Like many of you, i’ve been following the story of the terrible fires and heat in Australia. The picture of the Holmes family, who escaped a firestorm by fleeing into the water, is striking. The photos with the grandmother clutching the children, not all of whom could swim, in the eerie light from the flames, brings home the human impact of this disaster. Fortunately, the Holmes family’s quick thinking and courage meant that everyone survived. To me, however, these images are less frightening than the news that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has to add new colors to weather maps. It used to be that the top temperature on the map was 50 degrees Celsius. They’ve added purple and pink now so that they can go up to 54 degrees. This is only the most striking aspect of how global warming is already affecting Australia
ABC news in Australia has an excellent five part series on global warming’s impact in Australia. Because most Australians live near the coast, rising sea levels will have a major impact on the country, and perhaps cost the nation $300 billion in lost commercial property. The infrastructure costs are enormous, as the airport in Sydney, for example, risks going underwater. Of course Australia is not alone. In the U.S. we recently saw with Hurricane Sandy the devastation that the sea can cause. Climate Central has a great interactive map of the US that allows you to see the impact of sea-level rise in your area, if you live in the United States. Having recently traveled to Florida, where my in-laws live on the intercoastal waterway, I fear for that states’ future. But Australia’s cities will surely be as heavily impacted.
The ABC special also talks about the impact that climate change will have on agriculture, which is a key part of the nation’s economy, especially in the interior. As the nation warms and dries some crops -such as canola- will become increasingly difficult to grow. Of course the U.S. faces the same situation, as the majority of the country faces drought conditions so severe this year that the future of shipping on the MIssissippi River is in doubt. But Australia has even a drier and warmer climate, and is perhaps even more vulnerable. The Murray-Darling basin recently suffered a terrible drought and -despite recent flooding- the management of the region’s waters is increasingly challenging.
Some idea of the scale of the impact can be gained from the fact that global warming is bleaching the coral in the Great Barrier Reef, an iconic Australian treasure and tourist draw. Recently, scientists found fish in the Great Barrier Reef suffering from skin cancer, a first, which they thought was likely caused by the thinning of the ozone hole. The image of the fish, their skin a strange pinkish-white, was perhaps more effective in persuading people that a problem exists than all the data on climate change. And there is a lot of data.
The good news is that Australia has recently adopted a carbon tax, which has given it a position of global leadership in fighting climate change. Australia is also a globally significant example because the cost of electricity from rooftop solar panels has now reached parity with the cost of the electricity from the grid. With the cost of solar showing no signs of stopping its rapid decline, Australia may be at the tipping point with renewable energy. So Australia has made great strides to address climate change. But what of the United States? Bill McKibben’s recent analysis of the politics of climate change has created a stir and is worth reading. Last year was the hottest in the recorded history of the United States, while Arctic Sea ice hit the lowest level ever measured. Want to know more? One great site for information is 350.org. I just hope that other Western nations can show the same leadership as Australia. Quickly.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University.