Climate Change Ground Zero: Drought and Fires Devastate Australia
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On March 28, for the first time in anybody's memory, the floodlights surrounding the soaring white shells of the Sydney Opera House were temporarily extinguished, part of Earth Hour, an international event spanning 88 countries and 24 time zones to prompt world leaders to take action on global warming.
Although iconic buildings in Paris, New York, London, and Tokyo were similarly darkened, arguably none of these symbols was as apt as the unnerving black space that suddenly opened on the shores of Sydney's harbor. Perhaps more than any industrialized nation, Australia is contending with the increasingly dangerous effects of hotter, dryer, and more unpredictable weather patterns -- changes that many of the country's leading scientists and politicians now attribute to shifting weather patterns, at least in part due to climate change.
In February, on the same day that the temperature in Melbourne reached 116° F -- the hottest day ever recorded in Australia's second-largest city -- driving winds pushed a catastrophic bushfire across 1,500 square miles of eucalyptus forests in the state of Victoria, destroying 1,800 homes and farms and killing 173 people. That, too, set a record -- for the most deaths from a bushfire in Australia's history.
Adelaide and Melbourne are running out of water. The Murray-Darling Basin, Australia's prime food-growing region, is in the 12th year of a devastating drought that is putting the country's ability to feed itself in question. The 400,000-square-mile basin, larger than France and Germany combined, has been so dry that the 1-million ton-rice crop was decimated last year, and production of wheat, lambs, and cotton are in significant decline.
The slowly unfolding drought in the country's south, coupled with this summer's heat wave and fires in Victoria, have left many Australians wondering whether these natural disasters are a taste of what life will be like in a warming world. In the aftermath of the Victoria fires, the state's premier, John Brumby, joined John Connor, the chief executive of the Climate Institute -- a respected Australian research group -- in describing the disaster as "fires of climate change."
Concerned that steadily rising temperatures in south Australia and the recent drought signal a permanent climate shift, a majority of the country's states have taken the unprecedented step of agreeing to let the central government play the dominant role in managing local water resources. Growing fears of a lasting change in climate patterns has helped generate support for major public works projects to deal with water scarcity. Australia's 2007 national election, which saw the Progressive Party come to power, was the first national election in the country's history in which a scientific issue -- climate change -- played a decisive role.
"It's testing our people," said John Williams, the former chief of Land and Water for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the country's premier scientific agency. "These new conditions are forcing people to move out of industries. There are many people making decisions to change radically the nature of their business. There are some industries -- rice growing, cotton production — that are just failing and falling away."
To be sure, some of Australia's climatologists assert that such extreme events are a normal part of the country's diabolical weather. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and is accustomed to long periods of dry weather and dangerous fires.
"It is fashionable to promote climate change as being a contributor to changing fire frequency and intensity," William Kininmonth, the former head of Australia's National Climate Centre, said in a recent article in The Age. "The pattern of rainfall over the past century does not point to a trend of reduction in rainfall. Nor has any link been offered between global temperature trends and the meteorology of Victorian heat waves."