Reportage

Knocking on the door

MY HOME IS in a small community on the New South Wales far south coast and when New Year's Day 2006 dawned, the prediction was for a stinker. There was even an expectation the day might be the hottest on record, almost certainly the hottest-ever January 1. Friends were staying and, because we had been up late the night before, everyone was slow to head for the beach. The sun there was as hot as a bluebottle's lash, making twenty-one-degree water feel chilled. A parchment westerly, searching for a bushfire, also blew. The wind and the sun made the sea feel like a haven and we lounged in a rock pool, more senseless hippos than hung-over humans. But consciousness can be a curse and we all knew, even in the rock pool that we were being saturated in ultraviolet radiation.

Back home we put on a brave face. One visitor, a baker who lives on a sheep farm in northern Victoria, declared: "C'mon, guys. This isn't hot." An hour later he was lying paralysed on the concrete-slab floor, a tea towel soaked in icy water over his head and face, moaning like a victim of acute appendicitis. Beyond the shadow of the veranda the sun burned white and the westerly came in through every crack and window. We all agreed it was the hottest we had ever felt, anywhere. It was dangerous heat, the kind of weather that could make people sick or even kill them. The sheep-farming baker could barely talk. A neighbour called to say that in the shade his thermometer read 46.6 degrees – the high end of a series of stunning local amateur temperature recordings, all over 43.9.

Late in the afternoon, a thumping southerly dropped the temperature by twenty degrees and the hot day became the stuff of legends.

In Sydney, the temperature had only hit the second-highest mark ever – a soaring 44.2 degrees – more than one degree short of the record of 45.3 set on January 14, 1939. This fact is critical because Australia has always had hot days. The point is though, if the forecasts are right, the records will continue to tumble. New Year's Day will have been the hottest that anyone under sixty-seven and living in coastal New South Wales will ever have experienced. My bet is that I won't need to live for another sixty-seven years to experience another day like it.

As a prelude to the boiling beginning to 2006, the day before brought down the curtain on Australia's hottest year since records have been kept. The average temperature, across the vast continent, was 22.89 degrees – 1.09 degrees above the 1961 to 1990 average. It was the second time the hottest-year record had been broken in seven years. It may not sound like a huge increase but as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology noted: "While these temperature departures may seem relatively small, a one degree Celsius increase is equivalent to many southern Australian towns shifting northward by about a hundred kilometres ... The 2005 record is yet another sign that our climate is changing. Since 1979, all but four years have been warmer than average in Australia." On the entire continent, as measured by a hundred weather-observation stations, only one region was cooler than the average – the coastal strip of Western Australia from Carnarvon to Cape Leeuwin.

And it was not just Australia. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the global mean temperature for 2005 was nearly half a degree above normal.

In the days after New Year's Day, people spoke of things the heat had killed – native saplings on the edge of the road, garden plants. One awed resident said even his waterlilies had begun to expire, apparently unable to get enough water through their fleshy leaves. None of those things, however, was a surprise considering the extreme temperature.

A fortnight later I was at the beach again and noticed many of the coastal wattles carpeting the dunes were dead or dying. The local parks service often sprays the area for a weed, bitou bush. I telephoned local parks-service area manager Preston Cope to find out whether the plants had been poisoned, but was told herbicide was only used in winter. He told me beach vegetation had been killed throughout the district. He had no proof that the scorching heat was responsible, but the hot day seemed the only explanation. As an aside, Cope told me what had happened to a different ecosystem near to him. In a single day, the fronds of all his tree ferns had been burnt and killed. His bird's-nest ferns, too, had been fried. Maybe both would grow back in time but what if there were another hot day this summer or a record-breaker next summer? How many times will such species attempt to carry on in a world where extreme becomes average? It was a turning-point moment. Scientists have long said that in a hotter world many ecosystems – whole communities of wildlife – face ruin.

