Absolute must read: Australia today offers horrific glimpse of U.S. Southwest, much of planet, post-2040, if we don’t slash emissions soon

Drought, fires, killer heat waves, wildlife extinction and mosquito-borne illness — the things that climate change models are predicting have already arrived there, [scientists] say.

That’s the subhead on a stunning L.A. Times piece, “What will global warming look like? Scientists point to Australia,” which opens starkly:

Reporting from The Murray-Darling Basin, Australia — Frank Eddy pulled off his dusty boots and slid into a chair, taking his place at the dining room table where most of the critical family issues are hashed out. Spreading hands as dry and cracked as the orchards he tends, the stout man his mates call Tank explained what damage a decade of drought has done .

Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It’s devastation,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men — big, strong grown men. We’re holding on by the skin of our teeth. It’s desperate times.”

A result of climate change?

You’d have to have your head in the bloody sand to think otherwise,” Eddy said.

You have to have your head stuck in the bloody sand, or just be a consumer of big media — see CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story “” never mention climate change.

This LAT story is one of the most powerful pieces of climate change journalism to appear in a major U.S. newspaper. It is the climate story of the decade, literally — and if we don’t reverse course soon, it will be the story of the century, if not the millenium — for America and the world.

Australia is the the driest inhabited continent on earth, with a fragile ecosystem, which makes it the canary in the coal mine for how global warming will create Dust Bowls in the SW and around the globe (see “Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”: Are the Southwest and California next?).

It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia.  But it is not too late to save the U.S. Southwest and other key regions in or near the subtropics.  We can still prevent the worst.

Two years ago, Science (subs. req’d) published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” on our current emissions path “” levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California.  The Bush Administration itself reaffirmed this conclusion in December (see US Geological Survey stunner: SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050.)

Moreover, this aridity, like Australia’s, would be compounded by brutally high temperatures (see Must-have PPT: The “global-change-type drought” and the future of extreme weather.)

And a major new study led by NOAA found that if we don’t act to reverse emissions soon, these global Dust Bowls will be irreversible for a long, long time (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).  The regions that NOAA identifies as facing permanent Dust Bowls:

  • U.S. Southwest
  • Southeast Asia
  • Eastern South America
  • Southern Europe
  • Southern Africa
  • Northern Africa
  • Western Australia

Again, since Australia is the most sensitive and driest of the habitable continents, it’s no surprise that it is the first to see such climate change driven decadal drought,

So the media and political leaders need to focus the attention of the public and policymakers on this preventable catastrophe in the making.  Energy Secretary Steven Chu did just that in an L.A. Times interview — see Steven Chu on climate change: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

And that’s why the new LAT piece is worth excerpting and reading at length — it is a stark warning of what is to come:

Climate scientists say Australia — beset by prolonged drought and deadly bush fires in the south, monsoon flooding and mosquito-borne fevers in the north, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse in agriculture and killer heat waves — epitomizes the “accelerated climate crisis” that global warming models have forecast.

With few skeptics among them, Australians appear to be coming to an awakening: Adapt to a rapidly shifting climate, and soon. Scientists here warn that the experience of this island continent is an early cautionary tale for the rest of the world.

“Australia is the harbinger of change,” said paleontologist Tim Flannery, Australia’s most vocal climate change prophet. “The problems for us are going to be greater. The cost to Australia from climate change is going to be greater than for any developed country. We are already starting to see it. It’s tearing apart the life-support system that gives us this world.”

Deadly fires

Many here believe Australia already has a death toll directly connected to climate change: the 173 people who died in February during the nation’s worst-ever wildfires, and 200 more who died from heat the week before. A three-person royal commission has convened to decide, among other things, whether global warming contributed to massive bush fires that destroyed entire towns and killed a quarter of Victoria state’s koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife.

The commission’s proceedings mark the first time anywhere that climate change could be put on trial. And it will take place in a nation that still gets 80% of its energy from burning coal, the globe’s largest single source of greenhouse gases.

