Australian Drought : First Major Climate Change Disaster

In case you were hoping the consequences of global warming were going to be felt at some distant and remote point in the future, news comes from Australia that the Prime Minister has announced that, without significant rain, the country will need to shut down its water supply to its agricultural lands. From the UK Independent:

Australia has warned that it will have to switch off the water supply to the continent’s food bowl unless heavy rains break an epic drought – heralding what could be the first climate change-driven disaster to strike a developed nation.

The Murray-Darling basin in south-eastern Australia yields 40 per cent of the country’s agricultural produce. But the two rivers that feed the region are so pitifully low that there will soon be only enough water for drinking supplies. Australia is in the grip of its worst drought on record, the victim of changing weather patterns attributed to global warming and a government that is only just starting to wake up to the severity of the position.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, a hardened climate-change sceptic, delivered dire tidings to the nation’s farmers yesterday. Unless there is significant rainfall in the next six to eight weeks, irrigation will be banned in the principal agricultural area. Crops such as rice, cotton and wine grapes will fail, citrus, olive and almond trees will die, along with livestock.

A ban on irrigation, which would remain in place until May next year, spells possible ruin for thousands of farmers, already debt-laden and in despair after six straight years of drought.

Lovers of the Australian landscape often cite the poet Dorothea Mackellar who in 1904 penned the classic lines: “I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains.” But the land that was Mackellar’s muse is now cracked and parched, and its mighty rivers have shrivelled to sluggish brown streams. With paddocks reduced to dust bowls, graziers have been forced to sell off sheep and cows at rock-bottom prices or buy in feed at great expense. Some have already given up, abandoning pastoral properties that have been in their families for generations. The rural suicide rate has soared.

Mr Howard acknowledged that the measures are drastic. He said the prolonged dry spell was “unprecedentedly dangerous” for farmers, and for the economy as a whole. Releasing a new report on the state of the Murray and Darling, Mr Howard said: “It is a grim situation, and there is no point in pretending to Australia otherwise. We must all hope and pray there is rain.”

But prayer may not suffice, and many people are asking why crippling water shortages in the world’s driest inhabited continent are only now being addressed with any sense of urgency.

The causes of the current drought, which began in 2002 but has been felt most acutely over the past six months, are complex. But few scientists dispute the part played by climate change, which is making Australia hotter and drier.

Environmentalists point to the increasing frequency and severity of drought-causing El Niño weather patterns, blamed on global warming. They also note Australia’s role in poisoning the Earth’s atmosphere. Australians are among the world’s biggest per-capita energy consumers, and among the top producers of carbon dioxide emissions. Despite that, the country is one of only two industrialised nations – the United States being the other – that have refused to ratify the 1997 Kyoto protocol. The governments argue that to do so would harm their economies.

Until a few months ago, Mr Howard and his ministers pooh-poohed the climate-change doomsayers. The Prime Minister refused to meet Al Gore when he visited Australia to promote his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. He was lukewarm about the landmark report by the British economist Sir Nicholas Stern, which warned that large swaths of Australia’s farming land would become unproductive if global temperatures rose by an average of four degrees. [full text]

This is a sad testament to the power of denial and how it has blinded us to the consequences of unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels. It has taken a near catastrophe to pull Prime Minister Howard’s head out of the scorched sand.

Unless people begin to invest heavily in green energy, we are dooming ourselves. But there does seem to be a strong and growing public consciousness about environmental issues. One piece of evidence that going green in going mainstream is a recent issue I received of a very mainstream investing magazine called SFO. The cover stories are all about investing in green companies, investing in water, and “profiting from pollution control.” Perhaps this is a hopeful sign of a future where sustainable energy becomes profitable and major climate disasters are averted.

13 thoughts on “Australian Drought : First Major Climate Change Disaster

  1. Doesn’t Australia have a history of significant dought, including the eastern part of the continent? In fact, weren’t drought conditions such a concern even centuries ago that reports were kept from Western Europeans so as not to halt migration to Australia?

  2. The drought disaster in Australia is significant and has already had a major economic impact on Australian agriculture. But before pronouncements of earth-shaking climatic doom and gloom click in, some reflection is necessary. There is a difference between weather and climate and one should not lose sight of the fact that long term climatic patterns mean just that, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and millions of years of shifting environments. Repeated droughts (and alternating wet periods) have been a part of the Australian climatic scene for a very long time. Indeed, aridity has been increasing in Australia since the Miocene Epoch (5.2 million years ago) to the present. The why of this is linked to where Australia is and has been in its journey through time. Continents are not static; they move about as shown by studies of continental drift and palte tectonics. The last 500,000 years of Australian climate history have been varied with wet periods and alternating extended dry episodes. Modern style arid conditions were in place by 25,000 years ago.

