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Under the Australian Sun

Is this the way heat’s supposed to be?

Did I want to take a selfie of my fluorescent dye-stained cornea while the doctor, under a junkie-repellent blue light, poked around its edges with a tiny disinfected exploratory paddle in search of the foreign object that had kept me up through the marshy night, sending tears that were sometimes magmatic, sometimes thin and exhausted, rolling from the half-open lids of my agitated right eye? To be honest, this wasn’t a question I had prepared for on the short, bleary walk up to the medical center. But now that I found myself lying on the examination bed with fluorescein flooding my face, the answer was not hard to reach: yes, yes I did want to take a selfie. We were only two weeks into the latest Australian heat wave and my exhibitionist instincts were still sharp. What is suffering for, if not to be shared on social media? I snapped a couple of quick pics then let the doctor get on with things. After more prodding and peering, she delivered the verdict: I had a corneal abrasion.

The day before, I’d gone to the beach, trekking across inner Sydney to Nielsen Park, a placid bay in the far eastern reaches of the harbor that’s blessedly free of the wankers who crowd the city’s bigger, more famous beaches like Bondi and Manly. Even with sunglasses and cap on to shield my face from the whipping wind, grains of sand had jammed into my eyes, leading to a night of weeping discomfort. “But,” the doctor concluded, “the sand is out of your eye now.” All I had to do was spend the rest of the day indoors, in the dark, with my eyes closed, and I’d be all right. As I walked home from the medical center, comforted by diagnosis even as my scratched cornea’s tears mixed into the dye left over from the examination, the whole episode began to take on the allure of a charming summer misadventure. But the punishment was just beginning.

I’ve lived in New York for more than a decade but I go back to my native Sydney once a year, usually around January, when it’s the middle of summer here. Australians take a perverse pride in the harshness of the country’s climate: among the first things I learned as a schoolkid was that Australia is “the oldest and driest continent on earth,” and only occasionally did teachers bother to add the qualification, “after Antarctica.” And it’s true: the Australian environment is merciless. Under the American sun you feel warmed. Under the Australian sun you feel examined. You feel found out, as if the sun is poring over your body in search of any pocket of skin left untorched by its ultraviolet light.  

But life on the coast, where most Australians huddle, bears little resemblance to the realities of subsistence in the country’s cooked interior. Out here, on the edge of the pancake, life is almost offensively good: the beach is usually close by, the teeming flora—eucalypts and strangler fig trees and frangipanis and palms—offer a grand, near-continuous canopy of protection against the sun, and there’s always a cooling sea breeze from the south to break the heat. When I’m here, I stay with my parents in their house off Enmore Road, which is something like Sydney’s version of Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. From the window in my room I can see the melaleuca tree growing in the backyard, along with my parents’ collection of flowering natives and herbs. The scene is shaded, idyllic, airy, serene: it exhibits, in other words, none of the qualities those not from here normally associate with Australia. But that’s Sydney: a city so lush, so fragrant, so immovably pleasant that it recently endured the nuclear calamity of a visit by Bari Weiss and emerged unscathed. Weiss described Australians as a relaxed and friendly bunch, whereas in fact we are mostly standoffish, unadventurous, early-to-bed bores. Weiss claimed Australia has no culture wars; with racist cartoonists still at work in the pages of its major newspapers, the country is a culture war. Lesser cities would have collapsed under this Weiss-sized assault of misinformation. But Sydney sailed on, unperturbed.

This summer had shaped up to be a summer like any other: hot, glaring days, cool, mineral nights. But as the daytime heat persisted, the nighttime cool failed to come through. By the first weeks of January, Sydney, usually bright and brushed clean by the coastal breeze every morning, took on the unrelenting film familiar to me from summers in New York: the stickiness, the grime, the sunken look in the eyes of commuters unable to sleep. Close to my parents’ house there’s a railway overpass from which pigeons like to shit on the sidewalk below. Usually the rain washes everything away but by mid-January, with skies still cloudless, the pigeon shit had become so voluminous it clumped into small mounds, swarmed over by aggressive biting flies. Temperatures across the country soared past forty degrees Celsius—104 degrees Fahrenheit—for days on end. While North America braced for the polar vortex, Australia was nearing the end of what would eventually become its hottest month ever.

Visions of riverbanks choked with the rotting carcasses of hundreds of Murray cod dominated the TV news.

From hundreds of miles west of Sydney news emerged of the spontaneous mass death of more than a million fish in the country’s largest river system. Starved of oxygen by the sudden decomposition of the river’s algal blooms—themselves a climate change-exacerbated product of drought and unusually high water temperatures—the fish had died gasping for air in pools of unmoving water. Visions of riverbanks choked with the rotting carcasses of hundreds of Murray cod, a hulking apex predator of Australia’s waterways, dominated the TV news. Some of the fish were more than fifty years old. With the rivers dry, some towns in the area turned to bore water to survive; the water is high in sodium, kills plants, discolors basins and bathtubs, and comes out of the tap hot. In central Australia, two dozen decomposing feral horses were discovered at the base of a dry waterhole. Local authorities planned a cull of hundreds of horses, goats, and donkeys dying of thirst.

Further west, cattle farmers responded to “plague proportions” of parched camels invading their land in search of water by shooting thousands of the feral animals dead; it was the camels or the cattle, and the cattle won. The camel carcasses were left to rot in the sun. “With climate change well and truly upon us, we expect these emergencies to occur with increasing frequency and nobody is truly prepared and resourced to respond to them,” said the director of the Central Land Council, a community organization that represents the interests of indigenous Australians. In temperate Tasmania, the island off the southeastern end of the continent, fires ravaged nearly 500,000 acres of bushland, threatening ancient forests with trees more than a thousand years old. Later in January came news of another fish kill: crowds of golden perch and bony bream floating lifeless on the surface of the country’s mud-brown waterways, silting the banks with death. This was not normal, this was not nature taking its course. It was an apocalypse. Australia has experienced droughts and heat waves before, but not as long as I can remember has the country delivered such shocking evidence of imminent ecological collapse. In truth, though, that collapse is not imminent; it has already begun.  

Even in Sydney, even for those who turned away from the evidence all around us of a continent going through its death throes, it was impossible to escape the heat wave. The city baked. My body, just recovered from the corneal abrasion, began to crack again. First my lip erupted in a fever blister from exposure to the sun. Next, to cope with the heat and Sydney retail proprietors’ admirable indifference to air conditioning, I took to showering several times a day—only to slip, on my second attempt at this revised daily routine, and body slam into the rim of the shower. Within days the whole right side of my torso was covered in deep bruises. Great work, Australia. Lacerated cornea, heat-blistered lip, shower-induced hematoma: the heat had begun to get me down. Lethargic and wakeful, though not fully present, I zombied through the days, waiting for night to arrive. Maybe I was just out of touch, incapable now of dealing with the Australian summer in a way that I’d once, a decade ago, been incapable of dealing with North America’s winter, my body breaking out in rashes after the first weeks of cold. Or maybe the heat wave really was as vicious as all the evidence indicated.

Growing up in subtropical Sydney I’d always seen urban Australia’s lack of extreme temperature variations—the implacable pleasantness of the climate, whether through the moderate winters or the sea-cooled summers—as a peculiar cultural defect, as if the country’s freedom from harsh winters had somehow doomed it to intellectual mediocrity. I had a major case of envy for the defined seasons of the northern hemisphere and everything I thought they represented: rich emotional lives, cultural seriousness, power itself. Subzero temperatures fed the mind, I thought; temperate climates starved it. If ever I’d harbored any remaining doubts, as an adult, about the idiocy of this adolescent yearning for climatic extremes, living through Australia’s hottest month on record soon cleared them away.

The heat wave brought out all the usual talking points about action and the urgency of the crisis from the country’s politicians. But as much as this catastrophe of a crumbling continent is part of a global phenomenon, local ineptitude has made things worse. A plan was drawn up nearly a decade ago to manage the waters of the Murray-Darling River basin—the site of the past month’s fish kills—and ensure an equitable balance between the needs of the environment and the demand for water to feed irrigation-based agriculture. Instead, authorities massively under-allocated water to the environment and over-allocated to agriculture. The result: even as millions of fish die in once-healthy rivers now reduced to muddy pools, great tracts of irrigated land for growing cotton and wheat flourish nearby. How did we get here?

You might expect Australia, as a place of acute environmental vulnerability, to be at the vanguard of the fight against climate change. Instead it’s right at the back of the pack, provincially aping debates and policy postures from overseas—while remaining one of the biggest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide on the planet. Even the local mining companies have a more enlightened approach to climate change than many on the conservative side of our politics. The Australian climate is so harsh that native plants have developed an extraordinary resistance to drought, which often means they are dense with vital nutrients. Edible native mountain peppers, for instance, contain four times the antioxidants of blueberries. Australian politics is similar—an environment so savage that it breeds creatures of exceptional resilience who refuse to die. One example is Tony Abbott, the grinning lizard who’s spent the past three decades flicking his tongue over the nation’s public affairs, while a tongue-flicked nation has said as one: no thanks. A former prime minister and lifelong climate change skeptic, Abbott was instrumental in defeating the Labor Party’s two big attempts over the past decade to get the country’s greenhouse gas emissions under control by putting a price on carbon. His hopes of returning to the prime-ministership died years ago, but he’s still very much around, refusing to quit politics, spreading the happy ignorant gospel that climate change, if it exists, is “probably doing good,” and no one yet has the power to remove his decaying political body from the public realm. The (conservative) Liberal Party is at the mercy of Abbott’s hard-right faction, less a faction than a bad and douchey impersonation of a college fraternity in which members earn their stripes by taking a fact-free dump on the notion of anthropogenic climate change and cozying up, often literally, to coal. How can people like this survive and find support in the electorate when the evidence of a calamitously changed climate is forcing its way down our throats so aggressively that we literally gag? While other countries debate climate change action, Australia is still stuck trying to convince the local airheads that climate change is real—a baleful status quo that we share in common with my adopted American homeland.  

Not that things on the nominally left side of politics, where real issues are often ignored in favor of the pursuit of ancient factional blood feuds, are much better. One of the heat wave’s more memorable media moments came when politician Jeremy Buckingham, recording a video for social media slamming mismanagement of the country’s river network, was forced to run off camera to vomit after holding up a decomposing Murray cod. Buckingham, a self-styled “bush populist” with a penchant for dopey man-of-the-people stunts, holds an upper house seat in the state parliament of New South Wales. He quit the Greens party late last year to contest the approaching state election as an independent—part of an arcane battle in the Australian Greens between “tree Tories” or “neoliberals on bikes” (Buckingham’s erstwhile faction) and “watermelons” or closet socialists (green on the outside, red on the inside). As Buckingham was spreading the contents of his stomach across rural Australia, former rivals were busy feeding the rumor that he had been behind a piece of graffiti in the bathroom of an inner-Sydney bar advertising the cellphone number and fellatio prowess of a prominent Greens “watermelon.” Days later, Buckingham, having ignored the insinuations, inexplicably took to Twitter to ask Elon Musk to build a tunnel under the mountains west of Sydney to relieve urban congestion. Stupid clearly is as stupid does. Meanwhile, the Australian inferno raged on.   

January turned to February and the heat relented for a day or two, then returned with familiar brutality. I traveled up to the mountains—the same ones under which Elon Musk has said he’d be happy to build one of his famous single-lane anti-gravitational garbage chutes—to see my dentist, who also happens to be the husband of my cousin and always cleans my teeth for free. My ten minutes in the dental chair complete, he suggested we go to lunch at a nearby cafe. Within minutes of sitting down he told me, for reasons I can’t quite remember, that industrialization had been great for the world. “Apart from all the damage it’s done to the environment,” I replied. A small glint of delight passed across his face. Here he is, he seemed to be saying, my next conversational victim. “I don’t believe in climate change,” he said slowly, smiling. “Actually, let me clarify: I do believe the climate changes, but I don’t think humans are responsible.” Here was a man of science—well, a dentist at least—who held no faith in the exhaustive, decades-long scientific project to provide irrefutable proof of humans’ impact on the changing climate. Trying to persuade him seemed like a waste of time, but I made a weak stab at a rejoinder. What about the effects of climate change in Australia this year alone, I said: the killing streams, the towns run dry, the rotting horse and camel corpses littered across the outback, the extreme heat and fire, fire everywhere. “That’s not climate change,” he laughed. “That’s just a bit of weather.”

