Harsher weather threatens more than just the Australian environment

Climate-change policy is one of the biggest causes of political infighting

Oct 25th 2018Print edition | Special report

CLIMATE CHANGE is not threatening Dale Park’s livelihood, but it is not making his life easier, either. His small cattle farm near Badgingarra in Western Australia gets about 580mm of rain a year—well below the 650mm that was typical when he first moved there 30 years ago. The rain is also coming at different times, with summer storms more common than they used to be. And the number of really hot days is increasing, especially in spring. Mr Park has been able to adapt, mainly by planting different types of fodder. But for wheat farmers, he explains, as his dogs merrily give chase to a passing flock of emus, it is not so easy.

Only a small corner of the state—the south-western extreme, near the capital, Perth—has ever been arable. To the north or east the crops soon give way to arid bush and then desert. In some places the transition is so abrupt, Mr Park says, that annual rainfall drops by an inch for every mile east you go.

Now the winds from the Indian Ocean that brought what little rain there was are shifting southwards, causing the arable zone to become drier. Fancy equipment and new planting techniques help farmers make do with less rain. Crops do not fail, but simply grow less well. Some struggling farmers cope by switching crops or rearing sheep instead of planting. All the same, Mr Park concludes, “We’re starting to run out of resilience.”

It is not just farmers who are affected. Because less rain is falling and more water is evaporating due to higher temperatures, the flow into the reservoirs that supply Perth has plunged by 80% since the 1970s. This, along with rapid growth in the city’s population, has meant that it has had to build two desalination plants, as well as a facility to recycle sewage water, at a total cost of well over A$1.5bn. It has also imposed strict rules on water use. Homeowners, for example, are allowed to use sprinklers only twice a week.

On the opposite side of the country, in Queensland, the effects of climate change are even more obvious. Parts of Eddy Reef, one of the hundreds of separate coral formations that make up the 2,300km-long Great Barrier Reef, are stunning. Gem-like fish dart in and out of twisting brown branches of stag coral. A giant clam opens iridescent blue lips. Feathery fan corals sway in the current.

But a few metres away, the scene is much less colourful. The stag coral here is a drab greyish white. Wisps of algae are starting to coat its surface. There are fewer fish. This is the result of a process called bleaching, in which coral reacts to higher water temperatures by ejecting the microscopic algae that give it colour. If the temperature does not quickly fall again, the coral dies. This is what has happened to about a third of the Great Barrier Reef over the past two years.

Bleaching, cyclones and infestations of crown-of-thorns starfish, which munch through coral, all damage parts of the reef from time to time. The amount of coral fluctuates depending on how often and how severely such adversity strikes. In the northern portion of the reef, in particular, coral cover is at the lowest level ever recorded. David Wachenfeld of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government agency responsible for its protection, says that the higher water temperatures brought on by global warming have led to more frequent bouts of bleaching, leaving the reef too little time to recover in between. Like the farmers of Western Australia, it is running out of resilience.

“We’re starting to run out of resilience”

It is not just ecologists who are anxious. A study published last year by Deloitte, an accountancy firm, found that the reef generated A$6.4bn in economic activity in 2016 and supported 64,000 jobs. Already, tourism operators say they are suffering because of all the negative publicity surrounding the bleaching.

Climate change is causing other problems, too. The incidence of droughts, such as the one currently afflicting eastern Australia, is increasing. Parched landscapes, in turn, lead to more frequent and destructive bushfires. And then there are more mundane burdens, such as the extra outlay on air-conditioning in response to rising temperatures.

Yet Australia still gets more than 60% of its power from coal, the fuel that does the most damage to the climate. It is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal. Per person, it generates more emissions than any other big economy bar America and Saudi Arabia. And unlike most rich countries, its emissions are growing.

Australia was the first country in the world to set up a government agency devoted to cutting emissions, under Mr Howard in 1998. But since then politicians have feuded endlessly about how to bring about any cuts. Mr Howard refused to commit Australia to stringent reductions by ratifying the Kyoto protocol. Labor took him to task about climate change in the election campaign in which he was finally ousted, in 2007. His successor, Kevin Rudd, ratified Kyoto right away, but then dithered about introducing an emissions-trading scheme, as he had promised. That helped spur the coup in which Mr Rudd was deposed by his deputy, Julia Gillard, who instituted a carbon tax in 2011, only to be pilloried by the right for levying “a great big tax on everything”.

This attack helped the Liberals to win the subsequent election, in 2013; they promptly repealed the tax. But they have struggled to come up with an alternative. It was Mr Turnbull’s effort to enshrine very small emissions-reduction targets in law that prompted the coup against him earlier this year within the Liberal Party.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the new prime minister, Mr Morrison, has kept quiet on the subject. But even politically, let alone environmentally, that is not an option. Three-quarters of Australians are worried about climate change, according to a recent poll. A majority think the government is not doing enough. They are keen on renewable energy and on phasing out coal-fired generation. They do not want the government to wait for other big polluters such as America and China to act before trying to cut emissions.“People want a coherent idea about the future,” says Tim Winton, a novelist and activist, not “shouting into a bucket”.