    I do not think Australia is a good poster case for the climate change scenarios except that it clkearly illustrates our human foible of thinking in terms of our 70-year lives as compared to the 4.5 billion year life of this planet. For anyone interested, some old friends published a marvelous award winning book, “Wildlife of Gondwana,” Patricia Vickers-Rich and Thomas Hewitt Rich. Likely out of print, it should be available in good libraries and worth a read.

  3. Thanks for this background in climate science and history. But is it not still true that if carbon emissions are speeding up the warming of the planet, even if this was a trend that was already happening, we are exacerbating it?

  4. The coincidence of CO2 and climate change is of course a topic of heated debate. This issue has had a “cycle” all its own, swinging back and forth over decades. During the 1940 or so to 1978 or so period, the sense was that a catstrophe was about to destroy the world, only then it was a new Ice Age! Obviously the pendulum has shifted towards the other end. There seems to be a general sense that a warming cycle is going on, but temperature fluxes in the recent (perhaps 2,000 year range)have been in the order of 2-3 degrees either way. The current warming, some of my astronmer friends say, may be solar in origin. Mars is warmin, so is Jupiter and I understand that Uranus and Pluto (no longer a planet–yukk) are warming as well. Now that can mean that current Earth warming is largely solar or current Earth warming in human induced and solar (a double whammy and if so, that can be bad). I tend to think the current and temporary situation is solar and we will likely enter a cooling trend (and some folks tell me that has already strted in some places). The head of NASA is correct when he said there is no evidence that the current world climate is the best, permanent, or unchanging–beauty, even for climate is in the eye of the beholder. I I were an old fossil (my kids say I am anyway), say a mammoth trundling across southern Wisconsin 18,000 years ago, the best of all possible worlds for me would be that awful cold, snowy, damp, nasty climate with all those bogs and succulent plants. If I was an alligator, 70 million years ago in South Dakots, I would be living in a nice warm, wet place floating in a slow moving stream, about 20 miles just West oif the shore of a vast seaway that stretched from the North Pole or so, to the Gulf of Mexico, 5000 miles long N-S and 1200 wide East to West. The world would be basically ice free and dinosaurs lived in Alaska.

    C02 is a nice gas; more of it and trees and plants do well and our atmosphere has very little really compared to other gasses (360 parts per billion is it). On the other hand, there is many more times Argon in our atmosphere, almost 1 part per hundred as I recall and much more Nitrogen (70%) and Oxygen (21%). The amount of CO2may have greater impact in a more humid climate than a dry climate for all kinds of reasons as I understand. Importantly, the amount of CO2 was a lot higher when the dinos roamed the world (8-10 times more) than now–that’s a lot of CO2. And plants did well because of the CO2 and more moisture, at least seasonly.

    I am more concerned with the record of oxygen. It soes go up and down and that can be scary and we really don’t know why. We do know that during the greatest extinction episode ever, about 320 million years ago, almost everything on Earth died–really did and oxygen was at 14%! Since the age of Dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, the oxygen in the atmosphere seems to have declined from 28%-30% to the current 20.9% and that is more worrisome to me at least.

    Beyond that, of course noxious irritants NO2, Ozone, heavy metals, etc., should be kept out of the environment for man, many reasons.

  5. OK,let’s concede that there are non-human causes for the current warming trend. Does that mean we should continue to spew more CO2 into the atmosphere, possible consequences be damned?

    My apologies, but the argument sounds so much like what the tobacco companies did: claim the science wasn’t sound, so there’s no reason to stop smoking. That seems not to be the wisest possible course of action.

    Even if it’s caused by the sun, there is general agreement, among most reputable scientists, that the climate is getting warmer. This can cause all sorts of long-term problems. Just ask the Mayas. So doesn’t it make sense to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels?

    And there’s the whole issue of oil supply. Gas should be about $150 per gallon, if you were to bill the oil companies for the services of the American military that so graciously ensures our access to oil supplies. Because let’s face it: we would not be in Iraq if Iraq didn’t have oil. Geo W Bush said as much himself on a Rush Limbaugh show, so this isn’t left-wing propaganda.

    So why don’t we face up to the problem? If the cause is the sun, adding CO2 isn’t helping. But quibbling about whether it’s real, or whether it’s caused by humans only confuses the issue and provides cover for those–like oil companies–who would like to continue on their merry way with nary a thought to what’s going to happen to our children.

