Climate Change and the End of Australia

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Cahill points out that trying to control nature can actually backfire. Efforts to channel the creeks that flow through town – paving over their natural creek beds and forcing them into concrete culverts – had only served to amplify the flood, rather than preventing it. "We think we understand how to build a city, how to handle whatever nature throws at us, but we really don't," Cahill says. "We can do a lot of fancy engineering – but sometimes, that just makes us more vulnerable."

A week after yasi hit, I drive up the coast from Sydney with Ian Goodwin, a broad-shouldered scientist in flip-flops and shorts. Now in his early fifties, Goodwin has spent most of his life studying how global warming will change the coast of Australia. He grew up surfing on these waters, and still rides the waves every day that he can. More than most scientists, he understands exactly how much Australia has to lose.

"Living on the beach is pretty much the Australian dream," he says as we pass beach town after beach town. At Narrabeen Beach, a broad sweep of sand 15 miles north of Sydney, Goodwin points out where residents have been forced to truck in sand in an expensive and hopeless effort to keep the beach – and the homes along it – from being washed away by increasingly strong storm surges. If the seas rise by at least three feet this century, as the current scientific consensus expects them to, every one of the structures along the beach will vanish. "In fact," Goodwin says, "the way things are going, they could be gone within a decade or two."

"Do the people who live there know that?" I ask.

"Some of them do, but they don't care," he says. "Or they don't think about it. Australians have a hard time imagining the future will be any different than the present."

Australians aren't alone in their denial, of course. But there is a sense of fatalism here that is absent in America, a feeling borne by having lived for long years in a harsh climate, of being able to take whatever nature dishes out. It is why Australians don't leave their houses during raging wildfires, and why they build cites in landscapes where no cities should be built. When it comes to dealing with Mother Nature's nasty moods, Australians have a kind of outback machismo, a justifiable sense of pride for having built a nation in one of the most extreme climates on the planet. But as the catastrophes multiply, so too do the psychic costs of living with it. As a recent report by Australia's Climate Institute concluded, "Higher rates of drug and alcohol misuse, violence, family dissolution and suicide are more likely to follow more extreme weather events." In 2006, during the prolonged drought in the Murray-Darling Basin, the government estimated that an Australian farmer committed suicide every four days.

It's too soon to say for sure, but it may be that the deadly weather of the past few years will open people's eyes to the risks of living on a superheated planet. In July, Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced her proposal for a carbon tax in Australia. The plan would levy a modest price of $25 a ton on carbon for several years, then morph into a carbon-trading scheme in 2015. It's a complicated proposal, full of loopholes and subsidies for Big Coal, but if it passes, it would be a big step in the right direction. "It's a critical time," Ross Garnaut, the government's key climate adviser, told reporters. "Each year, the growth in emissions makes it less likely that we'll be able to avoid severe damage from climate change. So the requirement to take action is urgent."

It's not just floods and drought and wildfires that are spurring action to cut carbon pollution. It's also the fear of being left out of the economic benefits of clean technology. "With its deserts and sunshine, Australia should be the solar-energy capital of the world," one California entrepreneur tells me. "Instead, they are still passing out subsidies to the coal industry." Or as one Australian blogger put it, "Australia is currently exporting typewriters to a global economy moving quickly toward computers."

But as the demand to take action grows, so too does the corporate and political push-back. The coal industry is a powerful force in Australia, and it is rolling out the usual tired arguments that a tax on carbon would devastate the economy and send jobs scurrying overseas. The country's opposition leader, echoing the language of right-wing deniers in Congress, dismisses climate change as "absolute crap." But as befits the Australian psyche, the scare tactics here are even bigger and nastier than in America. The rhetoric over global warming has grown so heated, in fact, that climate scientists at the Australian National University have been assigned security protection after several weeks of abusive e-mails and phone calls. For their work in understanding what is happening to their country, some scientists have even received death threats.

When I ask Goodwin about this, he rolls his eyes. "It's all politics," he says as we walk along the sea wall at Manly Beach, the birthplace of surfing in Australia. "Would a price on carbon be a step in the right direction? Of course. But Australia is a big economy, hooked on growth and the extraction of natural resources – like coal. That is not going to change anytime soon."

Goodwin points out the swanky hotels and beach houses and restaurants along the water. "With three feet of sea-level rise, this is all gone," he says. "The beach, the hotels, the houses – the sea will cut right through to Sydney Harbor. Manly Beach will vanish. Lots of other beaches will go too, but this one is particularly iconic." The destruction could be slowed by building a massive sea wall, Goodwin says, but it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it wouldn't save the beach in the long run. The same thing goes for most beaches in Australia, as well as for Sydney itself – which is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels, given the extensive development along the water.

But what about the prime minister's drive to put a price on carbon pollution? Couldn't that save coastal areas like Sydney? Goodwin shakes his head. "We could transform Australia's energy system to 100 percent solar tomorrow, and if we keep exporting coal to China, it won't really matter much in the big picture," he says. "But if we stop exporting coal, our economy will fall apart. So it's a stalemate."

We walk for a while, watching all the happy people strolling along the boardwalk and drinking wine in cafes and surfing the waves. The sun is shining, and everything is lovely. Too bad that it all has to go.

This story is from the October 13, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

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