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Yvonne Abraham

Australia right now offers a sense of how bad climate change can be

Tourists took photos of a smoke-shrouded Sydney and the Harbour Bridge.Jenny Evans/Getty Images/Getty Images

Want a sense of how bad climate change can get before we’ll act? Take a look at my homeland.

Lately, text messages from my siblings look like dispatches from a dystopian future.

“Where’s the bridge?” one of my sisters typed, beneath a picture she’d snapped from the Sydney Opera House, where she works mostly outside. The frame was filled with smoke. Zooming in, you could just make out part of the Harbour Bridge, a quick hop across the bay by ferry — though the ferries were docked by the blinding smoke.

There was no getting away from it: For weeks, ferocious, deadly wildfires have been burning through millions of acres on Australia’s east coast, sending dangerously polluted air into my family’s eyes, lungs, and homes.


In the last few days, the pictures of smoke have given way to profanity-laden screenshots of forecasts predicting ridiculous, early summer temperatures — 109 degrees, even in temperate Melbourne, for example, with even hotter, record-breaking days to come.

What might seem to some here like the abstract consequences of a warming planet are unfolding all around Australians, impossible to ignore: killing droughts; dying reefs; the growing likelihood of climate refugees displaced from the country’s inhospitable center.

And all of it is happening not in some remote developing nation, but in one of the richest and whitest countries on Earth.

And yet there, too, catastrophic inaction is the order of the day. A nation that took climate change seriously enough to enact a carbon tax a few years ago is now led by a government in denial. The tax, which actually reduced emissions, was repealed under political pressure, and made a casualty of at least one prime minister. The country is now led by politicians at odds with science and good sense. Those trying to slow the environmental slide are denounced as urban elitists by cynical, fake-populist politicians, who have convinced voters to dismiss what is falling away around them.


I hope this sounds familiar, America.

And the beat-down goes on. A massive new coal mine was recently approved in Queens-land, arguably the state most threatened by climate change. A conservative prime minister, reelected in May largely courtesy of those same Queenslanders, has minimized the role of climate even as wildfires grow in frequency and severity. He and his fellow know-nothings will brook no talk of the environment while the fires rage. The government and the economy bow to the fossil fuel industry, on which both have become dependent.

Again, ring a bell?

What Australia demonstrates is that climate change denialism overrides not just rationality, but even our survival instinct. There’s no consoling oneself with the notion that, once the environmental harm is obvious to the average voter, the government will finally act — there or here.

President Trump has sped us backward, undoing already-inadequate environmental rules, turning over large chunks of the federal government to fossil fuel shills, and flaunting his breathtaking ignorance about wind and solar power to adoring crowds who seem grateful he has freed them from the tyranny of the elite, and low-flow toilets.

Is it any wonder some of our students are walking out of school, enraged and mobilized? That environmental activists are risking their safety to stand in front of coal trains, as they did over the last couple of weeks in West Boylston and Ayer? What else is there to do but try to make more people recognize the disasters now in plain sight for what they are?


“A coal train rolls through a community, you see it for a few minutes, then it’s gone,” said Marla Marcum, director of the Climate Disobedience Center, which has led the blockades of trains headed for a Bow, N.H., power plant. “We don’t have to say yes to this any more.”

No, we really don’t.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com