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The Aussie ‘Big Dry’

By Thomas L. Friedman (The New York Times) - May 4, 2007

Almost everywhere you travel these days, people are talking about their weather — and how it has changed. Nowhere have I found this more true, though, than in Australia, where “the big dry,” a six-year record drought, has parched the Aussie breadbasket so severely that on April 19, Prime Minister John Howard actually asked the whole country to pray for rain. “I told people you have to pray for rain,” Mr. Howard remarked to me, adding, “I said it without a hint of irony.”

And here’s what’s really funny: It actually started to rain! But not enough, which is one reason Australia is about to have its first election in which climate change will be a top issue. In just 12 months, climate change has gone from being a nonissue here to being one that could tip the vote.

In the process, Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative now in his 11th year in office, has moved from being a climate skeptic to what he calls a “climate realist,” who knows that he must offer programs to reduce global-warming greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, but wants to do it without economic pain or imposed targets, like Kyoto’s. He is proposing emissions trading and nuclear power.

The Labor Party, led by Kevin Rudd, proposes a hard target — a 60 percent reduction in Australian CO2 emissions from 2000 levels by 2050 — and subsidies for Aussies to retrofit their homes with energy-saving systems. The whole issue has come from the bottom up, and it has come on so quickly that neither party can be sure it has its finger on the public’s pulse.

“What was considered left a year ago is now center, and in six months it will be conservative — that is how quickly the debate about climate change is moving here,” said Michael Roux, chairman of RI Capital, a Melbourne investment firm. “It is being led by young people around the dinner table with their parents, and the C.E.O.’s and politicians are all playing catch-up.”

I asked Mr. Howard how it had happened. “It was a perfect storm,” he said. First came a warning from Nicholas Stern of Britain, who said climate change was not only real but could be economically devastating for Australia. Then the prolonged drought forced Mr. Howard to declare last month that “if it doesn’t rain in sufficient volume over the next six to eight weeks, there will be no water allocations for irrigation purposes” until May 2008 for crops and cattle in the Murray-Darling river basin, which accounts for 41 percent of Australian agriculture.

It was as if the pharaoh had banned irrigation from the Nile. Australians were shocked. Then the traditional Australian bush fires, which usually come in January, started in October because everything was so dry. Finally, in the middle of all this, Al Gore came to Australia and showed his film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“The coincidence of all those things shifted the whole debate,” Mr. Howard said. While he tends to focus on the economic costs of acting too aggressively on climate change, his challenger, Mr. Rudd, has been focusing on the costs of not acting. Today, Mr. Rudd said, Australian businesses are demanding that the politicians “get a regulatory environment settled” on carbon emissions trading so companies know what framework they will have to operate in — because they know change is coming.

When you look at the climate debate around the world, remarked Peter Garrett, the former lead singer for the Australian band Midnight Oil, who now heads the Labor Party’s climate efforts, there are two kinds of conservatives. The ones like George Bush and John Howard, he said, deep down remain very skeptical about environmentalism and climate change “because they have been someone else’s agenda for so long,” but they also know they must now offer policies to at least defuse this issue politically.

And then there are conservatives like Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Cameron, the Tory Party leader in London, who understand that climate is becoming a huge defining issue and actually want to take it away from liberals by being more forward-leaning than they are. In short, climate change is the first issue in a long time that could really scramble Western politics. Traditional conservatives can now build bridges to green liberals; traditional liberals can make common cause with green businesses; young climate voters are newly up for grabs. And while coal-mining unions oppose global warming restrictions, service unions, which serve coastal tourist hotels, need to embrace them. You can see all of this and more in Australia today.

Politics gets interesting when it stops raining.