A patient’s respirator feeds him soot-filled air while he undergoes emergency heart surgery. An infant just out of the womb reflexively coughs before it cries. Dull grey air in the delivery room contains fine soot 30 times higher than levels considered hazardous to human health. The air inside the hospital has been thick enough, long enough, to cause asthma attacks and stillbirths.
This is Canberra — Australia’s capital — and it is the new normal in its main hospital.
Australia — virtually all of it — has been on fire since September. So far, 28 million acres have burned, 800 million wild animals have been killed, and entire ecosystems have been destroyed, with no end in sight.
Three consecutive years of record-shattering heat and drought brought this about. The odds that this run of extreme weather would occur are one in a million if Australia’s climate has not changed.
Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at Australian National University, explains that temperatures have climbed in Australia over the last half century, drying out vegetation and driving moisture from the soil. In addition, she notes, a warming Antarctica has pulled storm tracks to the south, depriving Australia of the winter rains on which it once relied. The result is stressed forests, longer fire seasons and more frequent and intense fires.
Utahns should not think for a minute that the conflagration that is gripping Australia is a tragedy that needn’t concern them. Three years of record heat and drought was enough to create the holocaust that Australians are currently experiencing. In the coming decades, America’s Central Plains and Southwest face the prospect of a drought of similar intensity but lasting 10 times as long.
In a commentary published in the Aug. 6, 2017, Salt Lake Tribune, I described a study by scientists from NASA and Columbia and Cornell universities that applied 1,000 years of climate-history data to 17 independent climate models. Those models converged on the prediction that at current rates of CO2 build up, increased heat and reduced precipitation in the America’s Central Plains and Southwest will drive much of the remaining moisture out of the soil of both regions.
Consequently, the study calculates, by the end of this century, both regions can expect a drought deeper than the 10-year Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but lasting three times as long.
Such a drought will cripple agriculture in the Central Plains — the nation’s breadbasket. It will cut the flow of the Colorado River in half, make farming and ranching in the American Southwest a distant memory, and reduce the water in kitchen sinks all across our region to a slow trickle.
It will turn the forests of the Rocky Mountains into dead kindling and increase their annual burn area by over 500 percent. In short, the era of drought and wildfire coming our way if CO2 emissions aren’t reigned in will make the conflagration now plaguing Australia a sideshow in comparison.
In the last legislative session, Utah’s governor and Legislature made a promising start toward deflecting this grim future for our state. There was a bi-partisan call to draw up a “Utah Roadmap” for moving our state toward a clean electric power and clean car infrastructure.
That Roadmap is ready for implementation. Let your representatives in the upcoming legislative session know that you want them to follow through with the Utah Roadmap and fully fund it.
After all, one continent on fire is enough.
Malin Moench, Holladay, has degrees in law and economics from the University of Utah. After 37 years of legal analysis and econometric modelling work for the federal government, he now volunteers for the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.