And there it was: an ecosystem in my own backyard bombed by a single day of extraordinary heat. A landscape I love, know and take for granted could be annihilated. All it would take would be a run of forty-six-degree days for my beach to be altered dramatically. We are no longer happy to simply remove individual species. Human destructiveness is on the brink of an ambitious new low – the capacity to inflict the extinction of views, landscapes, snow-capped mountains, ice sheets and coastlines. And not slowly, either. If the dead wattles are anything to go by, in a climate-change world we may not need time-lapse photography to watch a forest wither.

Part of Cope's patch is a beautiful, small island called Montague. It is nine kilometres offshore and always a blissfully cool place. It has also traditionally been seen as the northern boundary for life evolved in the Southern Ocean. Before he hung up the telephone, Cope told me that on New Year's Day the temperature at Montague had hit an astonishing thirty-nine degrees, the highest recorded.

Montague Island looms large from the little coastal town of Bermagui. Bull kelp, a cold-water species forming famous underwater forests, grew there until the 1970s. Today the northern range of bull kelp has moved to Tathra, seventy-four kilometres down the coast.

Seaweed expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Dr Alan Millar, says the range of bull kelp is contracting southwards at a rate of almost two kilometres a year. "It won't be long before it falls off the edge of the continental shelf and that will be it," Millar told me.

In Tasmania, giant kelp is also disappearing. In 1964, there were 1.4 million square metres of the seaweed. In 2001, there were 700,000 square metres. Another seaweed, ecklonia, which once grew as far north as Caloudra in Queensland, is now found only as far up the coast as Byron Bay. "These organisms are slowly being cooked," Millar says.

There is, however, a converse. "We are finding species only known from the far north of the coast that we are now picking up way south. Tropical species appear to be on the move south."

 

BUT LIFE IS not just being cooked at the colder end of the continent. A Great Barrier Reef calamity is unfolding; this generation may be the last to see the reef in its full glory. Until recently, I was relatively sceptical about the potential impact of climate change. My view was that if we can't predict the weather a week in advance, how can anyone possibly say what will happen in a century? Instead, to me, the issue was one of waste – regardless of consequences, it is wrong for a few generations to squander a planet's non-renewable energy resources.

I still believe it is not possible to say what the human experience will be a hundred years hence but a trip to Far North Queensland in 2004 convinced me we are in store for some ecological insanity. At very short notice, I was sent on an assignment to cover the environmental problems facing the Great Barrier Reef. I arranged to join Australian Institute of Marine Science researcher Dr Terry Done who was on board the research ship MV Franklin. After a soaking journey in an inflatable, I made a mid-ocean handover from a tourist boat, which had earlier that day taken me to John Brewer Reef, seventy-five kilometres offshore from Townsville, to the deck of the Franklin.

Once on board, there was no time to lose. Our destination was Myrmidon Reef, another seventy kilometres out to sea – one of the most remote and wild spots anywhere in the marine park. The prediction was for a severe southerly front to sweep through the following day, which meant the divers needed to be in the water soon after dawn.

Myrmidon is regarded as completely free of the pressures affecting other parts of the World Heritage Area. Fishing is banned, tourists are few, direct pollution from mainland run-off is non-existent, as are crown-of-thorns starfish. It is inside a green zone, with the highest possible level of protection.

Among twenty-eight Great Barrier Reef study sites, Done has two at Myrmidon and he has been visiting them for twenty-five years. The reef there is his favourite. In 1982, he noticed a tiny patch of coral had turned white. At that time he had no idea the bleaching he had observed was the prelude to mass disaster caused by heat. In 2002, during a vast pooling of warm water in the region, he noticed the reef was stressed but felt confident Myrmidon would recover.

