The dawn of the decade of doom?

By Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells

February 6, 2020

Not again. Adobe Stock

Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells notate the dismaying events that have dogged Australia and some that have impacted other parts of the world over the past six months. Here is their timeline.

11-13 November 2019: Australian bushfires: After a warm and dry winter and the driest spring on record, the southern continent is a tinderbox. Remembrance Day 2019 is the first recorded day of zero rain across the whole of the Australian continent. The states of New South Wales and Queensland face large-scale fire emergencies, including bushfires burning in traditionally low-fire areas of coastal Queensland and northern NSW. The fire danger in Sydney reaches the ‘catastrophic’ rating for the first time. More than 60 fires rage across Queensland, threatening people and damaging homes. Thousands of miles away, fire also destroys homes in Geraldton, Western Australia.

15 November: Hong Kong protests: The conflict escalates and a second person dies. Student protestors barricade themselves in universities, some building makeshift walls across roads and stockpiling bows and arrows, Molotov cocktails, catapults and other improvised weapons.

15-17 November: Waves of ash wash up on NSW beaches. Port Macquarie in northern NSW records the world’s dirtiest air. Thousands sign a petition to scrap Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks, an issue that splits the NSW government. Perth has its hottest November day on record.

18 November: Hong Kong riot police carry out a dawn raid on university protestors and threaten to use live rounds if ‘rioters’ use lethal weapons.

19-20 November: A heroine saves a scorched koala with the shirt off her back (footage below). Trending tweet from WA: ‘My office is pretty much hell on earth, at least it has cooled down 45o.’ The accompanying video looks like a scene from Mad Max. Melbourne has matched its hottest November day on record, hitting 40.9 degrees. Code Red is declared in Victoria — the first time since the system was introduced after the disastrous 2009 Black Saturday fires.

23-25 November: Spy scandal: Alleged spy Wang Liqiang defects to Australia. 60 Minutes airs claims of an attempt plant an operative in Australia’s parliament.

26-27 November: Australia’s precious population of koalas reaches a ‘tipping point’.

29 November: Threats to press freedom: Kerry O’Brien rallies journalists at the Walkley Awards, saying press ‘freedom is usually eroded gradually’. ‘For a brief moment in the history of Australian journalism,’ O’Brien says, ‘every significant news organisation in this country, put its competitive instincts and its differences to one side, and united in one voice, to stand against the unacceptable step down the road to authoritarianism that we witnessed recently.’

1-2 December: Climate change: Drone images show the Greenland Ice Sheet is becoming less stable as it fractures. UN chief warns worldwide efforts to stop climate change are ‘utterly inadequate’, mainly due to a lack of political will.

3-4 December: North Korea: vice minister of Foreign Affairs, Ri Thae Song warns the United States to prepare for a ‘Christmas gift’.

5-6 December: NSW fires burn out of control. Homes on Sydney’s fringe are threatened. Air quality in Sydney is at ‘hazardous’ levels. NZ glaciers are turning red, a phenomenon attributed to the Australian drought and fires.

8 December: Sydney sets record for longest period of air pollution ever.

9 December: Whakaari disaster: 18 people die, another two are missing after a volcano erupts on New Zealand’s White Island.

11 December: NSW Energy and Environment Minister breaks ranks with federal colleagues, saying of the Australian fires, ‘This is not normal’.

16 December: Doctors declare a toxic smoke emergency. For NSW, residents in the path of the huge Gospers Mountain blaze are told it’s too late to leave.

19 December: Record for Australia’s hottest ever day is broken, with 41.9 Celsius.

20 December: River health: Murray Darling Basin fish kill this summer could be worse than last year’s ‘environmental catastrophe’, experts warn.

20 December: Smoke from NSW fires is transported over Melbourne. PM says ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’, when quizzed why he went on holiday during extreme fires.

22 December: South Australian Premier Steven Marshall advises 72 homes have been destroyed in the Cudlee Creek fire. Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledges that he caused great anxiety in Australia by taking an overseas holiday during the fires.

