Environment

Australia: Global Warming's Canary in the Coal Mine

In drought-riddled Australia, the effects of global warming are rippling through the economy -- effecting everything from farming to mining. It may even swing the next national election.
A recent trip to Australia to cover a conference on agrichar allowed me to see the Australian drought crisis on the ground and talk to a few Australians about their thoughts on climate change. Agrichar is an agricultural technique that sequesters carbon, see Birth of a New Wedge.

The conference took place in Terrigal, New South Wales, a beach town just north of Sydney. Out on the blue horizon, I could see an endless train of coal ships headed for the booming economies of Asia. Coal is Australia's No. 1 export and a mainstay of the economy. But at the same time, as a major contributor to global warming, it is undermining almost every other source of wealth in the country.

A few days after I arrived, Prime Minister John Howard suggested a solution for the multi-year drought that is shriveling Australia's farmland: "Pray for rain," he said. Only a superabundance of rain can head off the government's plans to cut off irrigation to thousands of farms that are dependent on Australia's largest river system, the Murray-Darling basin.

Howard is not willing to admit, however, that global warming is the cause of the drought. At most, he says "there does appear to be a change in the weather pattern." He said Australia might be "going back to a drier period," but he is conspicuously alone in that assessment. Unlike hurricane Katrina, whose global warming origins were more strongly debated, most Australians blame the drought on human-caused climate change.

Scientist Tim Flannery, whom Howard named "Australian of the year," speaking at the Agrichar Conference, said that, despite some encouraging recent rainstorms, "it is extremely unlikely that enough rain will fall this winter to let the Murray-Darling river system be used for agriculture."

Flannery, in his book "The Weather Makers," has an explanation for the severe drought. For the first 146 years of European habitation in southwest Australia, winter rainfalls were reliable, he says, but everything changed in 1975, when winter rainfall began a decline of ten to twenty percent. Half of the decline is due to global warming, which has pushed the temperate weather zone farther south, and half has come from destruction of the ozone layer over the South Pole.

Twenty percent may not seem like a big decline, but the agricultural systems in many regions of Australia were finely balanced, and the drop has been enough to do them in. Farmer Ed Fagan, who has seen his pastures destroyed by drought, said, "We're on a knife edge."

While not recognizing its cause, Howard clearly sees the need to do something about the drought, which nicked nearly one percent off Australia's economic growth last year. Other than praying for rain, his solutions are all techno-fixes. He wants to spend six billion Australian dollars on a new piping system, and he wants to transfer control of the river to the federal government.

But the state of Victoria is resisting that control. More efficient management of a dwindling resource may not be able to accomplish much anyway. According to the "Economist," the Murray-Darling river system is already one of the best-managed in the world. There's not a lot of efficiency to be gained, because just about every drop that can be squeezed out of the Murray-Darling already has been squeezed.

If irrigation is cut off this year, the biggest damage will be to the perennial trees and vines that produce Australia's valuable fruit, nut and grape harvests. Wine production was down by 50 percent in many areas this year, but if irrigation is cut off, vines and trees will die and farmers will have to start over.

In the wheat belt, Australian farmers have deployed new high-tech, no-till methods that use precision sowing tractors guided by GPS. By not disturbing soil, they retain more moisture. Without such advances, last year's poor harvest of 10 million tons of wheat (a normal year produces 25 million tons) would have been much worse. But high-tech solutions can't substitute for an absolute lack of water.

Agriculture is not the only sector of the Australian economy being hit. Water restrictions are causing power bills to go up. More than 800 megawatts of coal-fired generating plants have been shut down because there is not enough water to run steam turbines and cooling towers. Large hydropower schemes have also had to reduce output.

Roman Domanski of the Energy Users Association of Australia said that if the drought goes on, high power prices would "decimate a lot of industries." He said the economic penalty of the drought was equivalent to adding a carbon tax of forty dollars a ton. That's an interesting comparison because ultimately a high carbon tax may be the only cure for Australia's climate ills.

Mining is being hit as well. The city of Orange, New South Wales, was recently asked to put itself on water restrictions in order to supply the local gold mine with water and save 450 jobs. Mines throughout the country have had to cut back production or redesign water systems.

Most of the areas that I visited in coastal New South Wales were not under the most severe water restrictions, but I heard stories of towns where all water is trucked in. In Brisbane, a city of 2.8 million, people are limited to 140 liters of water each per day. You can't wash a car or fill a child's wading pool.

Animals are suffering too. The conservation group Birds Australia reports that the drought has slashed bird numbers, including many small birds and endangered species. In some cases, large birds have been able to fly to better areas. When I saw a huge white form swoop in front of me on a busy Sydney street, it turned out to be a sulphur-crested cockatoo. "They've been invading the city and wreaking havoc on gardens," I was told. But they are just searching for water, like every other creature on the parched continent.

