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Australia struggles while leaders ignore climate change

Richard Glover

Richard Glover

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Thursday, August 16, 2018

It was the teenage girls of Trundle who opened up the hearts of Sydney. Their school principal was on the radio last week describing Australia's devastating drought and the impact it was having on students in this small rural town in the state of New South Wales. Among his examples: Some farms no longer have enough water for showering.

The school is on town water, he explained to me on Sydney radio, so he has renovated the showers. Now he wants to provide some free shampoo and conditioner. Could any of our listeners help?

Australia's drought has been building for some time. Last year was dry, so this year started with empty bank accounts and depleted dams. Farmers in the eastern states watched the horizon, hoping for clouds.

So far, the rain hasn't arrived. All of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, has now been declared a drought zone. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced emergency-relief funding for farmers.

Of course, Australia has always had an extreme climate — destructive floods, heartbreaking droughts and deadly bush fires — all bringing their own harvest of misery.

During this drought, the prime minister has again cited a poem written more than a hundred years ago. "I love a sunburnt country," runs the lyric by Dorothea Mackellar, "a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains."

The words are a way for Australians to say: "We love this place, despite all it throws at us."

This time around, though, there's a whiff of politics. It seems to be a way of emphasizing that Australia has always been prone to drought. In other words: Don't blame this one on climate change.

Science counsels us against confusing climate and weather. A particular drought cannot be blamed on man-made climate change. That's true. All the same: In Australia, right now, the droughts are coming faster and harsher.

Some say the current drought is worse than the infamous Federation Drought, so-named because it gripped the nation just as it came into being. The years leading up to Federation had been difficult. Australia's great 19th century poet, Henry Lawson, went walking through the drought-crippled landscape in the early 1890s. Lawson's eye was both melancholic and humorous, as captured in a poem in which two travelers try to find the Paroo River, a waterway that, during floods, is many miles wide.

They walk, peer ahead, then walk some more, before realizing they had stepped over the river without noticing — drought having reduced the mighty Paroo to a trickle.

Certainly, scientists say, climate change is making droughts more frequent in southern Australia, with hotter temperatures and reduced soil moisture.

You would think the current government coalition — partly reliant on rural voters — would be enthusiastically joining the global effort to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. But the opposite is the case. Climate skeptics within the government continue to frustrate attempts to develop a coherent policy. Australia is on track to miss even the modest commitments made under the Paris accord.

The country's treasurer, Scott Morrison, last year brought a lump of coal into Parliament, brandishing it as he sang the praises of coal-fired power plants.

Odder still, the government criticized a private power provider over its plans to shut an aging coal-fired plant. The company believed it could produce energy that was cheaper, greener and more reliable using other means.

Tony Abbott, a former prime minister, believed he knew better. Despite a lifetime of opposing government intervention in private enterprise, Abbott suggested the government forcibly acquire the plant, just to keep the coal-fires burning.

"Coal at any cost" appears to be the policy of some government members. Meanwhile, the world heats up — and so does Australia.

And farming communities such as Trundle face more uncertainty and more anxiety.

Richard Glover presents the "Drive" show on ABC Radio Sydney. He’s a former news editor and European correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of 12 books.

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