Monday, 25 July 2011

The terrible dilemma for Australia

Yesterday’s Age had the depressing note that the inadequate and misguided carbon tax is going to be overthrown most likely at the next election, with Labor’s primary vote down to a record low 26 percent and Gillard’s “preferred Prime Minister” down to 39 percent. Most of this is clearly over the issue of a carbon tax – which like the far more efficacious mining tax that cost Rudd his job, is a too-late effort to deal with Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It is rather pointless to think what Australia will be like under Abbott in the long-term future, but simple demographic shifts to growing outer suburbs do point to the potential long-term demise of the Labor and Green parties, whose support is very dependent upon low-fertility academic communities in the inner city. With the carbon tax eliminated and threats to mining company power gone, Australia’s still-unexplored mineral resources (on left-wing political websites one never hears of any new mineral finds or of campaigns to stop proposed exploration abroad) will be able to carry out such greenhouse-emitting steps as:
  • coal production in the Namoi Valley
  • oil exploration in Ningaloo Reef
  • underground coal gasification in the Flinders Ranges
Taken together, these will increase Australia’s advantage in terms of cheap and abundant energy, and raise further the discrepancy in fertility between the car-dependent suburbs and the less conservative inner city (representative of the rest of the OECD). What this will mean over the long term is:
  1. that Australia’s carbon emissions continue to rise as its cities develop into some of the largest in the world by area and even population
    • it has been forecast that both Sydney and Melbourne will be among the five largest cities in the OECD by 2050 as larger European cities decline
  2. that as countries elsewhere in the world shift under scarcity and political pressure to renewable energy Australia retains an abundant supply of fossil fuels to fund its population at energy efficiencies possibly even lower than today
    • especially since a hotter climate means higher household energy use from air conditioning
  3. that the often-ridiculous laws being implemented (such as the recent fatty food tax in Hungary) in the Enriched World serve further to encourage migration to the very nation that ecologically can least afford it.
  4. that even if Abbott really is serious about his criticisms of excessive immigration, that his opposition to artificial birth control can be enforced to produce higher birth rates as it cannot in the Enriched World.
    • thus, Australia’s birth rate, which at present is higher than that of other OECD nations but not exceptional, could easily become the highest outside sub-Saharan Africa under Abbott
    • thus, Australia’s already excessive population could well grow even more rapidly than demographic models currently predict, even as the declines in Eurasia, the Americas and New Zealand precede as expected
  5. if this is the case, Australia would be able to maintain its present very high electricity and fuel consumption without having the problems of:
    1. importing fuel or electricity
    2. excessive housing prices from a lack of flat, unfrozen land
The problems for Australia’s already endangered soils and ecosystems this likely scenario poses are severe to say the least.

Even if increased rainfall over the arid interior, which the super-monsoon has already brought, does bring increased pastoral yields in the short term, there is no likelihood this can continue because once rainfall reaches 900 millimetres per flood season, intense leaching of the cracking clays upon which the pastoral industry originated will necessarily diminish soil fertility.

In the former winter rainfall zones of southern Australia, the situation is even worse. Even if the super-monsoon brings significant October to April rainfall to the southeast, the likely loss of the peaty soils through this super-monsoon rain will mean much lower runoff to rainfall ratios in the alpine catchments like the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Goulburn, Snowy, LaTrobe/Thomson and Yarra, as I show here. In southwestern Australia, anthropogenic global warming has, if we use 2010 streamflows as a guide, reduced runoff by an astonishing ninety-six percent. Even rivers such as the Warren which before anthropogenic greenhouse emissions flowed year-round would become dry streambeds that would not flow even after rare heavy storms. This illustrates a deadly effect of Australia’s old soils: vegetation of wetter climates can actually absorb enough water under anthropogenically reduced rainfall to cause runoff reductions beyond those of an extraordinarily rare natural drought. Only if the vegetation of drier climates migrate to southwestern Australia would occasional heavy cyclonic rains (like April 2008) produce significant runoff.

These threats are terrifying – as much as the pathetic response of ordinary Australians to the small long-term costs of the mining tax. Similarly terrifying is how Europe and China mingle over their own emissions without seeing a far more pressing long term threat undiminished even if they achieve zero emissions.

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