R.I.P. Australia

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.

37 Responses to “R.I.P. Australia”

  1. Stu says:

     “Sadly, it’s probably too late to save much of it,” says Joe Romm.

    We tried to hold back the advancing deserts, but they just kept coming.  

  2. D. Robinson says:

    Keith – In the closing para, I think you mean “inextricably linked” no?
    [[Yes. Fixed now. Thanks.//KK]

  3. harrywr2 says:

    Exports of farm products were forecast to rise 4.4 per cent to $32.5bn in 2011/12. This was despite the recent rain and floods in several states hitting winter crops, fruit and vegetables, cotton and grain sorghum.
    Somehow I find the idea of Australian’s going hungry anytime soon to border on insanity. Some of the places that depend on Australian farm exports might have a problem though.
    But in case anyone is really worried all one needs to do is see what Australians are cleverly doing to ‘adapt’.
    By comparison with Australia’s total potable, industrial and agricultural water consumption in 2004-05 (51.5 GL/day), the amount of desalted water used in 2008 is 0.57% of that total (0.294 GL/day). This will rise to 4.3% in the year 2013.

  4. Jarmo says:

    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.

    Finally, a Nobel prize winner who agrees with me 🙂 

  5. Matt B says:

    “Sadly, it’s probably too late to save much of it,” says Joe Romm.

    Joe, if you’re talking about journalistic quality at Rolling Stone, then I agree with you 100%……….

  6. Tom Scharf says:

    At least the put it in the Politics section where it belongs.  I’m sure it passed the stringent peer review at Rolling Stone.

  7. andrewt says:

    Goodell seems to envisage Sydney & Melbourne as situated in sand dunes west of Uluru which is not quite the case – standing outside the Sydney Opera House you can see tiny remnants of sub-tropical rainforest across the harbour.  For a US comparison – Jacksonville in Florida has similar rainfall and winter temperature to Sydney but our summers are more pleasant.
    Strictly only about 20% of Australia is desert but even you excised Australia’s arid & semi-arid inland – maybe 2/3 of our area – we’d still be one of the least densely populated countries in the world.
    Which is not say the threats to agriculture & the reef aren’t real but Goodell has wrapped them in florid nonsense.

  8. EdG says:

    Good thing our species did push its ecological boundaries to colonize new habitats or we’d still be back in Africa.

    And interesting that what enabled us to colonize harsher (colder)climates was our use of an external energy source, fire. 

    Now we – or at least some of us – are fixated on the costs of our external energy use. 
    Back to Australia, here are the October 2010 to 2011 maps showing mostly above normal rainfall and below normal temperatures:


    And as I am sure you understand Keith, the fire hazard that has become an AGW poster child there is really due to fire suppression and fuel buildups on a historical scale. Tons of research on aboriginal burning there, which minimized such fuel buildups and which now does not happen. Same basic story in the western US.

  9. Harry says:

    And as I am sure you understand Keith, the fire hazard that has become an AGW poster child there is really due to fire suppression and fuel buildups on a historical scale. Tons of research on aboriginal burning there, which minimized such fuel buildups and which now does not happen. Same basic story in the western US.
    Actually, it’s not.  This is a popular myth.  The last great outbreaks of fires were during times of extreme weather that made cleared stubble a killer, and permanant forests that ‘crowned’.
    Australia is already mostly desert, with a recent prolonged drought made worse by higher temperatures than ever that cause higher evaporation rates, and record floods in Queensland, that have seen insurance companies back out of much of the state.

  10. Stu says:

    “Actually, it’s not.  This is a popular myth.”

    Or maybe it was a combination of both?

