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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

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Most of the areas that I visited in coastal New South Wales were not under the most severe water restrictions, but I heard stories of towns where all water is trucked in. In Brisbane, a city of 2.8 million, people are limited to 140 litres of water each per day. You can't wash a car or fill a child's wading pool.

Animals are suffering too. The conservation group Birds Australia reports that the drought has slashed bird numbers, including many small birds and endangered species. In some cases, large birds have been able to fly to better areas. When I saw a huge white form swoop in front of me on a busy Sydney street, it turned out to be a sulphur-crested cockatoo. "They've been invading the city and wreaking havoc on gardens," I was told. But they are just searching for water, like every other creature on the parched continent.

John Howard, stuck in denial mode, has only nuclear power and so-called "clean coal" to offer as a solution. But Australians don't seem to be buying it. Polls show that more than 90 per cent see global warming as a critical issue and prefer solar technology to nuclear power.

There will be an election in Australia this fall. Howard's challenger is Kevin Rudd of the Australian Labor Party. Rudd has called for an emissions-reduction target of 60 per cent by 2050, although he has yet to outline a set of policies to get there. As a labour leader, he has the coal and uranium miners to satisfy, as well as the greens. But because Howard's Australia has joined with Bush's America in a coalition of the "unwilling to join Kyoto," Rudd would be a definite improvement, and this could be an important election.

I asked a number of people how they thought the election would go. Ray O'Grady, a farmer who attended the agrichar conference, said, "I saw Al Gore's movie six months ago and I said to myself as I walked out of the theater — this will change Australian politics. All my life, I have never voted for anything but conservatives. But this time I'm thinking differently."

But when I asked him if climate change would swing the federal election to Rudd in the fall, he wasn't so sure his fellow Australians would be with him.

"People are going to take a look at mortgage rates and vote their pocketbooks," he said. "Australia has a high level of personal debt."

Peter Shenstone is a director of the Australian environmental group Planet Ark. Peter showed me around the Planet Ark headquarters in the Blue Mountains, which is a model of sustainable building and drought-tolerant landscaping. The complex provides all of its own power and water, using solar panels and windmills. Peter said that the people in Australia are "way ahead of government." He said the response to climate change needs to be "on a war footing," but he wouldn't talk about the election because his organization is studiously nonpartisan.

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