Australia's climate change shame

The devastating impact of Australian premier John Howard's state of denial over climate change.

I don't generally give real-estate advice, but here's a tip - don't buy property in Australia. One of the world's greatest polluters is now one of the hardest-hit by climate change. Farms are being abandoned, livestock destroyed and cities are wilting in the heat, as perennial drought tightens its grip. In years to come huge areas of land will be abandoned, and widening zones of the country will become essentially uninhabitable. If you own land or property anywhere outside the wetter tropical north or cooler Tasmania, get ready to sell it now - preferably to a climate-change denier. There's plenty of deniers still around. One of them heads the government.

I wrote recently in this column that the Arctic has likely passed a crucial climatic tipping point, beyond which the ice cap will disappear in its entirety whatever we do with greenhouse gas emissions. I now think a tipping point has also been crossed in Australia, pitching the continent into a permanently drier climate regime that will wipe out most of its agricultural base and leave its cities constantly threatened by water shortages, heatwaves and uncontrollable wildfires. Following five years of below-average rainfall, water managers are now talking about this being the "worst drought for 1,000 years". They should be so lucky. Global temperatures are now as high as they have been for 6,000 years, and in a couple of decades will be reaching heights not seen since the last interglacial, 135,000 years ago. This is the scale of drought we're talking about here. Australia's new climate will be different from anything ever experienced since humans first settled on the continent.

Australia's story has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy, especially in the way its leaders have dragged everyone else down with their blindness and greed. John Howard's government has for more than a decade been mired in global-warming denial, partly as a badge of loyalty to the Bush administration, which it also supported with troops in Iraq. Not content with negotiating an 8 per cent increase in allowable carbon dioxide emissions at the 1997 Kyoto talks, Howard then refused to ratify the agreement on the now-familiar basis that it could harm the economy. As one of the world's biggest producers of coal, Australia's contribution to global warming even extends outside its own boundaries. "I'm not going to betray those associated with the resource industry," Howard replied, when asked his opinion of the Stern report.

But national politics, as it has been here in the UK, is now in a period of rapid transition. Australia saw the largest turnout for the 4 Nov ember global climate demonstrations (bigger even than London). A recent poll put climate change third on the list of people's top perceived threats to the country (after international terrorism and nuclear proliferation). Media coverage of global warming has been enormous, allowing opposition politicians to portray Howard's government as "asleep on the watch" while farmers suffer and livestock die in the dusty outback.

The government's response has been to turn a reluctant, pale shade of green. It remains committed to meeting its absurd 108 per cent Kyoto target, even without formally acceding to the protocol and even though doing so is "not going to be easy", according to environment minister Ian Campbell. Economy minister Peter Costello has given lukewarm support to an international carbon trading system. A hefty federal grant has also been announced for a solar power project in Victoria - but millions more are going towards new coal projects which either burn more "efficiently" or might one day capture and store CO2 underground. The government is not about to kick its fossil fuel addiction any time soon.

All this confusion of denial and delay is particularly tragic, given that Australia is one of the few countries in the world that could comparatively easily have converted to a 100 per cent renewable energy economy, primarily by harnessing its vast solar power potential: with huge, cloud-free desert areas, all of Australia's electricity could easily come from the sun. This is Australia's real shame - by staying trapped in denial for so long, it is now too late to save itself as soaring temperatures gradually transform this giant and varied continent into one of the most parched and desolate land surfaces on earth.