  11. Alexander Harvey says:

    Unless I missed it, the Rolling Stone piece was Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
    Why no mention of the ozone hole?
    Ignorance or the risk of an untidy loose cannon?
    I thnk it would be reasonably accurate to say that right now the precise roles of CO2 and O3 depletion on the modification of the climate in Australia are under discussion. Both act to cause a poleward expansion moving the jet stream, storm tracks and rain belts in the same manner. In a sense this matters little provided it is mentioned, categorised and explained. This hasn’t happened.
    “Climate models show that the drought is likely to worsen in the coming decades.”
    The climate models have commonly lacked a treatment of an ozone CFC mechanism. Include one and the future becomes less clear, a race between ozone recovery and CO2 increase where the rainfall patterns could go either way unless and until CO2 dominates. I may not be quite correct in this statement but right enough to bring it up for consideration. I think that given the length of this piece there was amble room to address the ozone issue as it pertains to climate change as opposed to ground level UV exposure.
    On another point, we have sweeping generalisations:
    “One effect of increasing greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere is to amplify existing climate signals,” says Karoly. “Regions that are dry get drier, and regions that are wet get wetter. If you have a place like Australia that is already extreme, those extremes just get more pronounced.”
    The article correctly contradicts this in as far as it says that rainbelts move, in this case poleward. Rain is falling elsewhere. Again this is not particularly important if the elsewhere is not where you wish the rain to fall.
    Anecdotally, for the science is currently not very clear in my view, a poleward expansion has moved rainfall patterns in Southern Africa and over the same timescale. This time into an arid and a hyper-arid region, which is an extreme even by Australian standards.
    It has got awfully wet in recent years particularly in Namibia, not just here and there, now and then but consistently. This is not science merely observation. Is this significant? Perhaps not, but it is the case for now and it has been the case in the past. The problem is that knowing that the article is partial in its treatment of facts one suspects it is not impartial overall. That it is spinning a line. Dose this matter? Yes I think it does.

  12. Eric Adler says:

    Alexander Harvey @ 11
    Your question about the interaction of the Ozone hole and GHG’s and their impact on Australian weather is a good one.
    Here is a BBC news story on a recent paper that answers that question.
    “They deduce that the effect has been notably strong over Australia.
    “The ozone hole results in a southward shift of the high-latitude circulation – and the whole tropical circulation shifts southwards too,” explained study leader Sarah Kang from Columbia University in New York.
    Of particular interest was the southward migration of the Southern Hemisphere jet stream…”
    So the ozone hole seems to aid the movement of rainfall due to the GHG effect on global warming.

  13. Alexander Harvey says:

    Thanks Eric,
    There is another good quote from there:
    “This study does illustrate the important point that different mechanisms of global change are contributing to the climate impacts we’re seeing around the world,” observed Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University, a leading UK climate modeller.
    “It’s very important to unpack them all rather than assuming that any impact we see is down simply to greenhouse gas-mediated warming.”
    I think that the experts interviewed by Rolling Stone understand this very well, I also suspect they would have said as much themsleves.
    I suspect that the article was an inch too long and something had to be cut out and it is merely unfortunate that the ozone connection got the chop. I am nothing if not imaginative.
    They wonder why people are sceptical, perhaps they are forced to be so.

  14. Keith Kloor says:

    Thanks, Eric and Alexander, for the added context. Most interesting.

    Also, I didn’t really have time to expand on why I found the particular passage I singled out as problematic. But related to the mention of the wildifires issue, here’s a post I wrote about it two years ago. 

  15. Eric Adler says:

    Keith @ 14,
    There is always a problem with attribution, since global warming in most cases is projected to intensify already existing problems in many cases. However, we do know that Australia has been getting hotter and drier, since the rainfall belt is shifting to the south away from Australia  and over the ocean. 
    The lapse in the preventive measure of controlled burning may also make matters worse than they would otherwise be, but common sense indicates that the drought which is also happening is also contributing to the problem; and may prevent the regrowth of forests after they burn, whether it is controlled burning or uncontrolled burning.
    According to the paper the Ozone hole is responsible for 35% of Australia’s problem with rainfall,  however that is defined. That is at present. In the future, the Ozone problem will largely go away, thanks to the elimination of CFC’s, but Australia’s global warming problem will increase radically from where it is today. The only question is how much of an increase there will be. The article is largely accurate, based on what I know.  Australia’s future looks pretty grim to me.

  16. hunter says:

    The elephant in the room is that extreme weather is diong nothing detectable in an honest review.
    The entire AGw enterprise of fear mongering, collective guilt, heoric posturing ineffective policies and CO2 obsession is a complete waste of time.

  17. mondo says:

    As an Australian who travels in the bush a fair bit, and who owns a farm, I can tell you that Mr Goodell is purveying alarmist tosh.  I have just returned from a trip to the Kimberleys.  It was dry up there, but it always is in the dry season, and nobody is doubting that the wet season will come as it always does.   The country around Perth was as verdant and green as I have ever seen it, and I understand that bumper harvests are expected. 

