Michael Deibert: Australia’s Parched Landscape

By Michael Deibert

When Australia was ravaged by wildfires that killed over 200 people earlier this month, the acts of arson that police suspect were behind at least some of the blazes were made even worse by the decade-long dry spell the country has been enduring.

Though this heavily eroded and sparsely populated continent has experienced two other major droughts over the last century, both the intensity and duration of the current lack of rainfall has scientists worried that the country’s environment may be permanently shifting to a drier regime.

The Murray-Darling Basin—a river system in the southeast that drains one-seventh of Australia’s land mass—has been particularly hard hit, with official figures showing that, from 2006 until 2007, the amount of water flow into the basin was just 1,000 gigaliters. Normal inflows into the basin previously measured about 10,000 gigaliters a year.  From 2007 until 2008 it improved marginally to a still-meager 3,000 gigaliters. The region had record low inflows of water between 2006 and 2008, with the inflows for 2006-2007 less than 60 percent of the previous minimum—a figure based on 117 years of records. Helping to irrigate such states such as Victoria, the site of the worst wildfires, as well as New South Wales and Queensland, the basin was once wet enough to irrigate crops that produced 1.2 million metric tons of rice. Last year, the rice harvest fell to 18,000 metric tons.

Across southern Australia, scientists have also witnessed an intensification of the subtropical ridge phenomenon, a swath of high pressure characterized by a reduction in the amount of rainfall in autumn and late winter. The expansion of the ridge has been closely linked to global warming.

What has the Australian government’s response been to this growing disaster? Not much, it appears.

Though a 2007 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that by 2030 “water security problems are projected to intensify in southern and eastern Australia,” and recommended a worldwide reduction in carbon emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, Australian environmentalists were outraged when the Labor Party government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) that included a far more modest cut of 5 percent to 15 percent by 2020.

The Rudd government conditioned cuts beyond that level to government demands for a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as exemptions for energy-intensive industries in a broad carbon trading arrangement. Compensation for electricity producers and users was also an attached condition.

Subsequent research by Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, an investment advisory firm, estimated that in the first year of the CPRS, $939 million of aid would go to the aluminum smelting industry, $297 million to petroleum refiners, $261 million to steel makers, $182 million to natural gas producers, and $157 million to cement makers. Companies such as Rio Tinto, Alcoa, and Woodside stand to profit in the hundreds of millions of dollars from the system.

With a relatively small population of slightly more than 20 million for a land mass nearly as large as the United States, Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse emission rates in the thirty-member Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), chiefly due to the country’s intensive use of coal.

Australia emits 28.1 tons of carbon per person into the atmosphere, five times greater than the per person total for China.

With the European Union having recently adopted a goal of a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020, one must hope that Australia’s environmental lobby will succeed in pressuring the Rudd government to adopt a more aggressive approach to combating Australia’s contribution to climate change, and to help move to heal the continent’s already-ravaged environment.

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Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). He last wrote for the World Policy Journal from Guatemala. His blog can be read here.

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