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Global warming's canary in the coal mine

In drought-riddled Australia, the effects of global warming are rippling through the economy -- affecting everything from farming to mining. It may even swing the next national election


By Kelpie Wilson, TruthOut.org

A recent trip to Australia to cover a conference on agrichar allowed me to see the Australian drought crisis on the ground and talk to a few Australians about their thoughts on climate change. Agrichar is an agricultural technique that sequesters carbon.

The conference took place in Terrigal, New South Wales, a beach town just north of Sydney. Out on the blue horizon, I could see an endless train of coal ships headed for the booming economies of Asia. Coal is Australia's No. 1 export and a mainstay of the economy. But at the same time, as a major contributor to global warming, it is undermining almost every other source of wealth in the country.

A few days after I arrived, Prime Minister John Howard suggested a solution for the multi-year drought that is shriveling Australia's farmland: "Pray for rain," he said. Only a superabundance of rain can head off the government's plans to cut off irrigation to thousands of farms that are dependent on Australia's largest river system, the Murray-Darling basin.

Howard is not willing to admit, however, that global warming is the cause of the drought. At most, he says, "there does appear to be a change in the weather pattern." He said Australia might be "going back to a drier period," but he is conspicuously alone in that assessment. Unlike hurricane Katrina, whose global warming origins were more strongly debated, most Australians blame the drought on human-caused climate change.

Scientist Tim Flannery, whom Howard named "Australian of the year," speaking at the Agrichar Conference, said that, despite some encouraging recent rainstorms, "it is extremely unlikely that enough rain will fall this winter to let the Murray-Darling river system be used for agriculture."

Flannery, in his book The Weather Makers, has an explanation for the severe drought. For the first 146 years of European habitation in southwest Australia, winter rainfalls were reliable, he says, but everything changed in 1975, when winter rainfall began a decline of 10 to 20 per cent. Half of the decline is due to global warming, which has pushed the temperate weather zone farther south, and half has come from destruction of the ozone layer over the South Pole.

Twenty per cent may not seem like a big decline, but the agricultural systems in many regions of Australia were finely balanced, and the drop has been enough to do them in. Farmer Ed Fagan, who has seen his pastures destroyed by drought, said, "We're on a knife edge."

While not recognizing its cause, Howard clearly sees the need to do something about the drought, which nicked nearly one per cent off Australia's economic growth last year. Other than praying for rain, his solutions are all techno-fixes. He wants to spend six billion Australian dollars on a new piping system, and he wants to transfer control of the river to the federal government.

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