Despite record drought, Australian farmers refuse to buy into climate change

Australians are out front in experiencing the life-altering consequences of climate change. Rising temperatures and declining rainfall are, with increasing frequency, transforming the Outback into a crematorium for kangaroos, livestock and farm towns.
By Blaine Harden
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SWAN REACH, AUSTRALIA -- Before climate change strangled his lemon trees, Hermann Markovsky would drift off to sleep to the murmur of black swans in a lagoon beside his citrus farm.

The lagoon has dried up and the swans are gone. Gone, too, after a decade of the worst drought on record, is Markovsky's right to pump irrigation water from the Murray, Australia's largest river. Once called the Mighty Murray, it is now too sickly to flow to the sea, nor can it fill the irrigation pipes that sustain the country's agricultural heartland.

"We are finished," said Markovsky, who grew lemons and oranges here for nearly half a century until November, when a bulldozer put his withered trees out of their misery.

Australians are on the front lines in experiencing the life-altering consequences of climate change, which is the subject of global scrutiny this week at the international climate summit in Copenhagen. Brush fires killed 173 people earlier this year during the most severe heat wave in the history of southeast Australia. Rising temperatures and declining rainfall are, with increasing frequency, transforming the Outback into a crematorium for kangaroos, livestock and farm towns.

In coming decades, the government predicts water shortages, rising seas and catastrophic storms. Climate scientists say a subtropical ridge of high pressure -- fortified by a buildup of greenhouse gases -- seems to be elbowing rain clouds away from southern Australia and the Murray basin.

As in the United States, partisan politics and vested interests have paralyzed some of this country's response to climate change. Australia is the world's largest coal exporter, and its dependence on cheap coal-fired electricity gives it the world's highest per-capita carbon emissions. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's push to slash those emissions with a carbon trading plan was killed last week in the legislature for the second time in less than six months. The embarrassing defeat will leave Rudd, a prominent player in global environmental politics, empty-handed at the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen.

To save the Murray River, though, the government has moved quickly and aggressively. Without partisan bickering, politicians have set aside $11.8 billion for a science-backed program that, among other things, pays irrigators not to suck the river dry.

Yet along the Murray, there is a climate-change conundrum that responsible politicians and smart scientists have yet to solve: Most farmers, the biggest losers as the river shrinks, simply do not buy the notion that southern Australia's climate is changing in a way that is probably irreversible. Their skepticism has withstood nearly 13 years of unrelenting drought, falling incomes and daily encounters with a river that is dying in front of their eyes.

"We have got the science, we have got the money and we have got the policy, but we have not yet got our heads around the human factor," said Tim Stubbs, an engineer and project manager for the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, which has advised the government on the Murray River. "I worry that we will spend all these billions and we still will not have fixed the river or persuaded farmers to change the way they think."

Still hanging on

Like the Mississippi, the Murray is more than a river. In the development of Australia, thriving settlements along the Murray nurtured a potent national myth about how individual backbone and a bit of luck can overcome hard times in a dry country.

Hermann Markovsky and his wife, Rita, were not able to overcome drought. Older than 70 and ready to retire, they have sold their water allocation to the government for $234,000 and promised not to farm again. Yet at some point, they say, the region's luck will have to change, and then the rains, the swans, the lagoon, the river and the Aussie swagger will all return. "We just need a good flood," Hermann said.

A few miles upstream, Grant and Denise Grieger are adamantly opposed to taking government money in return for abandoning a farm that has been in Grant's family for four generations.

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