  6. Cutting to the chase is appealing to be sure, but when issues of significance are at stake, it is best like Caesar to determine if all of Gaul is divided into one, two, three or more parts, because what is at stake is not the outcome of any one battle, but the entire war and the continuance of a modern economy. I completely agree with Klaus, clean is good and an alternative to a petroleum based, carbon based economy is desireable apart from the issue of why the current global warming cycle is more influenced by the Sun or human activities. In a strategic sense, however, we have only so many options for divorcing ourselves from dependence on foreign oil or dometic oil. Obviously we can drill for more–and there is likely lots of oil around, but the hurdles to drilling are well known and more political than technically feasible. We can also process more tar sands and oil shales. There is an awful lot of oil in North American tar sands and oil shales, perhaps hundreds of years of available oil, at a price of course, economic and environmental. We can go nuclear for lots of clean power, cheap and reliable, but again with a price at the end. We have enormous amounts of coal that can be used to generate electricity or liquified and used to generate other fuels. The Chinese are firing up a new coal power plant every week, more than 50 a year and the Indian government has also gone coal. China and India have said they will not stop thier economic development of these resources. So, what do we do? The answers are potential new technologies or development of old ones. There is no “cold fusion” miracle about to happen and cars do not do well on wind power and hydrogen fuel cells will never be cheap or competitive. Alcohol is nice but is low on energy and requires big, big fuel tanks. The corn used hurts us because there is less corn for human or animal food and food prices increase. Wind, solar. tidal, geothermal, hydroelectric, magnetic or any other esoteric energy source lacks that competitive edge to make it worthwhile except in limited circumstances.

    In terms of the Iraq conflict, I suspect that “oil” was not a direct cause of our ovethrow of Hussein. After all, the oil was controlled by the U.N., and was a State monopoly, as I believe it still is and no oil from Iraq was directed to the U.S. Oil is significant in a strategic sense, and that cannot be avoided. Apart from bein the Iraqi cash cow, as corrupt as that is and likely always has been, it makes no sense to allow Iran to control Iraqi oil when we leave. And I ernestly wish us to get the heck out of the Sunni quadrangle. The Kurdish areas and southern Shiite areas are likely able to proceed in a reasonabnly orderly way. The Joe Biden, let them divide idea is very attractive. The Christopher Hitchens view of the Kurdish area is likewise reasonable. Perhaps giving Kuwait a stake in the south and supporting the Kurds will enable us to get disentangled. city fighting is not what we want to do. We should take the lessons of McArthur in Manila where it took about 300,000 Americans and perhaps another 150,000 Philipino troops weeks to dislodge the Japanese, block by block and house by house in a bloody confrotation that left virtually all the Japanese occupiers dead but also destroyed all of the city. We can do that in Iraq, but why?

    Finally, I completely agree that we need to be concerned about the world we leave to our children. In some ways I suspect that we are in more difficulty than we realize. In the U.S. for instance, our population has swollen to more than 300 million (and likely 320 million or more if we count all the illegals here). Our doubling time is about 45 years, so all else equal, we will be 600 million-plus by 2050 or so, our children’s world, and 1.2 billion by 2095, the world of our grandchildren. If the proposed legislation regarding illegals is passed, we will likely be 340 million (reunification provisions) and the doubling time would likely drop to 35-40 years. Now 300 million people in a modern economy have huge energy needs; imagine the needs of 600 million, or 1.2 billion! And ther is the long term problem.

  7. klaus, I agree that it is in our best interest to work towards a diminished reliance on fossil fuels. But the sky-is-falling crowd are insisting that climate change will destroy us in 50 years, or ten years, or five years. And their solution is to throw money at it…lots of money. I believe the UN commission projected a trillion dollars. That’s a huge investment for a what-if. Imagine how far that money could go to improving the lives of people in Africa, for instance, which we know for certain is a crisis.

  8. Crowd Surfer: sure, there’s a bit of hyperbole and histrionics in the global warming awareness campaign. However, it appears that some hysteria was warranted.

    The “stay-the-course” crowd is running the show, and they have been adamant about refusing even to consider that a problem might exist. Given this self-interested, self-serving, attitude of protecting vested, monied interests, it’s been necessary to go over the top to draw attention to the problem.

    Even now, you’re dragging your feet and only grudgingly admitting that there might be something to the issue. It takes a lot to overcome that sort of entrenched inertia.

    And what is the big deal? Why is it so awful to contemplate a few changes in lifestyle that might do some good on a couple of fronts? Cheney simply–and contemptuously–dismissed any conservation efforts as part of a plan to wean ourselves from foreign oil dependence. Why? Why is this such a horrible thought? Possibly because his oil-man cronies might suffer the loss of some profit?

