Scientists meeting at a climate convention in Sydney are warning that temperatures in Australia, the world's driest continent, will rise even further because of global warming. The prediction comes as seventh anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases approaches. The Australian government, along with the United States, has refused to ratify the protocol, insisting it would cost jobs and damage industry.
Australia's national anthem celebrates a land blessed with abundant resources. This country of 20-million people has vast reserves of coal, and is one of the world's biggest consumers of fossil fuels.
Prime Minister John Howard has joined the United States administration in refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty aimed at reducing the so-called greenhouse gases that result from fossil fuels and are thought to contribute to global warming. Mr. Howard believes that signing the treaty would weaken Australia's powerful economy.
Part of Mr. Howard's environmental plan is to try to make fossil fuels cleaner through techniques such as "geo-sequestration," which would bury carbon dioxide emissions underground.
"We are taking action to address greenhouse emissions and climate change, but we are determined to do it the smart way, a way that does not threaten our energy advantage and national prosperity," said Mr. Howard.
The government's stance on reducing greenhouse gas emissions has the support of the Minerals Council of Australia, which represents the country's mining industry.
Its chief executive is Mitch Hooke. He says Australia is already meeting its international obligations on greenhouse gases and there is no need to sign on to Kyoto, which he describes as flawed and out of date.
"Our industry and many others have moved way beyond debating whether or not climate change is an issue, and are now focused on solutions," he noted. "Now, Kyoto Protocol is about targets; it's not about solutions."
Australia has been warned that if greenhouse gases aren't cut, this could become a land increasingly at the mercy of the elements, and such natural disasters as floods, droughts and cyclones.
Speaking at an international climate change forum in Sydney this week, Kevin Hennessy, an expert on climate change, said that in the future, parts of Australia could expect much higher temperatures.
"The projections do suggest that some areas will become extremely hot, with a very large number of days over 35 or 40 degrees Celsius," he added. "In a previous report we did for the New South Wales Government, we indicated that if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced substantially there might be scope for stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, which would in turn slow the rate of global warming."
Environmental groups insist action must be taken now to prevent irreversible problems in the future.
Greg Bourne from the Worldwide Fund for Nature says positive leadership and imaginative solutions are urgently needed.
"We need to move to a lighter hydrocarbon economy, we need to use more [natural] gas, and certainly within Australia, we definitely need to be using more gas as we transition towards renewable energies," he explained. "That will take a long time but we need to be starting now."
Here in Australia's biggest city, Sydney, the Prime Minister's argument that signing the Kyoto Protocol would harm the economy has some support. Equally, there are those who think the government is behaving irresponsibly.
MAN: "I don't think the economic sacrifice that's called for from the key industrial nations is wise in terms of the industrial prosperity that really drives the global economic engine."
MERCER: "Do you think the Australian government should sign Kyoto?"
WOMAN: "Absolutely, without doubt because when you think of the environment it is a global system, and whatever we do here locally effects people all around the world - so we have to do our bit."
The Australian government has a multi-million dollar commitment to alternative sources of energy, such as solar power, as a way of reducing greenhouse emissions. As always in such a passionate debate, there are those who are convinced that this is not enough.