John Howard, stuck in denial mode, has only nuclear power and so-called "clean coal" to offer as a solution. But Australians don't seem to be buying it. Polls show that more than 90 percent see global warming as a critical issue and prefer solar technology to nuclear power.

There will be an election in Australia this fall. Howard's challenger is Kevin Rudd of the Australian Labor Party. Rudd has called for an emissions-reduction target of 60 percent by 2050, although he has yet to outline a set of policies to get there. As a labor leader, he has the coal and uranium miners to satisfy, as well as the greens. But because Howard's Australia has joined with Bush's America in a coalition of the "unwilling to join Kyoto," Rudd would be a definite improvement, and this could be an important election.

I asked a number of people how they thought the election would go. Ray O'Grady, a farmer who attended the agrichar conference, said, "I saw Al Gore's movie six months ago and I said to myself as I walked out of the theater -- this will change Australian politics. All my life, I have never voted for anything but conservatives. But this time I'm thinking differently."

But when I asked him if climate change would swing the federal election to Rudd in the fall, he wasn't so sure his fellow Australians would be with him. "People are going to take a look at mortgage rates and vote their pocketbooks," he said. "Australia has a high level of personal debt."

Peter Shenstone is a director of the Australian environmental group Planet Ark. Peter showed me around the Planet Ark headquarters in the Blue Mountains, which is a model of sustainable building and drought-tolerant landscaping. The complex provides all of its own power and water, using solar panels and windmills. Peter said that the people in Australia are "way ahead of government." He said the response to climate change needs to be "on a war footing," but he wouldn't talk about the election because his organization is studiously nonpartisan.

Instead, he is recruiting an army of tree planters through Planet Ark's tree-planting programs. The solution to the drought and to climate change, he says, is to plant 60 billion trees. "People say there's no water," he said, "but we can reverse the positive feedback loop by planting trees, and the water will come back."

Mike, an information technology manager who shared a table with me at a crowded café in Sydney, had little faith in government by either party to solve global warming. "Politicians can't do anything because they always have another election in three years," he said. He sees business as leading the way because "they can afford to take the long-term view."

Part of Mike's cynicism was, he told me, due to what happened to Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam back in 1975. I didn't know much about that, but I had a hunch I could find out more in John Pilger's Australian history, "A Secret Country," which I'd seen in the airport bookstore. I picked up a copy and read it during my journey home.

Gough Whitlam's government was elected in 1972, the first Labor government in 23 years. One of the first things Whitlam did was to pull Australia out of Vietnam. He also demanded more information about secretive US military installations in the outback, including a nuclear facility at a place called Pine Gap. The US grew concerned that Whitlam would close its bases in Australia, and launched what Pilger calls a "coup," that resulted in Whitlam's ouster in 1975.

Pilger does a meticulous job of documenting the details of the CIA's campaign against Whitlam. It's a chilling story involving letter bombs, ginned-up scandals, bought-off union leaders, opposition campaign slush funds and plenty of help from Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. You can also read a shorter version of the story in William Blum's "Killing Hope."

In a March 2007 article in the New Statesman titled, "Australia: the 51st State," John Pilger describes Murdoch's continuing influence, especially his support for the conservative John Howard and for Australia's involvement in the US war in Iraq.

But now we hear that Murdoch has gone green. Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced that all of his operations would slash their energy consumption and, with the help of purchased carbon offsets, become carbon neutral. In addition, his media companies will start promoting awareness about climate change.

If indeed governments have no more power than what corporations like Murdoch's allot to them, then I suppose we should celebrate Murdoch's initiative. But on the other hand, when you look closely into the history of how he has operated you learn that after helping to toss out Whitlam, Murdoch didn't back the conservative opposition. Instead, he helped the next Labor government into power: the CIA-friendly government of Bob Hawke. He is a master at subverting social movements to his own purposes.

One view of Rupert Murdoch is that he simply hates to back losers. In that case, it's somewhat comforting to know that he sees global warming as a winning issue. But it's also important to ask how he will skew public awareness toward solutions that bring him and others of his class personal advantage, but aren't necessarily the best for the planet. Our best hope is that people will continue to be way out ahead of both government and News Corporation, and be actively involved in leading the way.

Here in America, we have to wait until 2008 for our referendum on the climate and war policies of the Bush administration. Many Australians I met seemed to feel that the land down under is perpetually behind the rest of the world. But this year Oz has a chance to take the lead and be the first to turn the losers out.
Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl.