If anyone had any doubts over the adverse impact of global warming, Australia should serve as sufficient warning, say experts.
Drought, fires, killer heat waves, wildlife extinction and mosquito-borne illness -- the things that climate change models are predicting have already arrived there.
Farmers of the Murray-Darling Basin, who once grew 60% of the nation's produce, are walking off their land or selling their water rights to the state and federal government.
Frank Eddy, a farmer hit hard by the severe drought, points out, "Fruit growers are abandoning their orchards. It's their life's work, and it's gone to dust. They are at their wits' end. The small growers haven't got the money to replant. Haven't got the time to wait five years for a return. The machinery they have is not salable. They have thrown their arms up and walked away. They are broken people.
"Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It's devastation...
"I've got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men -- big, strong grown men. We're holding on by the skin of our teeth. It's desperate times."
Australia is witnessing the collapse of its agricultural sector and the nation's ability to feed itself. Rainfall patterns have been frustratingly uncooperative. Gentle winter showers that replenished groundwater have been replaced by torrential summer onslaughts that turn the fertile topsoil into a slough.
Australians might have transformed the world's driest inhabited continent into a virtual paradise, with a vibrant economy and their never-say-die attitude, but suddenly it all seems to be history. The present is bitter and the future more worrisome.
"Australia is the harbinger of change," said paleontologist Tim Flannery, Australia's most vocal climate change prophet. "The problems for us are going to be greater. The cost to Australia from climate change is going to be greater than for any developed country. We are already starting to see it. It's tearing apart the life-support system that gives us this world."
A three-member royal commission has been appointed to decide, among other things, whether global warming contributed to massive bush fires that destroyed entire towns and killed a quarter of Victoria state's koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife.
The commission's proceedings mark the first time anywhere that climate change could be put on trial. And it will take place in a nation that still gets 80% of its energy from burning coal, the globe's largest single source of greenhouse gases.
Climate change researcher Professor Chris Cocklin said. "The nature of our energy profile is one where coal features significantly...There's no denying it's a massive problem. I don't think in the public-political arena it is being challenged with the tenacity that you would want. No Labor government is going to challenge that."
The commission's findings aren't due until August, but veteran firefighters, scientists and residents believe the case has already been made, Julie Cart reported, Los Angeles Times.
Even before the flames, 200 Melbourne residents died in a heat wave that buckled the steel skeleton on a newly constructed 400-foot Ferris wheel and warped train tracks like spaghetti. Cities experienced four days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher with little humidity, and 100-mph winds. In areas where fires hit, temperatures reached 120. On the hottest day, more than 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropped dead out of trees in one Melbourne park.
Most of the country is in the grip of the worst drought in more than a century. Every capital in Australia's eight states and territories is operating under considerable water restrictions. In urban areas, "bucketing" has become a common practice -- placing pails in showers and using the gray water on lawns or gardens. In some cities, such as Brisbane, residents drink recycled water, a process nicknamed "toilet to tap."
In rural areas, the lucky tap their own wells, provided they still function. Others survive on rainwater or what they can scrounge or buy. The coastal city of Darwin, in the Northern Territory, swelters through 20 to 30 days of temperatures above 95 degrees, with high tropical humidity. Government scientists project that by 2070, Darwin will experience such conditions as many as 300 days a year.
The region is beset with twin epidemics of malaria and a dangerous form of hemorrhagic dengue fever, from mosquitoes that breed in the standing water. Such diseases are expected to become more common in the tropics with climate change. the Great Barrier Reef and the Tropical Rainforest Reserve, are withering under climate extremes. Higher ocean temperatures are bleaching expanses of coral and affecting fish and plant species. A report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that the Great Barrier Reef will be "functionally extinct" by 2050.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says climate change is high on his agenda, but many here are disappointed by his pledge to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by only 5% by 2020.
Scientists and policymakers now agree that even drastic cuts won't halt climate changes already underway. In response, some Australians are considering whether outback settlements should be abandoned.
"We are already very flat and very dry as a continent," Flannery said. "There is just this little margin that is inhabitable. We don't have a lot of options."
The majority of Australians live along the coastline, where they are vulnerable to flooding because of rising sea levels, projected to increase by 6 1/2 feet this century.
"Some places are pretty close to being bloody unlivable anymore," Professor Chris Cocklin said.