24 December: Bushfire in South Australia devastates Adelaide Hills vineyards. An ebullient Christmas Eve video surfaces showing former Deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce, speaking of climate, getting nailed, and a ‘higher authority’. According to the Queen’s Christmas Message, 2019 was ‘quite bumpy’ — possibly a reference to BREXIT, or the lead up to MEGXIT. 

27 December: According to the Washington Post, ‘Over recent decades, the rate of ocean warming off Tasmania…has climbed to nearly four times the global average. More than 95 percent of the giant kelp — a living high-rise of 30-foot stalks that served as a habitat for some of the rarest marine creatures in the world — died.’

28 December: NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliot heads off for a European holiday as bushfires continue.

29 December: Authorities have closed the Princes Highway (the national highway) between Cann River and Genoa due to bushfires in East Gippsland.

30 December: A very serious, life-threatening bushfire situation is forecast for Victoria. 

31 December: Fire bears down on Mallacoota, a small town in the East Gippsland region of Victoria. In frightening and apocalyptic scenes, 4000 people shelter near the water, protected by Country Fire Authority tankers.

1 January 2020: North Korea signals end of nuclear test suspension and says the world will soon see a ‘new strategic weapon’.

2-3 January: Authorities fear two fire fronts burning in Victoria could merge to create a bushfire of enormous scale. Tourists are urged to leave nearby national parks. Newspapers around the world publish devastating images of injured and killed Australian wildlife. The largest peacetime evacuation in Australia’s history is underway at Mallacoota. At a late-night press conference, the Victorian Premier announces the unprecedented step of declaring a State of Disaster in Victoria. Melbourne, previously the world’s most liveable city, experiences extreme air pollution. The NSW Premier declares a seven-day state of emergency. Referring to a disastrous visit by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Cobargo, NSW Liberal minister Andrew Constance says the PM received ‘the welcome that he probably deserved’. 

3 January: Iran assassination: President Trump tweets an image of the American flag after reports that a US drone strike has killed a top Iranian general in Iraq.

4-6 January: Australian government calls out 3000 Defence Force Reserves to help respond to the bushfires. The government is criticised for failing to inform the NSW Rural Fire Service about the mobilisation, and for releasing a political ad on social media to promote it. PM commits $2 billion for bushfire recovery projects and drops the commitment to deliver a ‘back in black’ budget surplus this financial year. A surgeon and his pilot father are killed in the Kangaroo Island bushfire. A stunning photograph by Rose Fletcher shows smoke turning the Australian sky into the Aboriginal flag. 

5 January: Police advise hundreds of people taking refuge at the Eden wharf that the town is no longer safe and that they must leave for an evacuation centre in Merimbula or Bega.

6 January: NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and fire service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons reject the claim they had turned down offers of federal help. In a British TV interview, Liberal MP Craig Kelly defends Scott Morrison’s handling of the fire crisis. The interview descends into chaos. At the Golden Globe Awards, Jennifer Aniston passes on a powerful climate change message on Russell Crowe’s behalf. Crowe is in Australia protecting his home from the fires. 

8 January: Based on countries’ current commitments, the globe will warm by around three degrees by 2100, with warming continuing after that. Some scenarios feature faster warming towards a hotter end of the century. The captain of a fire service in rural New South Wales says ‘Australia, with a three-degree temperature rise, frightens the hell out of me’. His team encounter fires on a scale they’ve never seen before. The evidence that the fires are due to climate change ‘is overwhelming’.

9 January: Wuhan coronavirus: China reports first death from the novel virus, which first surfaced in December.

9-10 January: Prediction that a huge, unbroken fire-front could stretch 250 kms from Bega to Nowra in NSW. Former US President Barack Obama tweets, ‘The catastrophic fires in Australia are the latest example of the very real and very urgent consequences of climate change.’ 

11 January: Iran admits to ‘unintentionally’ shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board.

14 January: Australian bushfires continue to rage. The smoke now circles the earth. Twenty-three lives had been lost. Nearly 11 million hectares had been burned, more than 2,000 homes destroyed, and more than a billion animals killed. Melbourne air quality drops to ‘hazardous’ levels. Bureau of Meteorology chart shows how temperatures have soared over the past century. 

