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Worst-Ever Drought Intensifies Australian Climate Change Debate


Australia has again refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, despite a new British-commissioned environmental study warning of catastrophe unless governments deal urgently with global warming. Australian officials say the Kyoto agreement does not impose equal burdens on the various signatories. Still, as Australia deals with the worst drought in its history, the government insists it is addressing climate change.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard this week again defended his government's decision not to sign the United Nations' Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto agreement sets targets for industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, considered by many scientists to be a major factor in global warming.

The agreement's critics say it is flawed because it does not require developing countries to reduce emissions.

Mr. Howard says Kyoto would harm Australia by imposing obligations on its economy that the country's competitors could escape.

"But China and India, although being part of Kyoto, don't carry the same burden under Kyoto that Australia carries, and that is reason why until that changes, this country won't join Kyoto," he said. "Because, unless you have everybody in, you are not going to have a solution to the problem…."

Although it will not sign the protocol, Australia insists it is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is spending $1.5 billion on new technologies, including the world's biggest solar power plant.

Mr. Howard has also proposed what he calls a "new Kyoto" to reduce emissions through technological development rather than the setting of targets. He says the new program should work through an organization like the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, an existing environmental group that includes Australia, India, the United States, China, South Korea and Japan.

Canberra this week also announced $46 million worth of projects - many of them in collaboration with the other five countries in the partnership - aimed at reducing emissions.

The climate is a very hot topic right now in Australia, a land of extremes, where thousands of miles of rugged coastline and lush rain forest eventually give way to a parched interior. At the moment, the country is in the grip of its worst-ever drought.

Some experts believe that what they call the "Big Dry" is a clear indication that the country's weather is shifting.

Dr. Karl Mallon is the scientific and technical officer for an environmental consultancy in Sydney. He says that parts of Australia can look forward to a drier and more barren future.

"This sort of drying is consistent with what climate science is telling us is underway," he said. "We have to both adapt to climate change and we have to make sure we're starting to mitigate climate change if we're going to keep the economy - the global economy and the national economies - under control."

The five-year-drought is already threatening the survival of many of the small communities in the Outback, Australia's countryside.

The farming town of Bourke, 500 miles northwest of Sydney, is in real peril.

Sheep farmer Ben Mannix says this isolated part of the Outback is slowly dying of thirst.

"They generally grow wheat or cotton out there and it's irrigated, but as you can see there's no crop out there and…I'm fairly certainly there wasn't a crop last year," he said.

Even the children of Bourke are aware of the town's problems. One schoolboy knows there may be no future for his family here.

"I haven't seen heavy rain for a long time," he said. "If we don't get rain soon it's going to be pretty hard 'cause my dad's in the water industry selling irrigation, and he said if it doesn't rain soon we might have to move [to another] town to where there's more rain."

If climate change continues, far more than the inhabitants of Bourke could be affected.

An environmental study commissioned by the British government and published this week warns that unchecked global warming could cost world economies trillions of dollars to address..