Australia Burns Again — and Now, Its Biggest City Is Choking

SYDNEY, Australia — Flying into Sydney usually brings stunning views of rocky cliffs and crystal waters, but when Anna Funder looked out the window before landing this week, she saw only tragedy.

Thick gray smoke blanketed the skyline and the coast, stretching for miles from the fire front at the southwestern edge of the city, where dried-out forests have been burning for weeks.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ms. Funder, an award-winning Australian novelist known for stories of cruelty and resistance. “It was this huge and terrible seam of white smoke coming up from the ground beyond which the rest of the continent — where I was headed, where my home is — was invisible.

“It was as if the country were being devoured by a chemical reaction.”

Sydney, nicknamed the “Emerald City” for its subtropical beauty, is struggling with a summer of choking smoke. Bush fires raging to the north, south and west since early November have pushed smoke and ash not just into neighborhoods abutting the blazes, but all the way to coastal suburbs more than 50 miles away.

All of us who live here can taste the fire and feel it in our throats. Asthmatics are showing up in emergency rooms in greater numbers. Schools are canceling sports and recess. In houses built to be open to the elements, people are taping their windows shut; there have even been reports of fire alarms in office buildings set off by the smoke from miles away.

And the impact of this year’s wildfire season, which began much earlier than usual, goes beyond the physical. Rising levels of angst and anger are emerging all over Sydney, spreading like the haze.

As many here see it, Australia’s conservative government, in refusing to address the threat of climate change, is favoring the country’s powerful fossil fuel industry over its largest city, as well as the rural areas where fires have already destroyed hundreds of homes.

Psychologists describe a creeping sense of impotence and dread.

“The stress based on the fact that thick smoke can accelerate pre-existing cardiovascular conditions is one thing,” said Frans Verstraten, who holds the McCaughey Chair of Psychology at the University of Sydney. “But the other kind of stress, based on the realization that there is not much we can do — helplessness; the realization that you can’t do anything about it — makes it worse.”

On social media, the sharing of images of #sydneysmoke in its many shades, from orange to gray, has become a regular feature of people’s morning routines.

State officials have warned of the dangers. The New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage said that “our network has recorded some of the highest air pollution ever seen” in the state.

In November, the department recorded 15 days of poor air quality, far beyond the monthly norm. On Monday, the levels of PM2.5, the most harmful form of pollutant, were 22 times the accepted safety level — the equivalent of smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day. Pollution levels were expected to reach similar heights on Friday.

Even compared to the terrible fire seasons of 1994 and 2001, “this event,” state officials said, “is the longest and the most widespread in our records.”

With fires also raging in the state of Queensland, that means the pressure on Australia’s government is likely to intensify.

Climate protests have become more common. At rallies, longtime activists are increasingly being joined by newcomers like Emily Xu, a 13-year-old student who skipped school to attend a protest on Nov. 29 in downtown Sydney.

She and a handful of her friends, all in school uniforms, said it was their first rally, and that they had made the trek because the fires had suddenly made climate change’s threats more real for them.

“Before I was like, ‘Oh, if we don’t have coal we won’t make any money for our economy,’” said Ms. Xu. Now, she said, fires were approaching her house and her friends’ houses, making her less worried about the economy than about survival.

Ms. Funder, the novelist, said the failure to address climate change was especially hard for her three children, who are 10, 15 and 17, to understand.

“I can’t explain this to my children in a way that makes adults seem like sane, moral actors,” she said. “In this story, that’s not what we are. Although in every other way we try to look out for them and their future, in this story our failure is literally choking them, keeping them indoors at school.”

In some countries, such widespread environmental effects have led to changes in policy.

Activists angry about pollution in Mexico City pushed the government to impose tougher regulations for vehicle emissions. Many academics believe China’s quick pivot to renewables in recent years was a response to air pollution and citizens’ growing concerns about its impact.

In Australia, however — where the air in Sydney was ranked among the worst in the world last month — Prime Minister Scott Morrison has resisted.

“The response has been to double down on denialism,” said David Schlosberg, director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney.

Instead of addressing the public’s concerns, Mr. Morrison has suggested that some forms of protest should be outlawed, while refusing to meet with retired firefighters who have warned for months that more resources are desperately needed to battle the blazes.

On Friday, Mr. Morrison merely acknowledged that the haze in Sydney “has been very distressing to people.” He recommended downloading an app that tracks the fires.

Asked about a new report questioning Australia’s stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef, which is being killed by climate change, he repeated a false assertion that Australia’s carbon emissions are declining (scientists have shown that they are still rising).

Some critics are starting to wonder how long the government’s position can last.

“I really don’t see how this governmental attack on genuine concerns, coupled with a lack of action on both emissions and adaptation policies, can stand for much longer — especially in the face of increasing disasters and emergencies,” Mr. Schlosberg said.

At the very least, the smoky conditions are forcing everyone to question their assumptions about Sydney, where fresh air and ocean breezes are treated as a daily birthright.

At the top of Sydney Tower, the city’s tallest building, Chinese tourists said they were shocked by how little they could see.

In Hyde Park, a few blocks away, Julian deCseuz, 75, sat on a bench with a mask over his face. After a few hours of use, the white cotton was already a shade of dusty brown.

“Australia has always had a bush fire problem, but I’ve never seen it this bad,” he said. “I’ve been to Beijing and to Delhi, and it’s very similar conditions.”

Isabella Kwai contributed reporting.