29 September 2007

The future of Oz

The news from Australia is dire. Climate change is not a problem for the future, rather the signs are becoming increasingly frequent that it has already arrived. Many sectors of Australian society are feeling the brunt of what looks more and more like climate change. And as bad as the situation is now, conditions could possibly get worse.

The most obvious sign of climate change is the drought which is still ongoing. Some of the effects were previously noted in this earlier post. As a result, “[w]e are seeing crop losses and irrigation areas under a huge amount of pressure”. Farmers are facing problems remaining viable, and consumers are also likely to feel the pinch through higher food prices. The grain crisis is also affecting beef cattle production here, with the industry in disarray. The drought is so persistent that some have taken to avoiding the term altogether, instead calling it the 'permanent dry'. Others say as there was no long-term perspective on the Australian climate, it was still too hard to separate influence from global warming from normal variability.

One mechanism for increased drought and climate change in Australia could be the recent findings of the weakening of the Walker circulation over the Pacific Ocean, which has resulted in an unprecedented El Nino dominance. Such a situation is conducive to drought conditions over Australia. This situation could also be related to the increase in weather favorable for bushfires, which has been particularly sharp in the southeast over the past 5-10 years.

Other threats also exist for the future. A paleo-record of tropical cyclone (TC) activity in north Queensland suggests that a recent lull in TCs over Australia could be about to end. This was a natural variability, but the future pattern may be exacerbated by global warming. Indeed, 2006 saw TCs Larry and Monica, both of which were very intense storms producing enormous damage across northern Australia. These could be a taste of things to come.

Climate change also threatens national icons like the Sydney Opera House, Sydney's beaches and the Great Barrier Reef. Heat-related deaths could triple and tropical diseases like dengue fever could extend to more temperate regions of Australia. Rising sea levels could also provoke extinctions of tropical birds in the Northern Territory.

Many of these worse case scenarios are preventable with unified global action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. To this end, Australia should ratify the Kyoto protocol. Despite the ominous signs of impending doom from climate change and other environmental issues, John Howard still doesn't really believe in climate change and refuses to take appropriate action. Australia is still part of the problem. Token gestures will not be enough.

Fortunately, the citizens of Australia have an opportunity to enact a positive change. Climate change is shaping up to be a major election issue in the upcoming federal elections. If we want to have a viable future, these issues should be at the forefront in the process of choosing our government. In the long run, the costs of doing nothing will outweigh the costs of acting now. If we wait for absolute certainty, it will be too late. As Vaclav Havel notes in this New York Times op-ed piece, we have a moral imperative to act...

We can’t endlessly fool ourselves that nothing is wrong and that we can go on cheerfully pursuing our wasteful lifestyles, ignoring the climate threats and postponing a solution. Maybe there will be no major catastrophe in the coming years or decades. Who knows? But that doesn’t relieve us of responsibility toward future generations.

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