The drought afflicting southern Australia has now been officially declared the worst since records began and global warming is to blame.
Australia has had some terrible droughts in the last 150 years, but David Jones, the head of climate analysis at the Bureau of Meteorology, announced that the twelve-year drought ‘is now very severe and without historical precedent’. (The Australian, 10 October 2008)
The Liberal government of John Howard took delight in denying climate change. Yet Australia has been hit so hard, so suddenly by global warming, that Howard ended his political career pleading with the Australian population – not renowned for religious sentiment – to pray for rain. ‘I’m serious’, he added. Panic swept Australia as it swept Howard from office – he was hated by the working class in any case.
“Southeast Queensland has until Easter – just 223 days – before it runs out of water and has to call on emergency supplies”, was the typical run of articles this time last year. (Water Woes Worsen, Goldcoast.com, 11 August 2007) Such was the panic that a man killed his elderly neighbour for watering his grass on the wrong day. (wsbtv.com, 2 November 2007)
How has Australia survived? Brisbane, state capital of Queensland and a city of nearly two million, was hardest hit last year. Severe bans were imposed and various projects to recycle water implemented. Every house had to plumb in rainwater tanks assisted by grants, although they did not fully cover costs. Water consumption fell dramatically. Consequently, the total amount of water drawn monthly for the city from the dangerously low dams fell from a peak of 30,000 megalitres in March 2005 to just 7,500 megalitres in February 2008 and the dams have recovered.
Advanced capitalist countries like Australia have enormous resources which, by comparison to countries already weakened by neo-colonialism, such as Sudan, allow them to avoid, at least for a period, a descent into the Mad Max water wars scenario some feared.
But the drought continues to worsen. Jones says: “The current dry was at the extreme end of what the climate models had predicted”. A slow, gradual pace of warming, taking 50 years, was expected by the incoming Labour government. Instead, a tipping point seems to have been reached and tipped. The government was, and remains, completely unprepared. Water levels may have fallen too low to save South Australia’s vast freshwater lower lakes, which now have four times the salinity of sea water.
And yet the climate sceptics still ply their trade. A certain David Purchase recently complained of “intolerance” in The Age newspaper. (3 October 2008) “It seems as if there can be no debate” about whether humans caused global warming, he claimed, not noticing, presumably, that he was given the indulgence to do just that. “I won’t deny that the Murray-Darling river basin is facing crisis”, he admits the food bowl of Australia, producing mainly for export, was once the second largest producer of wheat in the world, but production halved last year due to drought.
“We have performed poorly and short-sightedly in managing our environment and resources. The evidence is all around us on land, sea and air. But my issue, however, is with the Orwellian ‘thought police’ who refuse to countenance real debate on the issue”. In reality, the intolerant, the thought police, those throwing insults rather than arguments, attacking scientists when they cannot attack the science, those who have apparently unlimited access to the media yet claim to have none, are powerful companies whose profits are tied to the use of fossil fuels and it happens that Purchase is executive director of the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce.
2007, the earth’s joint second warmest year in the century, came at the end of an El NiÃ±o warm period, where the Pacific Ocean turns warm and, on the other side of the planet, the Arctic ice shrank to a new low. The regular changes in the world’s temperature, driven over decades by slow movements of warm and cold water in the Pacific Ocean, is now tending to colder weather. This may slow down or even pause the headlong descent into a hotter climate. But, although 2008 has been relatively cold, the polar ice shrank to its second lowest on record.
The cooler temperature of the La NiÃ±a event in the Pacific Ocean over the last year (which passed but is now partly returning) has not brought the drought to an end in Australia, although it brought deluges in Brisbane and elsewhere. Jones says temperatures are running at about “one degree above any previous comparable drought. That is substantially hotter, and that one degree is a global warming signal”.
By Pete Mason