    I mean, we save energy, we’re less hostage to the Middle East, we do the planet some good…why do conservatives have such a problem with this? To the point that oil companies stooped to paying scientists to argue against even the possibility of global warming. Doesn’t that strike you as incredibly dishonest? And what are they trying to cover up?

    And that’s not paranoia. When you spend big bucks to buy research, doesn’t that tell you anything?

    As for the investment, think of it as the next new technological frontier. There’s $$ there for the making.

  9. Both Klaus and Crowd Surfer make excellent points. Of course efficiency and conservation make sense for all kinds of reasons. However, it is unlikely that there is an easy way to ease the dependence on foreign oil resources, unless there was an overiding will backed by significant Federal and State legislation. There are fuel resources that are available to us domestically or in Canada. For example, it is almost certain that there are significant amounts of oil off California, Florida and the Atlantic coast. Laws and regulations prevent the exploitation of these resources although Cuba has given China the right to explore in waters off Cuba, only 50 miles from Florida. American companies are prevented from drilling by American law. As I have noted elsewhere, there are huge oil resources in North American oil shales and tar sands, enough to completely free us from using any, yes any, foreign oil. The catch (of course) again are regulations and cost. We have huge coal resources; the Chinese open a new coal-fired power plant every week. It takes 8-10 years to get a coal-fired power plant on line in the U.S. We have enormous natural gas reserves. Again, laws and regulations prevent the leasing of these. Nuclear power plants can provide cheap, dependable power, and many nations are expanding electrical generation from Nuclear power. But not the U.S.

    Just some thoughts about potential resources we are not using and which would certaily ease the energy situation in the U.S. without the need for untested esoteric alternatives.

  10. You are correct, Mr Wolberg. There are no easy, simple answers or solutions to this problem.

    Which is why we need to start sooner, rather than later as the oil lobby would like us to do.

  11. Some other things to think about include the growing population pressure here in the U.S. If we are 300 million-plus now and will likely be 600 million in 2050 or so, and we want to maintain a modern life style, the energy pressures will be huge for electricity and oil will still be a major energy source—perhaps. The rest of the world will also have increased pressures with huge population/automobile/industry pressures.

    The other factor is that the oil-rich cartel can manipulate production and maintain scarcity of the resource and prices by increasing or decreasing production. Just because we use less, world demand will still be there, or OPEC can provide less to us or just shift supply to the growing economies of Asia for example.

    All this means to me that we need to increase our production, possibly from alternative oil sources, sooner than laster.

  12. Donald Wolberg is correct that climate change has been a subject for contention and debate for many decades. However, the scientific case for serious greenhouse-gas related global warming has now been established beyond reasonable doubt and the debate on this point is now effectively over. I am not trying to stifle debate – but after a while the position that, for example, the sun goes round the earth, becomes untenable, and after several decades of discussion that point has now been reached in the global warming debate.

    The economic argument for action was a further contentious issue but that too has now been settled by the Stern Report in the UK, which established beyond doubt that inaction was more expensive than action. Further prevarication cannot be justified on scientific or economic grounds.

    On the subject of energy, there is a widespread belief that if we need resources, they will become available, but this is not necessarily the case. There is no known long term substitute for oil. Not coal, not nuclear, not shale. All of these resources are non-renewable with a life time of less than 50 years. Yes, even Uranium. Yes, even coal.

    Therefore reducing our energy use is not a matter of choice. If we do not reduce our consumption voluntarily we will soon become compelled to reduce consumption by the nature of the world we live in, however unpleasant that may be to contemplate.

    Fortunately we can easily reduce our energy consumption wıthout any reduction in quality of life whatever eg by switching off appliances when not in use.

  13. I read through this page with great interest, perhaps because I am not a proponent of either camp in the climate change debate. What I can tell is that the debate is far, far, far from over. If I Google for “climate change consensus”, what emerges is not a picture of “beyond reasonable doubt”. Rather the list goes something like “Menace or Myth”,”Consensus grows on climate change”, “The letter Science Magazine refused to publish”, “…calls for climate change consensus”.

    As a graduate student at a university which shall remain unnamed, I had a conversation with one of my teachers some time ago and asked him about a particular research project the university is hosting. His cold reply was that the project had nothing to do with its name, but rather that it was “what ministers were signing off on that year”. Now, I don’t smoke and I don’t even drive to work, but since then I do recognize that scientific, academic and governmental institutions too should be scrutinized in the light of their need for funding, not only tobacco or oil companies. The battles that go one behind the scenes in the research community to secure funding are fierce and the politics are ugly.

    In that spirit, let the debate continue. I am keen, but so far nothing I have seen has convinced me either way.

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