15 January: International disasters delay big water-bombers on their way to Australia. Instigated by the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios in a redemptive act, tennis champions come together at the Rod Laver Arena to raise bushfire funds.

15-16 January: World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) confirms last year was the earth’s second-hottest since records began, and the world should brace itself for more extreme weather events. The 12 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The hottest was 2016 and the second hottest was 2019. A demonstration outside the Australian Embassy in Copenhagen protests the continued push for coal mining.

17 January: In a BBC interview, Sir David Attenborough calls Australia’s bushfires ‘the moment of crisis’ to address climate change: ‘we have been putting things off for year after year…As I speak, south east Australia is on fire. Why? Because the temperatures of the earth are increasing.’

18 January: Hundreds of thousands of native fish die in northern NSW, after rains wash bushfire ash and sludge into the Macleay River.

19 January: Giant dust storms hit central NSW, including a 107 km/hr gust at Dubbo. Mildura in northern Victoria is draped in dust. Cars and homes in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne are damaged by golf-ball-sized hail.

20 January: Two weeks after being engulfed in smoke haze, Canberra faces a cold snap with hail storms that wreck cars and cover the Parliament House lawn in ice.

21 January: 415.79 ppm: The highest ever concentration of carbon dioxide (since before hominids existed, millions of years ago) in the Earth’s atmosphere is recorded at Mauna Loa Observatory. Economists and policy makers fear climate change could cause the next global financial breakdown.

22 January: A strange downpour of muddy rain falls across Melbourne. The iconic Yarra river is even more brown than usual.

23 January: The controversial Doomsday Clock is now closer to midnight than ever in its history. Atomic scientists cite a worsening nuclear threat, the lack of climate action, and the rise of cyber-enabled disinformation. At the Clock event, former California governor Jerry Brown singles out the Australian government’s ‘utter and absolute’ denial of the threat of climate change, warning the world is closer than ever before to man-made apocalypse.

Image: Wikipedia

23 January: Three American firefighters die when a C-130 water tanker aircraft crashes while battling a bushfire in southern NSW. Prince Charles addresses the World Economic Forum in Davos: ‘Do we want to go down in history as the people who did nothing to bring the world back from the brink in time to restore the balance when we could have done?’

24 January: The UK Met Office estimates the Australian fires have emitted between 0.4 and 0.7 gigatonnes of CO2. The world’s yearly rise in CO2 may be 2 per cent higher as a result.

24-26 January: China locks down Wuhan. 11 million people cannot leave the city. The coronavirus death toll reaches 56. More than 2000 people are infected. Five cases are confirmed in the US. French authorities have confirmed three cases.

26 January: Adding to the general sense of loss and doom, US basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other people are killed in a helicopter crash in California. 

28 January: Caribbean earthquake of 7.7 shakes Jamaica, Cuba, Cayman Islands and prompts evacuations in Miami.

29 January: One of earth’s most impressive and precious ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef, is under threat from toxic chemicals and climate change. There are reports that up to half of the reef’s coral cover has already been lost, and that the whole cover could be gone by 2050. A US monkey study reveals life-threatening consequences of bushfire smoke to humans. Australia has announced five cases of the coronavirus.

30 January: Coronavirus infections surpass 7000. The death toll surges to 170. World trade, international travel and tourism are hit. Global share markets are shaky. Canberra still faces out-of-control bushfires. Another killer heatwave is hitting Australia.

31 January: World Health Organisation declares a global emergency as the Wuhan coronavirus strain spreads.

Today: The Australian fires still burn, the Hong Kong protests rage, the Iranian tensions smoulder, and the coronavirus outbreak is yet to be fully contained. On climate change, the world’s leaders have not reached a meaningful policy position that can attract bipartisan support and forestall a dangerous future. Catastrophic climate change is just getting warmed up. Due to the decadal lifetime of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, climate change will get worse before it gets better — even if we do eventually achieve real action on mitigation at the scale that Mother Nature demands. Unless we quickly learn to work together as a species, in a genuine spirit of environmental, social, political, economic cooperation, we’re all doomed.

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