Climate change hits hard in the Australian outback
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Bourke's population has dropped in the past three years from 3,500 to less than 3,000. Shops on the main street are boarded up and houses are for sale.Skip to next paragraph
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"This is the worst drought white men have seen," said mayor Wayne O'Mally. "It's really testing people's resources."
Scientists disagree with those government officials who see no connection between the drought and global climate change.
"It's still not certain whether the low rainfall is a result of global warming, but certainly the increased temperatures are directly linked," said David Jones, head of climate analysis at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. "Global warming is making Australia hotter, which makes droughts more likely."
Water ecologist Peter Cullen, a board member of the National Water Commission, agreed that evidence points to the fact that Australia is getting drier as a result of global warming.
"I think there is a climate shift occurring with a drought on top of that," Professor Cullen said.
According to a poll this month, 62 per cent of the Australian public believes the government is not doing enough to address global warming.
In an apparent U-turn last week, Conservative Prime Minister John Howard said he would set up a panel to investigate the merits of a global carbon-trading scheme to reduce greenhouse gases. He had previously been profoundly skeptical of the idea.
Australia has called for a "new Kyoto," a revised framework that would include China and India in the campaign to cut greenhouse gas emissions – a call it repeated at last week's United Nations climate change conference in Nairobi and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, over the weekend.
As an alternative to Kyoto, Australia is promoting an Asia-Pacific initiative known as AP6, which draws together the US, China, India, Japan, and South Korea in an effort to develop technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
But AP6 has been criticized as a paper tiger because it includes no targets or incentives for reducing emissions, no timetable to phase in cleaner energy technology, and no penalties for businesses that fail to do so.
The government has also been condemned for its strong support of the Australian coal industry, a prime source of greenhouse gases.
While the debate over Canberra's commitment to the fight against global warming intensifies, the people of the outback can only look to the skies and pray for a change in the hot, dry weather.
"If we don't get rain by December or January, God help us. I shudder to think what it will be like," said Sue Smith, a town councillor.
With cloudless blue skies and no significant rain forecast, some communities are turning to prayer.
About 200 Bourke locals gathered recently on an old timber wharf overlooking the Darling River in a mass prayer for rain.
The small crowd listened to sermons and sang hymns such as 'Great South Land' – "This is our nation, this is our land, this lucky country of dreams gone dry."
A prayer called for "life giving rain" to "come and soften our parched land."