewables is higher than ever, but it’s falling because of the policy mess we have created,” an unnamed government member of Parliament told The Sydney Morning Herald. “It is little wonder we have no credibility on this issue.”
According to a recent United Nations report, what is happening in Australia is “one of the world’s largest fossil fuel expansions,” with proposals for 53 new coal mines.
Australia’s fossil fuel industry is already huge, thanks to massive taxpayer subsidies — some $29 billion in 2015, according to a 2019 paper by the International Monetary Fund. Every Australian man, woman and child is underwriting their own apocalypse to the tune of $1,198 a year.
And yet only 37,800 people are employed in coal mining.
According to John Hewson, a former leader of the conservative Liberal Party, Mr. Morrison “is almost totally beholden to the fossil fuel lobby. Several of his senior staff are ex-coal executives; a couple of his key ministers have coal industry links; fossil fuel companies are major donors.”
Mr. Morrison now claims he accepts that climate change and the fires are linked, a connection he previously denied, and is talking up “resilience and adaptation” in response.
But how does a nation adapt to its own murder?
After some weeks of being widely criticized for his incompetent and emotionally stunted response to the fires, Mr. Morrison is now implausibly arguing that hazard-reduction burns are more important than emissions reductions in dealing with bush fires, even though eminent scientists and fire chiefs have repeatedly said this is untrue.
It’s as if in the middle of the Blitz, Winston Churchill announced that rubble removal was more important than dealing with the Luftwaffe in fighting Hitler.
With no measure to even contain domestic emissions, the government’s policies are predictably supported by the fossil fuel industry and its fellow travelers, like Siemens, which recently announced that it was pressing ahead with its work as a contractor on the controversial Adani coal mine. After notoriously profiteering from the genocide of Europe’s Jews, the company is now is willing to profiteer from the omnicide of Australia.
If Mr. Morrison’s government genuinely believed the science, it would immediately put a price on carbon, declare a moratorium on all new fossil fuel projects and transfer the fossil fuel subsidies to the renewables industries. It would go to the next round of global climate talks in Glasgow in November allied with other nations on the front line of this crisis and argue for quicker and deeper cuts to carbon emissions around the world. Anything less is to collaborate in the destruction of a country.
But the government is intent on doing nothing.
And to the names of those historic betrayers of their people — Vidkun Quisling, Benedict Arnold, Mir Jafar — perhaps one day will be added that of Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia who, when faced with the historic tragedy of his country’s destruction, dissembled, enabled, subsidized and oversaw omnicide, until all was ash and even the future was no more.
Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize for “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” and is the author, most recently, of the novel “First Person.”