The Climate Crucible

Frontier / by Maywa Montenegro /

From parched earth, Australia sprouts a culture convinced that global warming can be overcome.

In March, the city of Sydney, Australia switched off the lights for one hour, kicking off a year-long campaign to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent. Credit: Ian Waldle/Getty

No country on Earth is experiencing the early signs of a warming world as keenly as the land down under. Recent data shows that temperatures in Australia are escalating faster than the global average: Of the country’s 20 warmest years on record, 15 have occurred since 1980. The past 10 years have seen the lowest rainfall amounts in at least 100 years and perhaps since Europeans arrived on the continent. According to leading climatologists, the doubled severity of heat and drought suggests that Australia could be a “canary in the coal mine” of climate change, providing the world with a glimpse of what’s to come.

While other nations are debating how best to tackle a somewhat nebulous future scenario of climate change, for Australia that future is today. And this country—with the biggest per capita carbon footprint of any developed nation in the world—is now emerging as an exemplar for sweeping environmental reform. Rising social concerns about water have created a greater awareness of global warming, which has, in turn, prompted a broad political response. Scientifically informed solutions to both the water and climate dilemmas are being rolled out for the first time on a national stage. As experts predict crises akin to Australia’s “Big Dry” in many other parts of the world, how this nation responds will reveal much about our collective ability to reverse course on climate change.

The Murray-Darling River Basin, a region the size of France and Spain combined, is Australia’s breadbasket and the source of 75 percent of its national water supply. In 2006, water flow into the basin reached an all-time low. The harvest of the country’s three major grains is now forecast to be down by 60 percent from the previous year, and the combined economic toll on agriculture is estimated at $5.3 billion. In an urgent meeting with the Commonwealth Government, David Crombie, president of the National Farmer’s Federation, said, “When you consider the Murray-Darling Basin constitutes 40 percent of the total value of Australian agriculture production, we’re talking about a national economic crisis we have not seen before in this country.”

While droughts of the past have mainly affected the country’s rural interior, this one has also hit its urban centers—cities like Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth—where more than 85 percent of the population lives. “Every major Australian town and city has been on very significant water restrictions for at least a year, and Canberra’s been on water restrictions for nearly three,” says David Freudenberger, director of science and major projects for Greening Australia, the country’s largest environmental organization. “We don’t use hoses outside. We’re not allowed to use sprinklers during the day. In my house, for the last two years, we’ve been pumping water from the washing machine onto the backyard to keep the trees alive.” In Brisbane, where water restrictions are most severe, electrical utilities are even being shut down. “They don’t have enough water to generate steam for the power plants,” says Freudenberger. In April, water supply to urban centers became so critically low that despite a “potentially devastating impact” on agriculture, John Howard, Australia’s prime minister, predicted a likely ban on farming irrigation in the coming year. “It’s a grim situation,” he said.

Restrictions on water, increased electricity prices, and the threat of agricultural collapse have been humbling. “Australians are becoming more aware of our social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities to climate,” says Neil Plummer, senior climatologist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

A survey conducted in April by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that, out of 17 countries polled, Australians had the largest majority—92 percent—in favor of measures to combat global warming. And 69 percent favored takings steps now, even ones involving “significant costs.”

It’s the kind of momentum that will likely bring an end to Prime Minister Howard’s decade-long tenure when national elections are held in November. A longtime global-warming skeptic, Howard did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. And despite some of his recent gestures in a greener direction, including signing the US-led Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, Australians are now very wary of his rhetoric. “The last polling showed that if the election were held four months ago, the prime minister, and the treasurer, and the environment minister would have all lost their seats—so it would have been an incredible landslide,” says Tim Flannery, a biologist and one of Australia’s most outspoken environmental advocates. “It gives you the sense of the mood of the public.”

Kevin Rudd, leader of the opposition Labor party, is campaigning on a platform that includes $50 million for geothermal energy, $50 million for an Australian Solar Institute, and a 60 percent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050.

The election, says Flannery, will be in large part a referendum on climate change. While political overhaul is disruptive, the public has gained confidence from the scientific community that these decisions are a step in the right direction. Part of nurturing trust with the greater public has been emphasizing freedom of choice, according to Tom Hatton, a hydroecologist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), and director of the Water for a Healthy Country Flagship program. “We keep as many options on the table as possible,” says Hatton. “We try to paint the picture of the consequences of the choices we’re making and the options that we have to change the world.”

The Flagship was launched with a mandate to integrate Australia’s social concerns over water use with scientific ones. One of its most ambitious plans is to develop “urban waterscapes”—cities that turn industry effluent into a usable stream, creating self-sustaining, closed-loop water cycles. In the city of Mandurah, 70 km south of Perth, the first phase of this plan is already underway: Recycled sewage now irrigates local parks, gardens, and green open spaces. Next year, the state of Queensland will introduce recycled sewage into its drinking supplies.

What is impressive about initiatives like this isn’t that cosmopolitan Brisbanites could soon be drinking treated toilet water; it’s that these adjustments in lifestyle have opened the door for more endemic change in Australian society. “The drought is bringing environmental issues to everyone’s backyard,” says Freudenberger. “There is an enormous amount of corporate and public pressure to work out the best system of carbon reductions, in terms of improving efficiency, green energy, and carbon sinks.”

Some interactive tools being piloted in Australia will revolutionize future decision-making in sectors from agriculture to civil engineering. One project, currently awaiting government approval, pinpoints coastal communities on a digital map, identifying roads, homes, businesses, and other urban infrastructure that are vulnerable to rising sea levels. Another project maps water availability across the continent, and provides that information to farmers and irrigators in real-time online. Someday, technology like this could help farmers in New South Wales and Nigeria alike anticipate rainfall and plan for their upcoming harvests.

Australia still has a long way to go before it can claim environmental bragging rights, but the depth and scope of its early efforts suggest that the battle against global warming is indeed winnable. Success, however, will hinge on the cooperation of the world’s other largest polluters, where a climate-conscious political resolve has yet to take hold. If countries like China and the US wait for their own “Big Dry,” clearly it will be too late. Beyond providing a preview of a warming planet, Australia’s case illustrates humanity’s willingness to rethink its place in the environment. It offers a view of a public that is beginning to embrace science-based solutions as the best way forward, and is pushing to revolutionize the business and political landscape of the country. And yet it is also a cautionary tale. “It took something like the drought,” says Flannery, “to bring this home to people.”

Originally published October 24, 2007

Tags climate development policy

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