The commission’s findings aren’t due until August, but veteran firefighters, scientists and residents believe the case has already been made. Even before the flames, 200 Melbourne residents died in a heat wave that buckled the steel skeleton on a newly constructed 400-foot Ferris wheel and warped train tracks like spaghetti. Cities experienced four days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher with little humidity, and 100-mph winds. In areas where fires hit, temperatures reached 120.

On the hottest day, more than 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropped dead out of trees in one Melbourne park.

“Something is happening in Australia,” firefighter Dan Condon of the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade wrote in an open letter. “Global warming is no longer some future event that we don’t have to worry about for decades. What we have seen in the past two weeks moves Australia’s exposure to global warming to emergency status.”

The possibility that a high-profile royal commission may find a nexus between climate change and the loss of human life is significant for many scientists here.

“That will be an important moment in its own right,” said Chris Cocklin, a climate change researcher at James Cook University in Townsville, in Queensland state, and lead author on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“It may mean that climate change will be brought to the fore in a way that has never happened before.”

Dust Bowl scenes

Australia’s climate change predicament is on depressing display in the Murray-Darling Basin, where the country’s three largest rivers converge, and where Eddy runs a shrinking 100-acre orchard.

The rivers — the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee — flow from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range and nourish the valleys of Australia’s fruit and grain basket, as well as a diverse system of wetlands, grasslands and eucalyptus forests.

Like scenes from a modern Dust Bowl, mile after mile of desiccated fields lie fallow, rows of shriveled trees that once bore peaches and pears are now abandoned orchards, and small businesses are shuttered, fronted by for-sale signs. The dingy brown of the landscape rearranges in a cloud of dust with every hot wind that blows.

Farmers who once grew 60% of the nation’s produce are walking off their land or selling their water rights to the state and federal government. With rainfall in the region at lower than 50% of average for more than a decade, Australia is witnessing the collapse of its agricultural sector and the nation’s ability to feed itself.

In rural Victoria, one rancher or farmer a week takes his own life. Public health officials say hanging is the preferred method.

“Fourteen dairy farmers in the valley have committed suicide in the last five years,” Eddy said matter-of-factly, staring at his hands at his long, wooden dining room table. “Hangings, they are common but they are not made public. It’s really depressing, it’s really tough going.

“Fruit growers are abandoning their orchards. It’s their life’s work, and it’s gone to dust. They are at their wits’ end. The small growers haven’t got the money to replant. Haven’t got the time to wait five years for a return. The machinery they have is not salable. They have thrown their arms up and walked away. They are broken people.”

…Santo Varapodio, 73, is the patriarch of a family that runs one of the largest fruit operations around the nearby agricultural center of Shepparton. The area’s annual rainfall used to be 19 to 21 inches a year.

“Now we’re lucky if we get 6 to 7 inches,” Varapodio said, displaying the stunted pears picked from under-watered trees. He said this summer’s heat wave “cooked” his fruit. “When we bring the pears in, about 15% will have burn on them,” Varapodio said. “The apples will have anything up to 50% sunburn on them.”

Rainfall patterns have been frustratingly uncooperative. Gentle winter showers that replenished groundwater have been replaced by torrential summer onslaughts that turn the fertile topsoil into a slough.

Most of the country is in the grip of the worst drought in more than a century. Every capital in Australia’s eight states and territories is operating under considerable water restrictions. In urban areas, “bucketing” has become a common practice — placing pails in showers and using the gray water on lawns or gardens. In some cities, such as Brisbane, residents drink recycled water, a process nicknamed “toilet to tap.”

See Toilet to tap “” get used to it! “What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.” See also What climate change drives behavior change “” or what can kids in the SW look forward to?

In rural areas, the lucky tap their own wells, provided they still function. Others survive on rainwater or what they can scrounge or buy.

Meanwhile, the tropical north’s rainy season, known as the Big Wet, is longer and wetter than ever. Warming tropical waters in the Coral Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria spawn ever more powerful cyclones, while rainfall and heat records are broken every year.

The coastal city of Darwin, in the Northern Territory, swelters through 20 to 30 days of temperatures above 95 degrees, with high tropical humidity. Government scientists project that by 2070, Darwin will experience such conditions as many as 300 days a year.

