JEREMY SMITH. Our Climate Crisis

While local drought-affected communities are declaring a climate emergency, present proposals to mitigate the impacts of drought fail to address the real crisis. They do not recognise that this drought is not just another variation on ‘normal’ conditions, but a step towards a new climate. More radical and comprehensive planning and action are required.

Today’s Armidale Express stated on its front page ‘There was wild cheering in the council chamber, and every councillor took a bow, as Armidale Regional Council declared a climate emergency’. The motion called on the community to adapt to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The need for urgent action at all levels of government was noted.

So my local community, like some others, is finally waking up to the fact that this drought is not just another drought, albeit the worst ever. After this drought there will soon be another, and another, probably yet worse. The climate has changed, and continues to change.

Of course there will always be wetter years and drier years, but all the data and evidence show that we are in a process of long-term change, not just variation around a steady norm. Every set of rainfall figures going back a few decades, including my own, clearly shows a progressive drop in precipitation. This past couple of years we have seen the latest step in what has already been a long progression. Temperature data show rises in maximum values of some two degrees in just the last four decades. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that these trends will slow, let alone reverse.

It is no surprise that locals are realising the magnitude and continuing nature of our climate crisis. Every chance conversation reverts to some aspect of drought – water saving measures in the home, garden devastation, invading wildlife, welfare donations. The word ‘unprecedented’ is being grossly over-used.

We live daily with bushfire smoke from fires in all directions which have been burning for months and which cannot be extinguished until good rain falls. No such rain appears in any forecast, certainly not during the rest of this year. The largest fire, the so-called Bees Nest, is today reported to have now burned out an astonishing 111,262 hectares. Fire-fighting helicopters pass overhead dangling buckets, day after day. In a ‘normal’ year the fire season would barely have begun by now.

Local rivers are dry, trees are dying, and the town already under level 5 water restrictions is projected to run out totally early next year. There is virtually no green feed in the paddocks, many of which have now been completely de-stocked. Only a few local businesses are prospering, like the laundromats where people increasingly wash their clothes to save their own water supplies, and crash repairers fixing cars that have met roaming, desperate kangaroos. The economic backbone of the region, agriculture, is broken, and most other enterprises are suffering as a result.

Yet the real nature of this climate crisis, that we and other communities across a vast swathe of Australia are facing, apparently goes unrecognised by higher levels of government.

The various proposals I have seen, to mitigate the impacts of drought on individuals or businesses (farming and otherwise), and to address dwindling water supplies to towns, ecosystems and farms alike, all look to me like Band-Aid measures. I say this because they all seem to be trying to sustain present systems in the unstated and irrational expectation that this drought will end.

A rational policy needs to recognise that we must go beyond propping up towns, farms, businesses and lifestyles. We must recognise that the future is going to be different, and plan to make the best of it. In a decade or two when drought has progressed further, what will be the best land use in our varied drought-affected regions – and what should be discouraged or prohibited, in the wider interest? Which of our small country towns can we sustain, as their economy inevitably shrinks – and which should be evacuated and abandoned? How should we best utilise the diminishing resource of rainfall: which of many competing uses – keeping rivers flowing and their ecosystems alive, maintaining irrigated agriculture and water-hungry mining, keeping towns going – need to be down-sized to allow the others to continue?

Some present proposals might actually do more harm than good. There are negative as well as positive consequences of building more dams, sucking more water from aquifers, and bailing out more marginal farmers.

We desperately need an overall vision, and plan, for a longer term future. It is an enormous task, but an enormously important one. Is it beyond us? There are few present signs that it is even being recognised. But if we do not approach this vast problem properly, a vast catastrophe will come.

Jeremy Smith lectured in the broad field of biogeography at the University of New England for 25 years before becoming a Station Leader at various Australian Antarctic stations. He has been retired, in Armidale, NSW, since 2011.


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4 Responses to JEREMY SMITH. Our Climate Crisis

  1. David Higham says:

    All of Australia will become hotter this century,and a large section will experience increasingly severe droughts. The western USA as well.

  2. Michael Hart says:

    Jeremy thank you for calling it for what it is – a changing climate and hence a significant change in they way he have lived and used the land in Australia. Our property also has good records and it mirrors yours in Armidale, a trend line of increasing daily temps, increases in the diurnal variations (min and max) and declining average rainfall with increasingly variable rainfall both in amount and timing. The landscape is drying out gradually and each dry merely reinforces the previous dry in a deleterious fashion. The planetary scale air and pressure masses have shifted and changed – of course they would it is a consequence of heat could it be modelled perhaps and perhaps not but it is clear and unmistakable south eastern Australia is now tethered to non stop High Pressure systems moving from West to East that no longer shift up or down in latitude but seem permanently fixed in such a way they block and prevent moist air and hence rainfall developing over most of south eastern Australia.

    It is not merely a topic for conversation but a question of survival and a livable existence. It is my view that Australian agriculture as we know it and knew it to be is finished, that’s a brave call some would say, well look at the evidence about you. As you say we are now up to hard decisions, is it possible to do something? Take our property for example for a decade we have worked assiduously employing every landcare and water conservation measure one could find, both from within and without Australia, and still it was not enough, those techniques and measures only can do so much. We changed the land use, rotated and reduced stocking preserved and planted trees, encourage native fauna and native flora almost holistically but in the end the greater climatic shift has defeated that work, its over!. So when say do this or that with what and where? Who will pick the winners or losers in that lottery? How can we possibly civilly or even peacefully work through such a predicament, history suggests very strongly we will not, it will be violent and selfish. How can it be made clear such that there is cognitive understanding of the implications of increasing aridity and heat, the consequences for diminishing flora and fauna are immense and the pace of biological adaption will not keep pace with the changes to the climate.

    One thing is perfectly clear now political representatives and their parties remain welded to the delusion of what the past was like and it will come again, well hope is neither a plan nor policy. They remain welded to that delusion as their constituents do that the reality is now to awful to contemplate and to hard to deal with and you can be sure there are plenty of people asking the selfish I questions, where do I go, where do I live, How do I earn an income, how am I going to live and how can we do that when what I have spent a lifetime accumulating and building is rapidly becoming a financial and existential nightmare.

    Is there a chance to salvage something, possibly but not with the fools who govern, not the fools who support them and time is running out for the glacial pace of decision making and change that characterizes our body politic. Too little too late.

    • Jeremy Smith says:

      Thank you, Michael, for you eloquent and heart-felt letter.
      We share the same understanding and fears. Why is the clear and increasing crisis not recognised more widely? Our politicians are next to useless – I won’t speculate as to why they are so blind and timid, so distracted by political mud-slinging, so apparently completely incapable of even recognising the problem let alone doing anything about it. Perhaps all we can do is continue to make a bit of noise in the hope that eventually enough people will listen, to begin influencing the national decision-makers.
      Speaking for myself, I expect to stay on my small acreage for a few more years, till age decrees otherwise, even though I will be surrounded by the trees that I planted forty years ago progressively dying, and the birds they nurture disappearing – and even though by the time I have to move on, the property may well have become virtually unsaleable. It is my grandchildren I worry for, and the life and environment they will have to deal with during the next half-century and more.

  3. Andrew Glikson says:

    California, , Brazil, Siberia, southeast Queensland and many other regions in the world are burning.
    Here the bulk of the mainstream media, including the ABC, while reporting the climate disasters, are more than reluctant to include climate scientists in their discussion forums and panels, in case the scientists tell something they do not want to hear.

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