Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Nation Doomed to Drought

By David G. Young

Sydney, Australia, February 16, 2007 --  

Australians are powerless over the future of their climate. It lies in the hands of Mother Nature and two billion Asians.

It's hard for visitors to comprehend the immensity of the deserts that cover the Australian continent. Flying for thousands of miles over the parched, sun-baked plains gives no impression of its scale, and driving for hours through empty space only begins to give a hint of the vastness of such land that covers an area nearly the size of the continental United States.

But to native Australians, huddled largely along a more humid continental fringe, the precarious nature of their climate is well entrenched in their psyche. A severe drought in the densely populated southeastern zones over the past few years has turned lawns in Sydney and Melbourne brown and rendered park fountains to be filled with dust rather than water.

The severity of this drought has convinced many Australians that they are on the unfortunate cutting edge of mad-made climate change known as global warming. Whatever the merits of this belief, It has Australians openly discussing the once unthinkable -- banning exports of coal and phasing it out to combat greenhouse gasses and fight global warming.

Australian Senator Bob Brown, a Green Party member, has made this proposal and many in the Labour Party opposition are taking his ideas seriously. As it stands now, Australia is a carbon dioxide emitter that far exceeds its population -- it turns coal into carbon dioxide at three times the per capita world rate domestically, and exports coal, mostly to China, that gets burned to produce carbon dioxide at six times the world average for Australia's population.(1)

Australia's press is rife with discussion of other carbon emission-saving proposals, from capture and storage of existing emissions, to mandating efficiency and levying carbon taxes.

Unfortunately for Australia, even if all these proposals were approved and executed in full, it would do nothing to ease the current drought or to reduce the likelihood of future droughts. Firstly, periodic severe droughts are perfectly normal in Australia, happening about twice per century. Though the current drought is particularly severe, Australia faced similar water shortages in 1902 and 1947, and will likely face others several decades from now no matter what is done.(2)

Secondly, even if reducing carbon emissions could solve Australia's climate troubles, there is no way that Australia alone could make any difference. Banning the sale of coal to china is pointless when China would simply buy it from America or other suppliers.

But more importantly, a nation of only 20 million people cannot hope to significantly affect world carbon emissions when it represents less than half a percent of the polluting people on the planet. This is especially true when poor but growing energy hungry nations like China and India -- representing more than 2 billion people -- will undoubtedly have massive growth in carbon emissions as they develop. Simply put, Australia's carbon output is insignificant on a world scale.

Finally, there is still no certainty that carbon emissions are causing climate change in Australia or elsewhere. Even the zealous UN environmental bureaucrats at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate there is a 10 percent chance that human activity is not causing climate change. If Australia were to turn its entire economy on its head to solve a problem with a 10 percent chance that might not be there, then somebody's head should roll.

The bottom line is simple. There is virtually nothing that Australians or other worry warts in the West can do to stop Indians and Chinese from burning everything they can get their hands on in their path to develop, and they are the nations that really matter.

Rather than attempt to head off the possibility of climate change, the world should prepare to deal with the consequences should it happen, while at the same time preparing to use alternative energy sources from carbon-based fuels for the upcoming day when the demand for oil outstrips supply.

For Australians, this means abandoning their irrigated agriculture, building desalination plants, and looking to modernize their economy with more technology, financial services, and other relatively climate-neutral sectors.

Fortunately for the world, ecologically precarious nations like Australia are not doomed by the specter of climate change. What is doomed, however, is the latest flurry of proposals to combat this change by reducing carbon output.


1. The Australian, Closing the Coal Industry Would Devastate the Economy, February 16, 2007
2. Ibid, Big Drought Should Bring Big Ideas with It, February 24, 2007