WEE WAA, Australia — Two years ago, the fields outside Christina Southwell’s family home near the cotton capital of Australia looked like a dusty, brown desert as drought-fueled wildfires burned to the north and south.
Last week, after record-breaking rains, muddy floodwaters surrounded her, along with the stench of rotting crops. She had been trapped for days with just her cat, and still didn’t know when the sludge would recede.
“It seems to take for bloody ever to go away,” she said, watching a boat carry food into the town of Wee Waa. “All it leaves behind is this stink, and it’s just going to get worse.”
Life on the land has always been hard in Australia, but the past few years have delivered one extreme after another, demanding new levels of resilience and pointing to the rising costs of a warming planet. For many Australians, moderate weather — a pleasant summer, a year without a state of emergency — increasingly feels like a luxury.
Black Summer bush fires of 2019 and 2020 were the worst in Australia’s recorded history. This year, many of the same areas that suffered through those epic blazes endured the wettest, coldest November since at least 1900. Hundreds of people, across several states, have been forced to evacuate. Many more, like Ms. Southwell, are stranded on floodplain islands with no way to leave except by boat or helicopter, possibly until after Christmas.
La Niña in full swing, meteorologists are predicting even more flooding for Australia’s east coast, adding to the stress from the pandemic, not to mention from a recent rural mouse plague of biblical proportions.
pregnancies on pause, shows that the El Niño-La Niña cycle has been around long enough for flora and fauna to adapt.
more than doubled since the 1970s.
Ron Campbell, the mayor of Narrabri Shire, which includes Wee Waa, said his area was still waiting for government payments to offset damage from past catastrophes. He wondered when governments would stop paying for infrastructure repairs after every emergency.
“The costs are just enormous, not just here but at all the other places in similar circumstances,” he said.
60 percent of the trees in some places. Cattle farmers culled so much of their herds during the drought that beef prices have risen more than 50 percent as they rush to restock paddocks nourished (nearly to death) by heavy rain.
Bryce Guest, a helicopter pilot in Narrabri, once watched the dust bowls grow from above. Then came “just a monstrous amount of rain,” he said, and new kind of job: flights to mechanical pumps pushing water from fields to irrigation dams in a last-ditch effort to preserve crops that had been heading for a record harvest.
On one recent flight, he pointed to mountains of stored grain — worth six figures, at least — that were ruined by the rains, with heavy equipment trapped and rusting next to it. Further inland, a home surrounded by levees had become a small island accessible only by boat or copter.
“Australia is all about water — everything revolves around it,” he said. “Where you put your home, your stock. Everything.”
The flood plains in what is known as the Murray-Darling basin stretch out for hundreds of miles, not unlike the land at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The territory is so flat that towns can be cut off with roads flooded by less than an inch of additional rain.
That happened a few weeks ago in Bedgerabong, a few hundred miles south of Narrabri. On a recent afternoon, a couple of teachers were being driven out of town in a hulking fire truck — equipment for one disaster often serves another. Across a flooded road behind them, three other teachers had decided to camp out so they could provide some consistency for children who had already been kept out of school for months by pandemic lockdowns.
Paul Faulkner, 55, the principal of the school (total enrollment: 42), said that many parents craved social connection for their children. The Red Cross has sent in booklets for those struggling with stress and anxiety.
“Covid has kept everyone from their families,” he said. “This just isolates them even more.”
He admitted that there were a few things they did not discuss; Santa, for one. The town is expected to be cut off until after the holidays as the waters that rose with surging rains over a few days take weeks to drain and fade.
In Wee Waa, where the water has started to recede, supplies and people flowed in and out last week by helicopter and in a small boat piloted by volunteers.
Still, there were shortages everywhere — mostly of people. In a community of around 2,000 people, half of the teachers at the local public school couldn’t make it to work.
At the town’s only pharmacy, Tien On, the owner, struggled with a short-handed staff to keep up with requests. He was especially concerned about delayed drug deliveries by helicopter for patients with mental health medications.
Ms. Southwell, 69, was better prepared than most. She spent 25 years volunteering with emergency services and has been teaching first aid for decades. After a quick trip into Wee Waa by boat, she returned to her home with groceries and patience, checking a shed for the stray cats she feeds and discovering that only one of her chickens appeared to have drowned.
She said she wasn’t sure how much climate change could be blamed for the floods; her father had put their house on higher stilts because they knew the waters would rise on occasion.
All she knew was that more extreme weather and severe challenges to the community would be coming their way.
“The worst part of it is the waiting,” she said. “And the cleanup.”
Leaders of more than 100 countries, including Brazil, China and the United States, vowed on Monday at climate talks in Glasgow to end deforestation by 2030, seeking to preserve forests crucial to absorbing carbon dioxide and slowing the rise in global warming.
The pledge will demand “transformative further action,” the countries’ declaration said, and it was accompanied by several measures intended to help put it into effect. But some advocacy groups criticized them as lacking teeth, saying they would allow deforestation to continue.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain was scheduled to announce the deforestation agreement at an event on Tuesday morning attended by President Biden and the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo.
“These great teeming ecosystems — these cathedrals of nature — are the lungs of our planet,” Mr. Johnson is expected to say.
climate summit, known as COP26. Intact forests and peatlands, for example, are natural storehouses of carbon, keeping it sealed away from the atmosphere. But when these areas are logged, burned or drained, the ecosystems switch to releasing greenhouse gases.
If tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, according to the World Resources Institute, after China and the United States. Much of the world’s deforestation is driven by commodity agriculture as people fell trees to make room for cattle, soy, cocoa and palm oil.
even make rain, supporting agriculture elsewhere. They are fundamental to sustaining biodiversity, which is suffering its own crisis as extinction rates climb.
Previous efforts to protect forests have struggled. One program recognized in the Paris climate accord seeks to pay forested nations for reducing tree loss, but progress has been slow.
Previous promises to end deforestation also have failed. A United Nations plan announced in 2017 made similar commitments. An agreement in 2014 to end deforestation by 2030, the New York Declaration on Forests, set goals without a means to achieve them, and deforestation continued.
The same will happen this time, some environmentalists predicted.
“It allows another decade of forest destruction and isn’t binding,” said Carolina Pasquali, executive director of Greenpeace Brazil. “Meanwhile, the Amazon is already on the brink and can’t survive years more deforestation.”
Supporters of the new pledge point out that it expands the number of countries and comes with specific steps to save forests.
“What we’re doing here is trying to change the economics on the ground to make forests worth more alive than dead,” said Eron Bloomgarden, whose group, Emergent, helps match public and private investors with forested countries and provinces looking to receive payments for reducing deforestation.
The participating governments promised “support for smallholders, Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who depend on forests for their livelihoods and have a key role in their stewardship.”
have begun emitting more carbon than they store.
China is one of the biggest signatories to the deforest declaration, but the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, did not attend the climate negotiations in Glasgow. China suffered heavy forest losses as its population and industry grew over the past decades, but more recently, it has pledged to regrow forests and to expand sustainable tree farming.
By China’s estimate, forests now cover about 23 percent of its landmass, up from 17 percent in 1990, according to the World Bank. Though some research has questioned the scale and the quality of that expanded tree cover, the government has made expanded reforestation a pillar of its climate policies, and many areas of the country are notably greener than they were a couple of decades ago.
Still, China’s participation in the new pledge may also test its dependence on timber imported from Russia, Southeast Asia and African countries, including large amounts of illegally felled trees.
In a written message to the Glasgow meeting, Mr. Xi “stressed the responsibility of developed countries in tackling climate change, saying that they should not only do more themselves, but should also provide support to help developing countries do better,” Xinhua news agency reported.