Lauren Rickards reviews 'Sunburnt Country: The history and future of climate change in Australia' by Joëlle Gergis

Sunburnt Country is a fascinating, timely, uneven book. Consisting of forty-one short chapters, it is written by climate scientist Joëlle Gergis, who explores the matter of climate change through an unusual mix of genres: colonial history, popular science, scientific autobiography, and advocacy. The first two of these dominate the self-representations of the book. In particular, it is framed as filling a gap in our (Western) understanding of the Australian continent’s climate history by reconstructing earlier settler colonial climates. Going beyond the official climate records that commenced around 1900, the book reports on innovative Australian research that has combed through settler diaries and other written records for climate-relevant information.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the records found seem to be about extreme events and provided by white male colonists. The result is a romantic colonial-era drama that reiterates the undeniably epic nature of the colonies’ early years. Key to this drama are the weather and climate, which are given a powerful, capricious character that continually trips up courageous colonial settlers as they slowly come to the realisation that the country they invaded has ‘one of the most spectacularly erratic climates in the world’. Gergis, weaving together the stories with flair, complements many with well-chosen details and illustrations. In the process, these stories of early settlers’ lived experiences are revealed as not just a second cousin to ‘real’ climate data, but a valuable part of our cultural history, as professional historians of Australia have long known. By relaying these stories of climatic catastrophes with evident passion, compassion, and a comfortingly simple focus on climate (one that does not engage with the wider politics of settler colonialism or writing history), Sunburnt Country implicitly offers glimpses into both the physical and social reasons that Australia has been mythologised as a ‘land of drought and flooding rains’.

Besides descriptions of colonial climates, the book includes an array of insights and snapshots about the long-term climate of Australia and how scientists are working to decode it. Using easy-to-understand snippets of specific scientific studies, Gergis explains how past climates can be read off the landscape thanks to the ‘tattooing’ of climatic experiences on tree rings, ice cores, coral, and sediments. One chapter also acknowledges indigenous Australians’ intimate understanding of climatic cycles, contingencies, and expressions in the landscape. The overall result is a succession of interesting snippets of information about past climates interspersed with valuable insights into how different climate systems function and how such information is derived. We learn, for example, that in New Zealand at least, tree-ring data indicates that the El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate system has been unusually pronounced in the twentieth century, but still does not equate to what was experienced in the medieval period. This attention to the continuities as well as discontinuities with past climates usefully complicates the oft-repeated binary of old climate versus new climate, or climate variability versus climate change. At the same time, Gergis describes in detail how a ‘human fingerprint’ on the climate is clearly obvious from the mid-twentieth century. The upshot is that ‘modern societies may not have experienced the full range of natural variability that occurred in the past’, but this is just further reason to be prepared ‘for some nasty climate surprises in the future’.

It is on the question of human-induced climate change that Gergis’s stories of climate science in action are most compelling. Representing a new era of concerted transparency in how climate science is done, Sunburnt Country provides not just generic insights about how climate science approaches research problems, but about what it is like for Gergis and colleagues to perform such work in a hyper-politicised social context. This more autobiographical element of the book usefully reveals the mundane practices involved in professional research, such as writing grant applications, checking data, revising publications, as well as the moments of intellectual excitement that make it all seem worthwhile. Not only does this window into the doing of climate science add an engaging personal note to the story, but it usefully shines a light on what Paul Edwards calls the ‘vast machine’ of climate science: the immense cross-institutional, international network, structures, and procedures that collectively produce, test, and validate scientific information about the climate. It is this diffuse machine and its convergence in observational, modelling, and theoretical studies that points with uncommon confidence to the fact that the global climate is changing and is doing so due to human interference in the atmosphere.

We come then to a further element of doing climate science that Gergis’s account usefully reveals: the way organised climate change scepticism attempts to derail scientific processes, and the resultant hyper-vigilance that now inflects climate science practices such as peer review of publications. Gergis gestures to the painful embodied costs of doing climate change science under the gaze of malevolent interests and a paranoid discipline, costs that are layered atop the ‘normal’ emotional costs of climate change that all of us face.

Unsurprisingly, Sunburnt Country also contains advice on how society needs to act to ward off the worst of projected climate change outcomes. Following some useful syntheses of the physical impacts of projected climate change in Australia, including sobering assessments of the situation facing different ecosystems, Gergis provides high-level overviews and broad endorsement of the ‘symbolic start’ provided by the Paris Climate Agreement. But rather than discuss adaptation solutions – as may have been expected given the book’s focus on climate (change) impacts and silence about sources of greenhouse gases – it turns to the question of emission mitigation.

Here, despite decent overviews of recent developments in Australia, Gergis stumbles on the over-trodden step from climate science to climate solutions. As social science and humanities scholars such as myself frequently argue, the latter requires a deep, critical understanding of society; deeper than provided by Gergis’s calls for government action, technological innovation, and individual-level reconnection with nature. While all of these things are undoubtedly required, on their own they obscure the power of more important factors, namely corporate capitalism’s ongoing frontier logic of expansion, extraction, and externalisation, which is – the book might have noted – inseparable from the settler colonialist project that led to temperate climate Britons struggling with the more tempestuous Australian climate in the first place.

This is the silence in Sunburnt Country that I felt most keenly. The very act of colonialism and the related effort to create a new territory, settlement, and node in the imperial economy were climate-changing acts. Sunburnt Country left me hungry for a parallel, intersecting history of Australia’s emissions and climatic interventions; a history not of just a young nation’s struggles with a seemingly capricious, volatile climate, but of the longer, uneven, embedded engagement of Indigenous and settler populations with ‘the environment’ (broadly defined), of which atmosphere and climate are a part. At a time when prime ministers continue to exploit Dorothea Mackellar’s patriotic poem about Australia’s sunburnt character to explain away ‘natural disasters’ such as the Tathra fires – disasters covered with human fingerprints at multiple levels – we need to reboot Australia’s climate re-education. The first, ongoing lesson is to appreciate that extreme climate variability in Australia is natural, normal, and inevitable; a message Sunburnt Country contributes to. But, as the book also indicates, a second lesson is now also needed: the fact that the climate is not just variable but the whole climate envelope is now shifting. A ‘new normal’ is emerging but the reasons are neither natural nor inevitable. To understand and address the latter we need to return to Britain and Europe more broadly, not to unpack the climate assumptions the early settlers brought with them, but to understand why they were heading off to settle a new continent in the first place. We need to return to the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, the rise of the Anglosphere, and the birth of the corporation. We need to trek back beyond the mid-twentieth-century ‘Great Acceleration’ in consumption rates and carbon dioxide concentrations that Gergis refers to, to the industrial revolution, the sixteenth-century emergence of the Capitalocene, and the idea that to be productive is to extract value from other bodies, things and places.

Understanding these longer histories requires socio-political literacy more than scientific literacy. At multiple levels, Sunburnt Country assists greatly with the latter. More importantly, though, it opens the way for subsequent, more critical analysis of the relationship between the ongoing settler colonial project and climate change.

Published in ABR Online Exclusives