Two years later, as we prepared to submerge, Done's hopes were shattered. "Enjoy the moonscape," he groaned, after quickly looking beneath the waves. The view that greeted us was reminiscent of a bombed city. Bleaching occurs when water warms to a temperature that forces the colourful algae living symbiotically within the corals to jump ship. If heating is not too prolonged then the algae will recolonise. If not, the reef dies. The first impression at Myrmidon was that a sepia filter had been thrown over the seascape – dead corals were covered in brown algae. There were few fish. Instead of being an exhilarating, awe-inspiring dive, everyone rolled back into the inflatable stunned into silence. That day we also dived on outlying bommies off the main reef and they seemed relatively unscathed, but anywhere the warm eddies had settled, especially inside the fringing reef, there was death on a mind-boggling scale. In 1998, forty-two per cent of the Great Barrier Reef's corals were bleached to some extent, nearly a fifth severely. Four years later, fifty-four per cent of the reefs were bleached.

Done told me a one-degree increase in sea surface temperature would raise the incidence of reef bleaching to eighty-two per cent, two degrees to ninety-seven per cent, three degrees and the Great Barrier Reef as we know it would be finished.

This trip made me realise climate change makes a mockery of humanity's meagre environmental efforts. If a coral reef on the very edge of the continental shelf, within the boundaries of a marine park, is not safe, then other places closer to the impacts of our species are in real trouble. Climate change has the potential to undo almost every good conservation initiative ever undertaken. Every national park, landcare planting, water-saving initiative and river rehabilitation scheme is facing the very real risk of being struck from existence. The Great Barrier Reef story is being repeated across the continent. Kakadu National Park faces disaster from increasing salt intrusion into freshwater wetlands and the Wet Tropics World Heritage rainforests are doomed under even moderate climate-change scenarios.

Our efforts to date are nowhere near the sacrifice needed to bring carbon dioxide levels down. We have left our appeasement efforts so late that even an emergency shutdown of all the polluting pillars of society would mean climate change could take decades, even centuries, to turn around. And life may never return to a natural course.

As I flew back home, the jet drew beside the biggest thundercloud I had ever seen. It was whiter than snow and its face was so sharp I felt as though we were flying just metres from the wall of a giant iceberg. Never before had the atmosphere looked so malevolent. I was convinced: talk of losing the Great Barrier Reef is no pinkie-greenie-communist conspiracy. I will be surprised if the reef in its current glory is still there for the centenary of Done's survey.

 

THE ECOSYSTEMS THAT will show the bruises from climate change's violence first are those that live in a narrow band of survival – ocean life, mountain-top communities and cities.

On land, one of the clearest pieces of evidence that something big is amiss is that nature's timetable has become as messed up as a badly run public transport system. Migrating birds and seasonal insects like butterflies are arriving earlier and later. Flowers have reset their clocks and some are blooming at times that observers can no longer predict. For creatures dependent on each other, which eat each other or fertilise each other, such changes may spell disaster.

Dr Lynda Chambers is a senior scientist in the Bureau of Meteorology's Climate Forecasting Group. "We are finding that a lot of amateur naturalists are observing changes in flowering, changes of arrival of birds, changes in what birds or plants are found in their gardens and a lot of these changes seem to be related to changes in climate," Chambers told me.

In the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne, one amateur phenologist has collected twenty-two years of data and her results are most striking because all the talk is what will happen when climate change comes. Listening to Chambers calmly discuss her research, I realise it is clear climate change has been operating behind the lines of our society for years. "Over the twenty-two years of data, for the flowers that flower earlier there's a thirteen– or fourteen-day difference – that's averaged over all the plants. For the species that flower later, they are now doing so by about twenty days over the twenty-two years. We are still at an alert rather than an alarm stage. But it may be only a year or two's time before we hit the alarm button."

I wondered whether these shifts in flowering had happened suddenly or over time. "Gradually," she said.

