Canberra Times July 13, 2012
Australian politicos' focus on Whyalla earlier this month - will or won't the carbon tax wipe it ''off the map''? - summed up just how low the national climate change debate has sunk. Last year, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott repeated union views that the tax would destroy the South Australian town's big employer, its steelworks. Those fears were of course unfounded, in part because the tax (or carbon price) is so small, but more so because the federal government has thrown enough compensation at big polluters, such as Whyalla's OneSteel plant, to ensure that the disincentive to pollute is minimal. Labor's taunting of Mr Abbott on July 1 - when the introduction of the tax coincided with (surprise, surprise) the town's ongoing existence - was as ridiculously juvenile as Mr Abbott's initial comments.
Yet that's what the public debate in this country has become. Fifteen years after almost all of the developed world, including Australia, adopted the Kyoto Protocol, the consensus to act to slow global warming has eroded, even though the science is now far clearer. Each of the political parties represented in our Federal Parliament today, as well as each independent MP, believes that industrial carbon pollution is changing the climate in a way that harms our economy and communities. Indeed, just 2½ years ago, our two major parties were on the verge of legislating jointly to create an emissions-trading market; a system that remains, in the view of most stakeholders, the best way to wean our economy off its heavy reliance on fossil fuels and capitalise on growing markets for renewable energy and energy-efficient products.
Yet that consensus collapsed with Malcolm Turnbull's fate as Liberal leader. We're now left with Mr Abbott's glib opportunism; a haltering Labor government that lost its moral impetus when it shied away from a carbon price before the 2010 election; increasing scepticism of climate science; and a public debate that isn't so much about how we should act to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but whether we should bother to do anything at all.
The irony underlying Mr Abbott's Whyalla wipe-out whinge is that climate change - not the carbon tax - will almost certainly contribute to the demise of scores of Australian communities within a generation. A group of University of Adelaide academics issued a report this week that mapped the local effects of climate change on almost 2000 inland towns. It found that hundreds of these communities, especially those in remote areas, were likely to collapse unless their industries and businesses restructured quickly to cope with shifting weather patterns.
The report, Australia's Country Towns 2050, is no alarmist tale based on worst-case scenarios. It examines existing, observable trends, and uses conservative estimates of future changes. It doesn't focus on the obvious temperature and sea-level rises, which in themselves are not useful ways of calculating the local consequences of climate change. Rather, it assesses how factors such as heatwaves, heavy storms and droughts (of which there will be more), frost and river flows (of which there will be less), and rainfall (of which there will be more or less, depending on location) will affect inland industries such as agriculture, tourism and even mining. It also highlights where existing critical infrastructure - power, water stores, roads and bridges - are likely to fail to cope under the strains of the more volatile climate of the future.
It's not all bad news: some businesses, and some of the towns and communities examined in the report, may even benefit from the shifting climate. But most won't, unless they make a conscious effort to prepare for the changes. Dairy farms, and their dependent towns, will suffer from a greater number of droughts and very hot days that can kill cattle. Some orchards that rely on a minimum number of cold nights each season - such as apples and cherries - will become unviable. Cereal crops will suffer from higher temperatures and increased frosts in spring; other crops will be undermined by less rainfall. The Murray-Darling River system, which irrigates so many Australian farms, will decline even further. And, as all of this happens, some of our agricultural trading rivals will actually benefit from warmer, wetter, local climates.
Farmers were among the first Australians to begin preparing for climate change, because they saw it happening. Yet the report also found that many regional towns are impeded by ''continued climate scepticism'', which is preventing them from planning for their survival. It doesn't help when our political leaders play out a facile debate that we should have left behind us last century. Climate change is not a theory; it's happening now. As a nation, we need to discuss urgently how we're going to cope with the significant changes that are well on their way.