“It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia”


“It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia”.  With these disconcerting words Joe Romm, from the leading US climate blog climateprogress.com”, reacted yesterday to Sydney’s dust storms. Joe Romm is no casual blogger and I take his views very seriously, as do others. His writing has been described by NYT’s Tom Friedman as “indispensible” and the U.S. News & World Report called him “one of the most influential energy and environmental policymakers in the Obama era”.

So is Joe Romm right? Is Australia’s environment now past a point of no return in terms of climate change impacts? Are we already in an ecological crash? You certainly wouldn’t think so listening to our political debates. So let’s take a look at what the science is saying. (this is an edited version of a post I wrote for Climate Progress)

For those readers outside Australia, yesterday morning Sydney awoke to an eerie red hue. Our city was already coated in red dust and the air was thick with more of it. At its peak every hour saw over 100,000 tonnes of delicate topsoil blown off drought stricken farms and deserts and sent across the country. At full strength, this giant dust cloud was 1,600 km long and 400 km wide as it hit major cities along the east coast. (An excellent satellite image can be found at the [NASA website])

Air particle concentrations in Sydney are normally around 20 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m3) with health risk levels starting at 200 mcg/m3. Yesterday concentrations reached 15,400 mcg/m3! The airports were closed, harbour ferries cancelled and people at risk were warned to stay indoors. (For those outside Australia, Climate Progress has a [good video report] on the local impacts)

By day’s end, the best estimates were that several million tonnes had been stripped from deserts and farms across three states and sent to the city and then out to sea.

As we know, no single event is proof of climate change, and while this may be the worst dust storm on record here, that by itself doesn’t prove anything. But it sure makes us wonder what the future holds.

Of course, this is not the first major event that is putting Australia amongst the head of the pack in terms of climate change impacts. Earlier this year Melbourne broke its record February temperature by a full 3 degrees centigrade to hit 46.8 C (116 degrees F). This was also the day of Australia’s worst ever bushfires with 173 people killed and 2,000 homes destroyed. The fire conditions that day were unprecedented. In our Forest Fire Danger Index – which combines factors such as heat, humidity, wind and drought – a score of 100 reflects the conditions during our previously worst-ever fires in 1939. Any score above 50 is considered extreme. On that fatal February day this year, the Index ranged between 120 and 190 in many places across the country. All our warning and ratings systems are now being revised to better suit our new reality.

The impacts are consistent around the country. The Murray Darling Basin is our food bowl, with nearly 40% of Australia’s agricultural production based around the water of the giant Murray Darling river system. The area’s been in so-called “drought” since 2002 and is the worst ever recorded. I say “so called” because evidence is increasing this may be closer to “the new normal” – a long-term decline associated with climate change. With drought and over allocation of water permits to struggling farmers, flow levels are now down to 5% of their long-term average. As a result, it’s now assumed that the globally significant wetlands and lake system at the river’s mouth will face ecological collapse over the next few years.

On the other side of the country in Western Australia, the city of Perth has now acknowledged they are dealing not with drought, but a system shift. Inflows into Perth’s dams since 2001 are only 25% of what was the long-term average before a marked decline began in the 1970s. While it’s too early to be sure, scientist’s current view is that around 50% of this is directly related to human-induced climate change. This drop is mirrored across the country with stream flows, measured as a percentage of the long-term average, now well down in most major cities with Canberra at 43%, Melbourne 65%, Adelaide 62% Sydney 40% and Brisbane at 42%. State Governments are now urgently building energy intensive desalination plants across the country to ensure our major cities don’t run out of water completely.

The tourism industry, a major part of the Australian economy and a significant export earner, is becoming increasingly nervous about the shifting climate. In the far north at the Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage-listed system of sensitive coastal and freshwater wetlands, the change is coming thick and fast. In the past 50 years, tidal creeks have moved 4 km inland, saline mud flats have increased nine-fold, and 2/3 of Melaleuca forests have been killed by salinity.  Kakadu seems destined for much greater loss as sea levels rise further.

In the North East, the Great Barrier Reef is now at serious risk of widespread, permanent loss over the coming decades. In 1998 and again in 2002 it experienced major coral bleaching events, with 50% and 60% of the reef affected respectively. In 2006 major bleaching again occurred in significant sections of the Reef, with up to 40% of coral killed in some areas. While it has recovered each time so far, everyone knows it won’t always do so.

So it goes on. And on and on. The debate here in Australia certainly doesn’t indicate an acceptance we are in a state of ecological crash. Is this because we’re in the middle of it? Are we boiling frogs blinded by dust storms?

Certainly other outsiders see things here the same way Joe Romm does. The UK’s independent ran a story before the February 2009 bushfires titled [“Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”] and the LA Times ran a story in April 2009 [What will global warming look like? Scientists point to Australia.”]

Both these stories make disturbing reading for Australians because this is not the way the debate is running here. As we all know, single events and even a whole decade of data doesn’t prove anything. But how much data will it take before our global political leaders, including here in Australia, move on from earnest words and shift into the emergency response we now need?

Let me close with the opening paragraphs from the LA Times story referred to above.