Communities on the Cape York Peninsula accustomed to being flooded for days are commonly cut off for weeks. Throughout February, the Queensland government airdropped supplies to citizens, who had to wait to reemerge when the water recedes in the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn, in late March or early April. In the meantime, in-ground burials are on hold.

Climate change researcher Cocklin lives in the far north, where the new regime of intensified monsoons scarcely gives Queenslanders a break.

“You might get punched and get up again,” he said. “The second time it’s harder to get up. The third time, you can’t be bothered. How many times can you get punched?”

Australians in the south would see water as heaven-sent; in the north, it’s a curse. In March, a young girl playing by a rain-swollen river was carried off by a crocodile, the second child lost to crocs in a month.

The region is beset with twin epidemics of malaria and a dangerous form of hemorrhagic dengue fever, from mosquitoes that breed in the standing water. Such diseases are expected to become more common in the tropics with climate change.

Reef is withering

Not far from where Cocklin lives, the north’s two largest tourism draws, the Great Barrier Reef and the Tropical Rainforest Reserve, are withering under climate extremes. Higher ocean temperatures are bleaching expanses of coral and affecting fish and plant species. A report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that the Great Barrier Reef will be “functionally extinct” by 2050.

Cocklin was just back from giving a presentation at a climate change conference in Europe, showing the degradation of the reef as well as photographs of the bush fires and floods. “The audience was a little bit in awe of what’s going on in Australia,” he said….

We are already very flat and very dry as a continent,” Flannery said. “There is just this little margin that is inhabitable. We don’t have a lot of options.”

Most Australians live on the coast, where they are vulnerable to flooding because of rising sea levels, projected to increase by 6 1/2 feet this century.

[Probably should read “by up to 6 1/2 feet this century” or “by 3 to 6 1/2 feet this century” (see recent sea level rise studies in An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water).]

“Some places are pretty close to being bloody unlivable anymore,” Cocklin said.

“When you start talking about places where 45 degrees [113 Fahrenheit] is commonplace, that raises the question of ‘Can you really live in that?’ “

Sadly, we’re probably gonna find out.  On our current emissions path, Houston and Washington, DC would experience temperatures exceeding 98°F for some 60 days a year. Oklahoma would see temperatures above 110°F some 60 to 80 days a year. Much of Arizona would be subjected to temperatures of 105°F or more for 98 days out of the year-14 full weeks (see “When can we expect extremely high surface temperatures?“).

One final point, this LAT story, while never once mentioning the deniers and their enablers, exposes them for what they are — willing accomplices to humanity’s self-destruction. This story makes a mockery of the recent reporting in papers like the NY Times and Newsweek (see here, here, and here) who continue to miss the burning forest for the trees, by giving any coverage whatsoever to those agents of disinformation and destruction.

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47 Responses to Absolute must read: Australia today offers horrific glimpse of U.S. Southwest, much of planet, post-2040, if we don’t slash emissions soon

  1. paulm says:

    “It is, sadly, probably too late to save much of Australia. But it is not too late to save the U.S. Southwest and other key regions in or near the subtropics. We can still prevent the worst.”

    I have to disagree with you there joe. The US will see Climate degradation in the next decade.

    Climate change is accelerating due to the exponential nature of the tipping action. Climate events and changing states are all going to come at us at a much faster rate.

    We have had a let up in the global warming which is going to return with a vengeance.

  2. ecostew says:

    Ecosystems on the margins (including human agrarian) will increasingly be shifted in directions driven by intensifying AGW – these systems are at their “tipping” points today.

  3. paulm says:


    Poor prognosis for our planet

    Every patient with an incurable illness will ask how long they have to live. The answer goes something like this: “No one can say how long you may live, because every individual is different, but focus on the changes you observe and be guided by those. When things start changing for the worse, expect these changes to accelerate. So the changes that have occurred over a year may advance by the same degree in a few months, then in weeks. And that is how you can judge when the end is coming.”

    Apply that thinking to climate change. When An Inconvenient Truth opened in 2006 it was generally supposed we had a window of two or three decades to deal with climate change. Last year that shrank to a decade. Last month Australia’s chief scientist, Penny Sackett, told a Canberra gathering that we have six years to radically lower emissions, or face calamitous, unstoppable global warming.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    This was a fantastic article, Joe, thanks for making a specific page on it. The pictures of the sunburned fruit was startling (don’t know if that is due to the lack of ozone or just heat) the article talks about there being a hole in the ozone over part of Australia (probably the south where the drought is). Very striking image along with the others.

