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FEATURE - Drought-Hit Australia Battles Climate Change

Date: 02-Nov-06
Country: AUSTRALIA
Author: Michael Perry

Every four days, a farmer commits suicide under the stress of failing crops, dying livestock and debt as the worst drought in 100 years bites deep into the nation's psyche and erodes economic growth.

"The current drought highlights how vulnerable we are to climate change," said farmer Mark Wootton. "We will never solve the drought if we don't solve climate change."

Australia's cities are also suffering, with every major centre imposing strict water usage restrictions as reservoir levels fall. Sydney, the largest city, is examining a desalination scheme to guarantee future water supplies.

Neighbouring New Zealand is also experiencing climate chaos, with a severe spring snow storm recently killing livestock on the same day hundreds of bushfires burnt parts of southeast Australia.

South Pacific island states, which have for years battled rising sea levels and more frequent storms believed caused by global warming, were last month hit by Cyclone Xavier. The storm was the first of the cyclone season and formed two months early.

Australian scientists and environmentalists say climate change is no longer a future threat and are urging Australia to sign the Kyoto Protocol aimed at lowering greenhouse gases.

Many scientists say carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and methane from agriculture is causing the atmosphere to warm. Kyoto obliges about 40 nations to cut emissions by at least 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12.


BIG APPETITE

However Australia, a major coal and gas exporter and the world's 10th largest greenhouse gas emitter, negotiated a rise in emissions, setting a Kyoto target of limiting emissions to 108 percent of 1990 levels.

Australia and the United States later refused to ratify the pact, saying it unfairly excluded big developing nations such as India and China.

"Australia and the globe are experiencing rapid climate change," said the Australian government's Bureau of Meteorology.

The bureau said the country was experiencing an annual rise in temperatures, with the hottest year on record in 2005, an increase in heatwaves and a decrease in frosts and cold days.

It said rainfall patterns had changed, with the barren northwest seeing more rain and eastern Australia, the main population and food belt, drying up.

"I expect climate change to affect all Australians," said Geoff Love, the bureau's director.

Prime Minister John Howard only recently conceded global warming was real, having earlier questioned the science behind climate change warnings.

"We're all affected in some way by climate change. We must respond on a number of fronts. There is no one single solution...," Howard said in a recent weekly radio address.

Australia's 20 million people have one of the biggest ecological footprints in the world, producing more greenhouse gases per person than most other nations, according to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report.

The average Australian uses 6.6 "global" hectares to support their lifestyle, ranking behind the United States, but ahead of the United Kingdom, Russia, China and Japan.

"If the rest of the world led the kind of lifestyles we do here in Australia, we would require three-and-a-half planets to provide the resources we use and to absorb the waste," WWF-Australia CEO Greg Bourne said in a statement.

Howard's solution to climate change revolves around using new technologies to produce cleaner fossil-fuel energy, burying greenhouse gas emissions underground, and nuclear energy.

Howard refuses to consider reducing fossil fuels, saying it would cost jobs in the lucrative coal industry. The Queensland Farmers Federation says a new report has found more than 39,000 rural jobs had disappeared since the drought started.


CLEAN AND GREEN

"An effective and credible response requires Australia's national greenhouse gas emissions go down, not up," said Corin Millais, chief executive of the Cli

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