Frank Eddy pulled off his dusty boots and slid into a chair, taking his place at the dining room table where most of the critical family issues are hashed out. Spreading hands as dry and cracked as the orchards he tends, the stout man his mates call Tank explained what damage a decade of drought has done.

“Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It’s devastation,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men — big, strong grown men. We’re holding on by the skin of our teeth. It’s desperate times.”

A result of climate change?

“You’d have to have your head in the bloody sand to think otherwise,” Eddy said.

Indeed you would.


22 thoughts on ““It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia”

  1. “Earlier this year Melbourne broke it’s February temperature maximum by 3 degrees centigrade to hit 46.8 C (116 degrees F).”

    WRONG: Previous highest was 45.6 (about 1 degree lower) in 1939. A 47.2 degrees was unofficially recorded in 1851.

    see: http://www.bom.gov.au/ announcements/ media_releases/ vic/ 20090130a.shtml)

    “This was also the day of Australia’s worst ever bushfires with 173 people killed and 2,000 homes destroyed. The fire conditions that day were unprecedented. ”

    WRONG: Worst by death toll yes, but the fires themselves were not unprecedented. see (http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Black_Thursday_%281851%29) when a quarter of the state burned. That was the worst, if measure by hectares burnt, by a long, long margin.

    So extreme heat and bushfire have been regular visitors to Victoria – no correlation with Global Warming there.

    (See my reply below – Paul)

    • Paul Gilding


      Thanks for your comment. Without wanting to get into a long back and forth, as the trends are what counts here and they are very clear, I do think you’re wrong on the temperature record. You’re comparing a Jan record with a Feb record, I was comparing, as clearly stated, Feb with Feb. And re bushfire conditions, the better scientific approach is surely to compare conditions with conditions as I did, not death counts or hectares burnt both of which are subject to good and bad luck. That’s why I used the Fire Index to make the point.

      The key question on bushfires is trends, and the science clearly says we can expect worse bushfire conditions, including in some areas twice as many extreme days. See for example a CSIRO/BOM study here: http://www.climateinstitute.org.au/images/stories/bushfire/fullreport.pdf


  2. Hi Paul,

    Now I know what the boiling frog feels like. What does the frog do when it realises it’s predicament but the bowl wall is too high and too slippery?

    We do have something in our favour that the frog does not, allies. We are all in this together, and I will look for more ways I can contribute, and lead, as a result of this posting.

    Steve Morriss

  3. Paul, it is not too late for Australia. As you saw on our trip last year, desertification can be reversed.

    Desertification is an age-old problem. Since writing was invented, people have lamented landscape damage and urged better care of the land. Despite the march of science and billions spent to combat desertification, the world’s deserts continue to grow.

    And the recent Australian experience was a DIRECT result of inappropriate human management of our grazing lands. See http://managingwholes.com/desertification.htm for a different perspective on the real causes of desertification.

    And take a look at http://www.soilcarbon.com.au to see just what positive changes will take place once we learn how to better manage our seasonally dry grassland regions.

    The real outcome of changing management is three-fold – healthy environment, healthy financials, and healthy society.

  4. Rebecca Horridge

    I wonder if future scenarios of doom will lend argument to eventually implementing geoengineering solutions such as sulphide injection to the upper atmosphere.

    Thanks for the article


  5. Late January, early February, is the height of summer in Melbourne. Choosing to focus only on the February record to make the event look extreme could be misleading.

    How about if I said the Janurary maximum has not been broken since 1939 (fact) so it’s clear that extreme hot weather events are become less regular? The logic is consistant with the line you’ve taken on Feb temps.

    Thanks for the bushfire report link. Interestingly the exec summary states: “The baseline dates of the study, commencing in 1973….” so I’d love to know what the FFDI was for 1939 and 1851. Do you know?

  6. Bernard Eddy

    Dear Paul,

    I agree with your article and with the horrible chance we may be past the point of no return.

    In typical fashion Phil Costa (NSW Water Minister) responds to the dust storm by relaxing water restrictions thereby allowing New South Welshmen to hose all the nasty dirt away.

    Now that’s why fatuous is the cruise control setting for the current generation of air-head politicians.

    Dear oh dear,

    Bernard Eddy

  7. Indeed you would? I think not Paul. I am a civil engineer with 35 years experience in the water industry. I have travelled 6,000 paddling and dragging a kayak across and around South Eastern Australia in the past two years.

    Climate change is bad, real bad, but it is not the main problem. We have dried this country out through our own actions. Over-extraction, tree clearing, our obsession with getting rid of those nasty swamps, taking water out of the ground and storing it in huge storages that evaporate 2.5m per year, are all activities that have much more impact than climate change.

    Go to any water conference overseas and they feel for us. We are at the forefront and bearing the brunt of climate change. Luckily we have good governance. Bullshit. The problem is the governance. Instead of making things better we are making things worse at an accelerating rate.

    Peter Andrews has come to certain conclusions and solutions by studying the land. I have come to the same conclusions by studying the rivers. We need to unlearn a lot of what we think we know and start to learn how to live in this land without trying to conquer and control it.