This otherwise intelligent, cheerful, friendly, generous man had latched onto the most batshit, idiotic conspiracy theory imaginable.

“Well, what about the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” I continued, a little too earnestly, saying the panel’s name in full in a limp attempt to appear authoritative. “That seems pretty convincing, and pretty damning—we only have a decade left to save the planet.” “You mean the latest report, or the one before that, which they’ve since admitted they falsified the evidence for?” he shot back. I knew where this was going: the conversation’s short trip from evidence-based skepticism to the school of high conspiracies was under way. “I guess,” I said, trying to head him off at the pass, “whether you believe in anthropogenic climate change or not—and I don’t think it’s a question of belief, really, but verifiable fact—boils down to whether you have faith in institutions: the UN, the global community of climate scientists, the notion of scientific truth.” I didn’t put things quite so eloquently, of course, but you get the idea: broad brushstrokes. “Well tell me this,” he replied. “If these scientists are so devoted to the common good, why don’t they have their conferences in Saudi Arabia, or out in Siberia, or somewhere else that’s feeling the full effect of climate change? Instead they’re always meeting at the resorts, at the tourist spots.” I honestly had no idea how to reply. This otherwise intelligent, cheerful, friendly, generous man had latched onto the most batshit, idiotic conspiracy theory imaginable: the experts of the IPCC are only in it for the junket.

At that point I changed the topic; if this was the quality of climate change conversation I could expect from the average Australian, the country was fucked, and I was at least going to do everything to maintain my access to free dental care while human civilization disappeared under the rising seas. I was not going to drown ugly. After lunch, the dentist and I went for a short hike to a nearby lookout. On the way he told me that over the twenty-five years he’d been working in the mountains, he only recently had to buy an air-conditioning unit. “The heat in summer is becoming unbearable.” A pause. “But it’s got nothing to do with humans.”

The weather over the weekend in Sydney, one of my last here before I return to the sagging New York winter, was sunny, breezy, mild and delightful. But Tuesday  was another day of lethal heat, the mercury once again nudging forty degrees Celsius. At the cafe I go to every day, I sat outside on the sidewalk and watched commuters wilt under the morning sun, their hair matted with sweat, shirts clinging to just-showered bodies. Suddenly, meters away, a young woman waiting on the bus stop bench listed to her left, as if about to faint, then suffered a series of violent convulsions. A passerby swooped in to break the fall, then shouted at me to call an ambulance: the woman was having a seizure. While I dialed, the passerby lifted the woman up—“She doesn’t have a pulse”—to place her down on the ground. The woman urinated all over herself then began retching. As I waited for the emergency services to pick up my call, I briefly thought back to Jeremy Buckingham’s performance by the riverside. The heat wave was ending as it had begun, I thought: amid vomit, tears, bodies rendered suddenly infirm, dehydration, and dead fish. But in reality the promise of an ending was illusory. There would be no end; the heat wave was here to stay.

Twenty seconds of spasms followed, then suddenly the woman was conscious, verbal, and still once more. I asked her whether she still wanted me to get the ambulance to come, or cancel it; she said to cancel, because she didn’t want to pay the ambulance’s AUD300 (about $200) appearance fee. By this point a small group of people had gathered. The woman regained her breath, then thanked everyone for coming to her aid. Someone asked whether she would be okay to take the bus. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “I just got a little dizzy under the sun.” The crowd dispersed. Within a minute, the trickle of human piss across the pavement had evaporated.