Environment

R.I.P. Australia

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorOct 5, 2011 4:41 PM

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The headline of this long feature in Rolling Stone suggests an epitaph:

Climate Change and the End of Australia

I'm generally a fan of Jeff Goodell's work, but everything I find frustrating about the climate debate is on display in this paragraph:

In the past year "“ one of the hottest on record "“ extreme weather has battered almost every corner of the planet. There have been devastating droughts in China and India, unprecedented floods and wildfires in the United States, and near-record ice melts in the Arctic. Yet the prosperous nations of the world have failed to take action to reduce the risk of climate change, in part because people in prosperous nations think they're invulnerable. They're under the misapprehension that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Tom Schelling puts it, "Global warming is a problem that is going to primarily affect future generations of poor people." To see how foolish this reasoning is, one need only look at Australia, a prosperous nation that also happens to be right in the cross hairs of global warming. "Sadly, it's probably too late to save much of it," says Joe Romm, a leading climate advocate who served as assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration.

Yes, so sad. I can almost see the great climate prophet welling up as he said this. But I digress. One of the big stories of humanity is how we've colonized the planet, moving into many areas with inhospitable landscapes. Our ingenuity has made life possible (and often prosperous) in arid deserts, icy climates, floodplains, and along beaches. By now, we have come to accept (if not fully appreciate) the risks associated with such places. But the history of humanity is replete with examples of life that goes bad for people when certain landscapes become increasingly inhospitable because of extended drought, punishing rains, etc. Generally, the more marginal the landscape, the less margin people have to ride out extreme climate swings, which of course happens to be a characteristic of marginal environments. And so, while Goodell's article is meant as a cautionary story of global warming, he unintentionally highlights here what I think is a story of equal importance for our times:

Transforming a harsh desert into farms and shopping malls has also left large parts of Australia hugely dependent on seasonal rainfall.

This is the story we ignore at our peril. (Of course, we always have, right?) But Goodell is not interested in making that point clear. Rather, he prefers to dwell on our collective avoidance/dismissal of the risks associated with global warming:

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.

Global warming may well be the story of the century. But building civilizations in the most extreme climates of the planet is the story of our species. There is a danger that we focus on the former while ignoring the latter, when, in fact, the two stories are now extricably linked.

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