  8. Roger Mulligan

    Hi Paul,
    Whilst it wasn’t a personal request to know what I think ( :-) ) never the less I’m compelled to add my bit..

    Re dust storms.. It’s just another example of all the good stuff from the country ending up in the city.. Situation normal.. (you can take the boy out of the country….)

    Re: Climate change… Isn’t this just primary school science 101.. “God” takes the carbon out of the air over millions of years using solar power (gotta luv photosynthesis).. Using effectively millions of times the surface area of the planet to do it.. (trees, vegetation but mostly plankton… now I’m in love with phytoplankton).. During this time the planet is pretty much uninhabitable by mammals.. (or anything much other than plants for that matter… sure nothing but plankton lives in the oceans).. Man arrives and puts the CO2 that “God” stored safely away underground, back into the air.. (Well some of it… ) over only 200 years.. (do the math.. rate of original absorption vs. rate of release.. do a graph.. Scares the shit out of me to see it that way..)

    I dunno what’s going to happen but it can’t be good.. No one in their right mind can think the environment can remain stable during this rate of change..

    If he exists.. The Devil must be laughing himself silly…

  9. salamander

    We are still in “business as usual” mode – climate change is popular with the people so some politicians are making the effort, but I think many consider it’s all a bit of a lark. Introducing climate change policies seems to be more of a way to get votes rather than achieve anything. And there are certainly parts of Australia that have suffered from dramatic change in recent times. Whether they will recover may depend on technology that hasn’t been thought of yet, and political will.

  10. Stephen Klaber

    The process of desertification has multiple causes everywhere. But with great consistency, the largest cause of desertification is aquatic and semi aquatic weeds. Cumbungi, which we call cattail in the USA, is a dessication machine and a siltation machine. You also have Mimosa sucking your waters dry. Look at Lake Chad in Africa. An infestation of Typha Australis (cumbungi) from East to West that is finally meeting some resistance has shut down its Eastern Tributaries to almost nothing. There are millions of Hectares of Typha waiting to be harvested and who knows how much silt that must be cleared before streams and lakes function there again. And all of it is biofuel feedstock. In some places, the weed that is the problem is water hyacinth or phragmites or papyrus reeds. Clear the wetlands of these weeds, and they will again moisten the drylands. The silt that the weeds have deposited can be used to rehabilitate damaged soil or to fight erosion. It must be cleared, so that lakes and streams regain contact with the ground water. The Carbon stuff is very important, but the water system is even more so. We can win there.

  11. liz thornton

    I may not be an expert in climate change however i was alive at the time when we were chucking C.F.C’s into the atmosphere . We believed that that was causing the hole in the Ozone layer!We stopped producing C.F.C’s didn’t we and things improved didn’t they? What on earth is the problem for people believing that WE are affecting our climate? How does the economy benefit from everything stopping due to severe weather conditions linked to climate change linked to burning fossil fuels? Please tell me that Kevin Rudd has some diabollically clever scheme that he will not share until he gets to Copenhagen so that he can keep up this impression of having a brain bigger than the whole of the planet!
    Go Kevin

  12. Anders Welin

    Hi Paul. Unfortunately I don’t think Australia is the only place where Climate change patterns are to be seen.
    Also in Europe the weather is getting more extreme. Cyprus has water shortage and do not have access to fresh water every day. In Sweden we have experienced one of the warmest September months, ever. Autumn is delayed.
    In the Philippines they received (I think) 41 cm rain in 24 hours. That is the equivalent of 4,1 meters of snow!
    As you know heat is a catalyst in many processes in nature. The see getting warmer will make hurricanes and typhoons more common and stronger. I would say that the weather is behaving as it should do in 30 years from now, but it’s doing it right now! Let’s hope that further climate change is still possible to avoid….A lot of people needs to be awaken.

    Best regards


  13. Arthur Josephson

    I’ve just returned to Australia after seven years abroad. It has been seven years largely ignorant of Australian media so I judge hesitantly. Many thanks for your article it helped me begin updating myself on the current state here. My first impression on returning is strong surprise at how little has been accomplished in the climate change agenda here. One would expect us to be strong pioneers, innovators and consensus builders; especially when one considers that we are such an extreme example in terms of drought, bushfire, top soil erosion, and that many countries in our immediate sphere are island nations who are already suffering under sea level changes.

    Perhaps climate change is Australia’s version of America’s healthcare problem? i.e. Change is in the direct and obvious future benefit for all our citizenry however their is so much money in lobbying from parties benefiting from the status quo (largely our fossil fuels sector and agriculture, but the short-term interests of diverse elements of industry and society) that debate can be sidelined and action undermined. From an external perspective on both countries situations it seems impossible that such resistance is effective, yet it still determines the very paradigm through which media, discourse and policy is shaped.

    Many thanks for your pieces, always a stimulating, concerning and enjoyable perspective.


  14. Read your text “The Great Disruption’. The Robert Kennedy Speech at page 198. I cross-referenced it. He seems to have made it in 1986 at the University of Kansas. There are a few minor discrepencies in the quote as well. Unless this is a different version of the same speech it does need correcting to be verbatim.

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