V. and I attended special public lectures last night delivered by two of the University of Queensland's most eminent professors, Paul Burn from the School of Molecular and Microbial Sciences, and John Quiggin from the School of Economics and Political Science. They both conduct research on issues related to climate change. Burn is developing cheap plastic solar panels and light displays, and one of his messages was that we need to set aside some of our non-renewable energy sources (e.g., oil) now to develop renewable energy ones. Quiggin is focused on the impact of global warning on the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia's most significant agricultural area, which is quickly drying up. One of his messages was that, although there's a lot of uncertainty about the future of the basin, it's no excuse for inaction now.
Since arriving in this country I have been repeatedly confronted with Australians' concerns about global warming. Early last year the Howard government passed legislation to ban incandescent lightbulbs, which Quiggin referred to in his talk as a stupid purchase for a consumer to make, as their efficiency is woefully smaller than nearly all the alternatives. Thank goodness, he implied, that the government decided to take away this decision from the consumer. A great majority of grocery shoppers bring their own 'green' reusable bags to the stores here, rather than using plastic bags, and there's still a lot of discussion about whether plastic bags should just be banned outright. At first V. and I were skeptical about reusable bags because we liked to use the plastic ones for nappies (diapers), but we have now changed our ways. Recycling is much more extensive in Australia as well. In Atlanta we sorted just our cans, bottles, and newspapers from the rest of the garbage, although most of our neighbors didn't even do that. Here one can also recycle cardboard, jars, junk mail, and packaging, which really starts to add up. As a final example, there are widespread public campaigns here to get people to reduce their energy and water consumption that I rarely, if ever, saw in the United States.
It might seem 'cute' that such a small country with a relatively tiny footprint on the world's greenhouse gas emissions is much more obsessed with global warming than the U.S., which is a much larger contributor by far. My guess is that the typical Australian would in fact be shocked if they spent a week in an American home and saw how comparatively little concern there is for the environment there. Not surprising, Australians are highly concerned about the American elections. There are several reasons they should be, including the impact of the current financial crisis on their own markets, but Aussies are also watching what the next administration is going to do about developing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gases. A few sensible changes in America's energy policy, for example, would have a far greater impact on the future than if Queensland decides to ban plastic bags at the grocery store.
I believe that Australians are 'ahead' of the game on all this because they live in a place that is terribly susceptible to changes in the environment. I think this entry from Wikipedia says it best:
By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid lands commonly known as the outback. Australia is the flattest continent, with the oldest and least fertile soils, and is the driest inhabited continent. Only the southeast and southwest corners of the continent have a temperate climate. Most of the population lives along the temperate southeastern coastline. The landscapes of the northern part of the country, with a tropical climate, consist of rainforest, woodland, grassland, mangrove swamps, and desert. The climate is significantly influenced by ocean currents, including the El Niño southern oscillation, which is correlated with periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia. In June 2008 it became known that an expert panel had warned of long term, maybe irreversible, severe ecological damage for the whole Murray-Darling basin if it does not receive sufficient water by October. Water restrictions are currently in place in many regions and cities of Australia in response to chronic shortages resulting from drought. The Australian of the Year 2007, environmentalist Tim Flannery, predicted that unless it made drastic changes, Perth in Western Australia could become the world’s first ghost metropolis, an abandoned city with no more water to sustain its population.Of course, global warming is going to adversely affect everyone, but American politicians have been slow to realise this. Here's hoping that they don't become too distracted by the screams of Wall Street so that they can begin to make a real difference sooner rather than later.