    On the eastern side of the country we are having one of the best seasons for many years.   The countryside is very green, and healthy.   The rivers are flowing steadily and have done for the past two years.

    I don’t know where Mr Goodell lives, or what country he is looking at, but it sure isn’t what the average Australian is seeing.

  18. Fred says:

    Apparently Australia’s rainfall has been above normal this year and temperatures below normal.  See:
    If this is not true, I would like to see the evidence.
    The real threat to Australia is the upcoming imposition of  a carbon tax.  Fortunately, many Australians are responding to this economically destructive and useless tax.  See:

  19. Eric Adler says:

    Fred @ 18 and mondo @17,
    This has been a La Nina year. Most of Australia is very wet during a La Nina year. In fact it was wetter than usual for a La Nina year, as expected due to increasing sea surface temperatures.
    Look at the sea surface temperatures near Australia:
    On the other hand, the Southwest of Australia, a normally dry area had record low rainfall in 2010.

  20. JohnB says:

    @#9 Harry. It’s not a myth at all. We’ve had inquiries into every major fire since 2000 and a Royal Commission into the Victorian ones and they all come to the same conclusion. The fires were worse than they should have been due to the prevention of fuel reduction burns.

    The Royal Commissioner went so far as to sate three times in his report that laws concerning land clearing and burnoffs should place human life above other “needs”. Read the evidence and read the reports, controlled burns prevent major fires.

    Controlled burns=less fuel=smaller bushfires. Why this simple logic escapes some people is beyond me.

    @#15 Eric Adler. “However, we do know that Australia has been getting hotter and drier, since the rainfall belt is shifting to the south away from Australia  and over the ocean.”

    Politely, Bulldust.

    If you check the BoM page;

    Compare the 1911-1920 averages with the 1995-2005 averages and you’ll see that we are getting wetter, not dryer. The 300mm mark has moved from near Telfer to down between Wiluna and Kalgoorlie, a distance of nearly 800 kilometres.

    Similarly this map shows the max/min temps over the same periods;

    Not a lot happening there either.

    As to low rainfall near Perth, big whoop. This is a “Land of droughts and flooding rains” as Dorothea MacKellar put it some 100 years ago. People need to understand, droughts and floods are our “normal”, that’s the way it’s always been and always will be.

  21. JohnB says:

    To add a bit of context. We’ve had droughts before, there was a beauty in Queensland back in the 70s. When it finally broke we had kids of up to 7 years old running in panic because they had never seen water fall from the sky before.

    If you google for images of the Murray River in 1915 you’ll see the thing was bone dry. In 1917 the town of Wentworth (on the Murray) was frantically building walls around the town to save it from the flood.

    For the record, I’m from Brisbane and have fought both flood and fire. In this land, with flood, fire and drought there is only one certainty, there will be another one.

  22. Harry says:

    “If you google for images of the Murray River in 1915 you’ll see the thing was bone dry. In 1917 the town of Wentworth (on the Murray) was frantically building walls around the town to save it from the flood.”
    That was because there was no infrastructure then to control of water flow in the river like there is now.

  23. JohnB says:

    Two points Harry.

    I. I know that, it was to illustrate how quickly this land changes between extremes. Bone dry in 1915, massive floods in 1917. If that happened today people would be falling over themselves to call it “Extreme climate events”.

    2. Do you find it as funny as I do that people are going on about the “health” of the Murray system today when it used to dry up completely?

  24. Eric Adler says:

    JohnB and Harry,
    You are entitled to your own opinion on the question of whether Australia is threatened by climate change due to global warming. Most Australians experience tells them something quite different.
    An overwhelming majority of  Australians, 75%, seem persuaded that climate change due to global warming is a serious personal threat. This is among the highest percentages of any country. Only Italy, Japan and South Korea top them.

  25. Stu says:


    “Fred @ 18 and mondo @17,
    This has been a La Nina year. Most of Australia is very wet during a La Nina year.”

    Here’s the trend over 100 years for rainfall. You will see that Austraila is becoming wetter, not dryer. 



  26. Stu says:

    Doh. Drier, not dryer.

    Before coffee post… 

  27. Eric Adler says:

    Parts of Australia have trended wetter, and parts drier, according you your map. In addtion you can look at a regional graph.

