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 NiÃ±o 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.