Climate change is the Mormon of environmental problems – eventually it will knock on everybody's front door. In the past two years, it has been revealed how perilously close Australia's biggest cities are to running out of water. Perth's rainfall has been below average for decades. Even a dam like Warragamba, with the potential to hold two Sydney Harbours of drinking water, has proven insufficient for one of the world's thirstiest cities. Goulburn in NSW and Toowoomba in Queensland are major regional centres whose leaders are thinking hard about sustainability as their dams run dry. Political leaders may escape the sound of the last gurgle from the reservoir in this cycle, but eventually the prediction by author and scientist Dr Tim Flannery of a major Australian city being rendered a ghost town by climate change could come true.

This time the dams may well fill again. However, what seems even more certain is that Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide will have to live with chronic water shortages as climate change's grip tightens. Over the past five years, Sydney's dam water levels have dropped to within a single year of completely running out of water. It is nearly eight years since Warragamba Dam was last full – a scary statistic considering a mere week of heavy rain across the catchment is enough to fill the reservoir. The social and economic implications of a capital city running out of water are unthinkable. Imagine Sydney, Melbourne or Perth running out of water. No wonder the Prime Minister has appointed a parliamentary secretary with special responsibility for water, and utilities ministers around the nation are among the most avid weather watchers. New dams, desalination plants, recycling and stealing water from catchments beyond a city's region are all short-term fixes.

Climate change is like today only more so – bigger hail, stronger winds, more rain, longer drier droughts, hotter, colder and dustier. Scarier. While many of the tales of violence in New Orleans have turned out to be exaggerated, and climate change alone was not responsible for the devastation, I would not want to live in a city without a reliable water supply.

 

IN AUSTRALIA, CLIMATE change will hit the wealthy, especially those who live in beachfront or harbourside homes. Late in January 2006, the world's premier science journal, Nature, reported the findings of Australian researchers from CSIRO's Marine and Atmospheric Research, Hobart. The team found that by 2100, based on current trends, sea level will have risen thirty-one centimetres. "This will push back typical beach shorelines by around 300 metres," Nature reported on January 19, 2006. As most Australians live near the coast, few will be unaffected. It seems an extreme figure and obviously depends on the slope of the land, yet even a three-metre retreat would lay to waste billions of dollars of infrastructure and real estate. It is easy to imagine the environmental damage that will be done to shorelines, by seawalls and other engineering in an effort to protect the homes of wealthy Australians.

Director of the Coastal Studies Unit at the University of Sydney, Professor Andrew Short, says the expense of protecting and moving infrastructure will be extraordinary. He points to structures like Sydney Airport, which is practically at sea level. Eventually, however, every wharf and jetty in the nation will have to be adjusted or moved. "Saltwater will penetrate further inland and all the mangroves and seagrasses will also have to shift. If you get an increase in cyclones, as predicted by climate-change models, you get more winds from the east and north-east and the beaches will rotate," he said. In other words, sand that is normally pushed to the northern end of beaches by southerly systems will instead be driven to the southern end of beaches. Such a dramatic change in wave and wind regimes will have huge impacts on beach erosion.

This is just one of the many changes that are likely to occur, according to climate scientists. In essence, the CSIRO predicts an average temperature increase of between 0.4 and two degrees by 2030 and up to six degrees by 2070. There will be more heatwaves and fewer frosts and more frequent El Niño-driven droughts. The big drought of 2002-03 saw farm output fall by $3 billion. While rainfall is predicted to continue to decline in southern Australia, it will increase across the tropics. A warming of a mere 0.3 degrees will see the area of snow cover in alpine regions contract by eighteen per cent. As habitat is lost, biodiversity is expected to crash and some introduced pests, such as the cane toad, may benefit from soaring temperatures. Scientists also predict an increase in extreme weather events such as the Sydney hailstorm of 1999. That storm dumped 500,000 tonnes of ice on the city, much of it the size of tennis balls, and caused $1.7 billion of damage. As the insurance industry is now warning, a twenty-five per cent increase in wind gusts will lead to a 650 per cent increase in claims. Even for those who like warm weather, the coming century is unlikely to be an enjoyable one for humans. Direct health impacts of warming will include higher incidence of heatstroke and skin cancer. In addition, diseases like malaria are likely to begin to march into previously temperate zones.