  28. Stu says:

    Yes, it’s a more interesting look that way. Another way to look is to bring up a satellite picture of the continent. The trend for desert regions tends to be more rain, with less rain in areas where there has been urban buildup, the major city areas. To my mind that’s almost an argument in the reverse that rainfall is not becoming ‘more’, in traditionally wet areas, and less in drier areas. As Europeans have settled, there would have been a natural gravitation to areas with good rain and productive soils. What it looks more like is an averaging out of rainfall patterns over the continent for the most part.


  29. Eric Adler says:

    Stu @ 28,
    Looking at the last 40 years, the trend in most of Australia is actually drought.
    The temperature in the past 40 years has also increased in most of Australia as global warming has accelerated.
    This explains why most Australians accept global warming as  a reality and are worried about. Very few Australians remember the year 1910.

  30. ivp0 says:

    Well Eric,  since 1970 Aus was extremely cool and wet your post looks like a big ole cherry pick. Yours is the reverse of the guy who says “See look! No warming since 1998!”  Both are highly unscientific.
    The 100 yr trend in AUS looks pretty flat for both temp and rainfall.  AUS is known for pretty extreme weather and the last 10 years are no different.

  31. Eric Adler says:

    Australia’s mean and minimum temperatures have been increasing since 1910, so there is no doubt about the fact that it has been warming. Starting at every decade to the present, the temperature has increased over the entire country.
    Starting at 1950, and 1960, rainfall over a considerable fraction of Australia  has decreased to the present time. The fact is that 30 years represents a climate trend.

  32. Matt B says:

    @31 Eric:  The fact is that 30 years represents a climate trend.

    Is this a “carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other GHGs have  radiative properties that are well understood”-class fact or a “several lines of evidence (paleo, modern obs, models) strongly suggest that climate sensitivity is greater than 2C”-type of fact?

  33. Stu says:

    The 30 year trend thing seems to be a standard climate metric, although it can be problematic when dealing with larger climate cycles over 30 years, such as a full PDO cycle. PDO may influence rainfall in Australia by moderating the effects of El Nino and La Nina in its positive phase. The PDO was positive from the late 70s through to the beginning of this century. When negative, both drought and heavy rainfall are more likely.  

    I know that Melbourne has been receiving some good rains of late, with many dams at or close to 100%. This is a real turnaround from conditions just over a year ago.

  34. Matt B says:

    @33 Stu – Thanks for the reasoned comment. 

    I can understand using 30 years as a standard climate metric time scale; it certainly could be a useful time period for making certain judgements. But, presenting a claim that “30 years represents a climate trend” as a fact may be disrespectful to the definition of “fact”.

  35. ivp0 says:

    Yep, Eric is seeing PDO and attributing it to AGW.  Cherries jubilee.  Carry on.

  36. JohnB says:

    @#24 Eric. You really should try a better resource than Wiki, especially if you are going to quote 4 year old figures.

    These far more recent polls paint a very different picture.


    The ABC one says that 41% agree to action “even if it means a significant cost”. Frankly I’ll call BS on that since all polls since the “Carbon Tax” debate has started here are consistently running at 85%-90% against.

    In my job I travel around a lot, especially since I sell to alternative/hippie type shops. I can tell you from experience that even in that crowd, believers in “man made” climate change are getting pretty thin on the ground.

    Also please don’t put words into mouth of the BoM. My home State is Queensland and your map looks really, really scary for the coastal region doesn’t it? Of course the rainfall is down, and we are quite happy for that thank you very much. It’s down because we don’t get hit by 3 or 4 cyclones every year any more.

    Due to warming there are less cyclones in the Austalian Oceanic region and they don’t come as far south as they used to. We did have Yasi and Larry, but it’s far easier to rebuild a town or two every 5 years or so than to have to rebuild 3 towns every year.

    And you’re trying to make out that a lack in cyclone damage is somehow a bad thing? Sheesh.

  37. Michael says:

    I live in Darwin in the north of Australia. We just had the coldest August ever recorded here. Last wet season we had 3 metres of rain. We drove across Central Australia at Christmas – green, flowers, animals, flocks of budgerigars.I flew across Asutralia twice in the last month – still lots of water in central Australia, green around Adelaide  and even up in the deserts.

    The climate here is very variable – often from decade to decade. I really don’t think its the best place to make an argument about sustained climate change!

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