The drought affecting large swathes of south-east Australia is tragic for farming families in those areas and their communities. But its effects will be felt far further; we'll all face some of the consequences. At present, one of the dry spell's outcomes is, perversely enough, cheap meat. Desperate farmers can no longer feed their livestock; they are being forced either to sell them en masse, for far lower prices than they can sustain, or slaughter them. These are grim times.
But they are not unexpected times. And, with an El Niño climate cycle predicted to be approaching, nor is the drought likely to be a one-off or short-lived.
During crises, people have an understandable tendency to ignore the perspective of history. The current drought is, for now at least, less intense than the "millennium drought" experienced across a larger area of Australia just last decade. The point here is not to play down the current drought's effects on families and local economies, but rather to remind that the Australian landscape and climate has changed dramatically. In many parts of this country that once supported generations of farming businesses, droughts are the new normal, interrupted intermittently by wetter seasons that were perhaps the norm last century.
Climate change is neither an abstract concept nor a debate. Nor is it the future. It began undeniably last century. We were warned collectively, repeatedly, since the 1970s what will happen. It did. Our weather is hotter and more varied. We have more very-hot days and more very-cold days. We have more extreme storms and longer periods without rain. Once-arable land is no longer arable, at least in a financially sustainable way. And it will worsen. Nostalgia and pity won't undo any of this.
Our governments' solutions to each new drought crisis are mostly the same: short-term subsidies and welfare for agribusiness. This might make sense if it was part of a plan to help the sector face the reality of our changed climate. Instead, new drought-assistance announcements seem to coincide with the need for ministers to be seen to be "doing something" in response to televised images of farmers' tears and livestock carcasses. The contrast with the approach to Australia's now-dead car-making industry is stark.
As much as climate change is a global problem that requires united, global solutions, Australian governments could have done far more. We managed to put a price on the costs of carbon pollution for just two years. The single measure that would have increased local rainfall levels – the mass plantation of native flora and aggressive prevention of land-clearing – was too hard; Queensland even encouraged the opposite. Decades-long attempts to ration the Murray-Darling Basin's water have largely failed to reach consensus, and there has been a strong whiff of cronyism around water-licence trading.
Australian farmers are widely regarded as among the most world's most efficient and innovative. The tragedy here is not the drought; that's a reality we knew was coming. The tragedy is that generations of political leadership didn't care about the farmers' futures.