Charles Sturt University's Professsor Nick Klomp says most people do not believe a temperature change of a couple of degrees could make much of a difference. "Actually, it makes a heap of difference. Life is on a knife edge and often there is nowhere for it to go. If a species tries to move it hits water, mountains and towns so there are limits to where species can move."

Klomp warns that people need to be careful of being lulled into a false sense of security that the changes are not yet dramatic or apparent to any but the more observant. "Some things change gradually and some things change at a critical level. The best example of a critical-phase change is water melting. Water stays frozen through a huge temperature range but once the temperature hits zero, nothing will stop it from melting." It is such critical-phase changes that are potentially the most frightening of climate change's impacts. Most of these possible phase changes are not yet well understood.

What is understood is that these changes will affect the way we live, our ability to engage with the environment and the nature of the physical world around us – its topography, animals and plants. One of the most ubiquitous Australians is the gum tree, which belongs to a group that consists of 800 different species. Dr Lesley Hughes of Macquarie University's School of Biological Sciences has found that about a quarter of all eucalypts live in an extremely narrow climate range – less than one degree Celsius. With predictions of temperatures increasing by two or three degrees, what will happen to these trees?

 

CLIMATE CHANGE IS not going to be our children's or grandchildren's problem. It will be ours. It is ours. My wife, Prue, and I realised several years ago that living in Sydney in a home of our own, with space for children and dogs, was beyond our reach unless we were prepared to spend our entire lives working. We did, however, own land on the south coast and after nearly a decade of wanting to escape the city, we are now living there. Our fifty hectares used to be part of a much bigger farm beside a coastal lake, close to the ocean and looking back on the escarpment of the Great Dividing Range. Nearly three-fifths of our land is a fenced-off forest, untouched and little visited for perhaps half a century.

All around us, urbanisation is taking hold and we knew that if we did not act, our land too, would one day be broken up, the forest cleared and its extraordinary values killed – a death by a thousand cuts. We were determined that we would do everything we could to protect the forest and its wildlife from ourselves, our children and anyone else who might one day own our property.

We placed a voluntary conservation agreement over thirty hectares of eucalypt-dominated forest and now take our obligations under this agreement with the state government very seriously. Most importantly, the forest is legally protected from subdivision. We have been pulling out weeds, planting trees in erosion gullies, encouraging the native species, providing habitat for birds and animals. But it may well be that attempting to protect the forest from being cleared or subdivided is a waste of time. Climate change has many weapons in her arsenal and putting a line on a map and defending it with English property law will not keep her out. Even if a temperature increase doesn't make our forest vulnerable, increased bushfires, weeds and disease may.

On the cleared land, we have begun establishing a native hardwood plantation. It is predominantly made up of gum trees and, while our tree planting is on a relatively small scale, it has consumed a considerable amount of time and money. Hughes' research suggests a betting man wouldn't rate the odds of it ever reaching harvestable age as high. Knowing this, everything I now plant is chosen for its capacity to cope with a large climatic variation.

At the end of the day, electricity consumption is at the heart of why we face such a climate-change mess. The generation of electricity is the biggest contributor to climate change. The fossil fuels that power the turbines are not renewable and the waste they produce is polluting our entire planet.

We did not want to give up on a lifestyle powered by electricity, but we did want to live smarter.

Moving beyond the reach of a major power company is not easy, and last year I discovered just how powerful electricity companies are. The landscape around our home is blighted by powerlines. They are not only ugly but keeping the land beneath them clear of vegetation creates moats dividing ecosystems. The one across our place has cleaved the local forest in two. An aerial photograph of the area reveals a chopping board of powerline cuts. A power easement crosses our property and a line passes within fifty metres of the home site.

