IT seems to be the iconic moment for many Australians as they reel from their territory – a landmass the size of the United States – being engulfed by unprecedented bushfires.

A video doing the rounds shows an Australian magpie, sitting on a white picket fence in Newcastle, New South Wales. The bird is notable, beloved even, for mimicking the sounds it encounters most in its neighbourhoods.

Its soaring song? A diverse range of whooping fire-engine sirens – which are all that the creature has heard in the last few weeks.

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The Australian inferno is quite rightly being cited as an example of the climate meltdown already underway, never mind being mitigated (it’s the hottest and driest year on record, and for Australia, that’s saying something).

I don’t know how your contacts with family, friends and colleagues down under are. But my own connections are acutely depressed about their daily experiences.

The choking throats, the eerie sky-glows, the power cuts, the transport failures. The near misses as walls of flame rush past their compounds. The bloviation of politicians – and the chances of them acting responsibly being “Buckley’s and none”, as they say.

Don’t think for a moment, however, that they’re quivering in the corner, timidly awaiting eco-apocalypse. It’s curious to read Australians’ everyday accounts of defending their homesteads in the bush against fast-moving, treetop-high walls of fire. One feature of their yarns is definitely about displaying Ocker resilience.

They tell you, wearily, that they’ve always had to deal with bushfires. And how their families and communities have developed many survival skills. Sprinklers are fitted to roofs; non-flammable perimeters are cultivated; engines are sparked up to maintain water pressure. Apps called “Fires Near Us” bring real-time info about the location of whirling blazes.

I even hear of the wonders of protective fire blankets, made of pure wool and fire retardant, which (they assure me) can help any citizen survive a 1000°C inferno passing overhead for 20-40 minutes.

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Yet this bushfire season is scaring even the most gnarled and combative of modern Australians. As the pictures show, vast areas of the country are flaming towards each other – an area the size of Belgium now incinerated. The sheer volume of burning casts a weird, orange pallor over the megalopolis called Sydney.

The denizens of this world capital are already making their grim calculations. P2 (meaning cancer-inducing specks of ash, a few micromillimetres long) suffuses the air of its streets. There’s a severe shortage of P2 breathing masks (which don’t seal tightly enough around the face, so hardly work anyway). Sydneysiders expect a run of emphysema and lung cancer cases over the next 10-30 years as a consequence of the fires.

“This is essentially every depiction of hell made real ... the dystopian future so often predicted in science fiction,” says one of my Oz contacts.

And while the human death toll isn’t high so far, the animal toll is almost incomprehensible. An estimated half a billion animals have been killed so far, with koalas particularly ill-equipped to escape these extreme and ferocious fires.

The National: Australian PM Scott Morrison is sympathetic to the fossil-fuel industryAustralian PM Scott Morrison is sympathetic to the fossil-fuel industry

As we watch the rains trickle boringly down our Scottish windows, next to the flat-screen and its orange-tinted news bulletins, it might be easy for us to quietly thank our lucky stars for our generally sodden condition.

Yet Australia is part of our modernity. It’s a shock to see cargo-panted, mobile-phoning suburbanites stumble around on ochre-tinted beaches as the flames consume their homes, livelihoods and towns around them.

What phenomena will hit us eventually, in damp Scotland, as the planet still relentlessly warms? Rather than a wall of flame, it will likelier be those refugee souls that are being baked out of their homelands – our Western heedlessness about our carbon emissions destroying their domestic viability. Are we ready and willing to take on our responsibilities, for an outcome we’ve generated?

Studying the Australian situation illuminates further what the sharp edges of our coming climate politics might entail.

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Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison was elected by the same campaign meme-machine that gave Johnson his office, and the Tories their majority. Morrison is so sympathetic to the fossil-fuel industry that he once cradled a lump of coal in the Canberra parliament chamber (“don’t be afraid of it”, he cooed).

At the recent COP25 climate conference, the Australians were condemned by many participating states for trying to compromise and soften the impact of carbon trading quotas. Morrison – who is so insouciant about the bushfires that he went on a family holiday to Hawaii at their height – is a familiar kind of Australian political triangulator (indeed, they invented the practice).

“We want to hit our climate targets, but we don’t want to affect the jobs of ordinary Australians – we take a sensible position,” was one of his recent responses.

Will the current Westminster Government adopt the same middle-of-the-road stance as Morrison over the next 12 months, in its procession to the next COP conference in Glasgow? Indeed, for that matter, what position will a Scottish government take, if oil-for-energy production is still part of the indy prospectus?

Successive Australian governments’ addiction to fossil-fuels has all-too-commercial drivers. China has an extractive relationship with Australia – the lucky country provides the superpower with iron ore and coal in trade worth $120 billion a year.

Yet if any nation had the potential to be a solar-powered, sustainable-energy colossus, it should be Australia. Indeed, on a sun-generated watts-per-capita basis, in July 2019 Australia was second in the world (459 wpc) to Germany (548 wpc).

There are justifiable fears about adding the flammability of solar panels, and the explosive potential of batteries, to the bush lifestyle. But at least to serve the major cities, solar farms are plannable, defensible and viable.

Indeed, the full range of sustainable energy sources – geothermal, on and offshore wind, tidal – are available to this lucky country. Anything that’s a viable alternative to the coal-fired stations that, unbelievably, still provide the baseload of Australian energy production. (Prime Minister Morrison’s adhesion to the teat of the mining sector will only extend the madness).

And like a far-off cry, the voice of Australia’s original inhabitants – who have tended the land sustainably and intimately for tens of thousands of years – can occasionally be heard amidst the mainstream political clamour.

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Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate On Earth, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, are books that utterly refute the myth that Australia was an uncultivated wilderness roamed by hunter-gatherers, then made productive by Western colonists.

And the proof was the way that the indigenous peoples used “fire stick”, or strategic burning. They hustled trees onto poor land, and made the good land into lawns that attracted game: a “mosaic of burns”, as Pascoe calls it. And those remaining trees weren’t allowed to thicken their flammable trunks, or have their leafy canopies too close together.

Entirely challenging all the prejudices, Pascoe and Gammage’s researches show aboriginal natural landscapes that were more controlled, with fewer and better tended trees, than at present – where the flames leap from crown to crown.

As a piece on the ABC website notes: “There might be big benefits from Australia re-learning its ancient people’s fire skills. The question remains whether Australian politics is mature enough to allow it.”

Doesn’t seem that way at the moment (and political immaturity is hardly exclusive to Australia). My Sydney colleagues expect that climate leadership will have to come from out of civil society somehow, given the deeply compromised nature of the new regime. Any of that sound familiar?

But we should keep a steady and alarmed eye on the Australian meltdown. Contrary to the cheeky and cheery tourism video that Kylie Minogue has been surreally promoting on social media, Australia is a bellwether for some of our own collective troubles.

I’m told the fires won’t die down for weeks yet. Our interest shouldn’t either.