We had wanted to rely on solar power but were advised against it. We were warned about the price and perceived technical difficulties. In rural areas, the cost of connecting to the grid is borne by the householder and can often run into tens of thousands of dollars. When we contacted the local monopoly for a quote we were not surprised to be told it would be between ten and fifteen thousand dollars to tap into the closest power pole – the one we would be spending the rest of our lives looking at whatever power source we chose.

"But exactly how much?" I asked

"Well, a formal quote will cost you $500," the officer said.

We decided to start counting our solar savings immediately. I was prepared to live a dim and difficult life rather than pay an outrageous quote to a corporation with a monopoly to make a fortune and destroy the environment.

We planned to use a generator for power to build the frames and part of the roof of the house before installing a solar system. My brief to our local supplier was to install the best system possible for less than the cost of connecting to the pole. I wanted the inside of our building to be as "normal" a home as possible. Subscribing to the sustainable hedonism school of environmentalism, we did not want to send our family back to a Palaeolithic existence. On the day the panels were bolted onto the roof, I asked the supplier about the limitations of the solar set-up. Could we use power tools to finish the building?

"No worries at all. Anything less than 2400 watts should be fine," he replied.

The two builders working with me were sceptical as we plugged in drills and drop saws and continued building. To our amazement the solar system was incredibly robust. The rest of the house was built using power from the sun and, at the end of a full day (even in winter), we struggled to reach night with a battery capacity of less than 99 per cent. During several blackouts we kept working, powered by our own plant consisting of seven desk-sized panels on the roof and a battery box the size of a chest freezer. We bought an energy-efficient fridge from the local appliance store and installed a house full of guilt-free lights.

We began enjoying solar-powered banana smoothies and I started writing solar-powered stories. One night, after a huge thunderstorm swept out of the Wadbilliga Wilderness, taking out mains power throughout the area, we sat and ate dinner, our lights shining and fridge humming. Ours were the only lights in the district that evening.

Our neighbour looked on enviously one week as twenty blackouts threw him into a frenzy of clock and appliance resetting. Yes, there are energy costs in both batteries and panels and it takes years to repay the bill if account is taken only of power bills. But if you add in the price of a blackout preventing me from working, freezers full of spoiled food, not to mention the cost of connecting to the grid, then the debt is quickly repaid. The panels will last decades and the batteries at least fifteen years.

Our home is the same as any other. The power points are identical, it isn't dim or difficult, the maintenance is minimal – once a month I lift the lid of the battery box and check water levels. Best of all, we never get an electricity bill. As Klomp says: "People have grown up thinking they can just push a button and get anything they like. Everyone has now got to have an attitude change. It doesn't mean being uncomfortable. It means a few new tricks."

To me, terrorism is not as scary as the fact that some flowers bloom weeks earlier than they used to or that we don't have a clue what happens when an ocean current breaks down. The only thing scary about al-Qaeda is that they are likely to be the big winners from the social and economic dislocation wreaked by climate change.

Even without global warming, it's a no-brainer that it is wrong for a handful of generations to use almost all the easily obtainable fossil fuels. Even if there were no such thing as climate change, the amount of waste in our society is disgusting – why did the four chocolate biscuits I opened for guests this morning come inside a box, a plastic bag and a plastic container?

Energy bingeing is not only lazy and greedy, there are consequences. Did we really think we could burn fossilised forests and swamps from the age of dinosaurs without consequence? Did we really think that voting for George W. Bush or John Howard was good for anything other than short-term self-interest? It's not the economy, stupid. It's the ecosystem.

Men in suits talk about technical solutions such as carbon sequestration and zero-emission coal-fired power stations. The public only needs to note who is putting such ideas forward to understand they are code for business as usual. Climate change is starting to look like a planetary manoeuvre to expel a species too big for its boots.

My prediction is that the twenty-first century will shatter one of the great and most harmful human delusions. We are not mere observers of the food chain, a separate class of life on Earth. For the first time, we will see that humanity's existence is as fragile as that of any other big charismatic carnivore. 

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