    I’d have to second what Paul M said – I’d urge the authors not to set unreasonable expectations in the minds of the readers about what the public can expect if we start marching forward. I read that if we were to eliminate all CO2 emissions tomorrow (which is impossible) we can expect the earth system to continue warming for around 40 years afterwards (because of the lag of the warming to the greenhouse emissions in the system – mostly the oceans causing this). That totally blew me away.

    Think about that a little from a political perspective – we’re going to be having everyone (hopefully) work on this problem and change how everything is done and for longer than 40 years (many of our current expected lifetimes) it won’t get better, things will continue to get worse during that whole time. You’re going to have to deal with people who want to throw in the towel since it all looks inevitable. The point here is we don’t want to be saying if get on this we won’t be seeing these kinds of things – cause it looks like we will be seeing alot of this stuff even if did it all correctly from here on out.

    We can (hopefully) avoid total devastation of the US and world society (by the end of the century) if we get our act together, but big parts of the US will still go through alot of what Australia is seeing now (in that article), some of it fairly soon. The auquafer that underlies Colorado (crop circles flying into Denver) south through Texas has been depleted at much higher than replenishment rate for years (think that will get better as the droughts continue and get worse?) with expectations for much of it to run out in the next decade or so at current rates – the obvious conclusion is that we’re going to loose big sections of US croplands in the medium term future (whether its from tapping out the underlying auquafer or actual drought above ground or diminishing snowpack), it won’t matter to most people it will look like what Australia is seeing now.

    And we especially, considering the political enemies to this whole process (who will not go away), don’t want to promise what we can’t deliver – we need to be extra careful on that. Just my $0.02.

  5. Will Greene says:

    I agree the sea-level rise projection in that story, although very possible, is a little bold. Is it possible Australian warming is caused by aerosols as well as GHG’s, like the Arctic? The fires may be producing black carbon, or it could be the massive coal burning. I’m probably grasping at straws.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Will Greene — The best projection I have seen for SRL this century is 0.8 m (most likelY) to 2 m (most unlikely).

  7. paulm says:

    Sea level rise is the least of our immediate worries.

  8. Neil Howes says:

    The LA Times story was what you would expect from a mass circulation newspaper, sensational journalism, lot’s of inaccuracies but an element of truth.

    [JR: You obviously don’t read the same papers or magazines I do, which (other than Time) have been downplaying the threat for two decades.]

    Reading the article you would probably be expecting 20 million Australian refugees leaving, instead 300,000 people immigrated into Australia in last 12 months, a near record number.

    You would expect that we have food rationing, but instead we are exporting most of our food to Asia, but did not grow very much rice last year. You would be expecting a shortage of wine due to the withering vines, but no, there is still a wine over supply.

    What Australia is experiencing is a prolonged drought, no doubt made worse by global warming. We have had floods no worse than in the past, Australia is a very variable climate due to its latitude, think of the Sahara desert without the rest of Africa. The big change in Australia is that people are now living in some of the regions being flooded, or burnt out, but still most extreme weather events happen in remote uninhabited regions of northern Australia, so are not newsworthy events, even though tens of thousands of square miles are burnt.

    Recycling of drinking water, is being discussed, reduced water of lawns in most cities is a reality, but we still have lots of wide green lawns, but can ONLY water once or twice a week.

    A google earth search plugging in 7meters sea level rise will show almost no effect on the Australian coastline, unlike many other places such as Florida.

    Your readers don’t need newspaper sensationalism to take notice, but perhaps the general population does, but lets keep it factual, or it will fuel the GHW deniers

    [JR: Nothing sensational here. What you don’t get is we’ve had total global warming of 0.8 C. We’re gonna see another 5 C this century on current emissions path. You guys ain’t seen nothing yet!]

  9. Gail says:

    I am getting boring, I know, but I have to chime in. What is going on in Australia (and California, and Greece, and all around the globe) IS just a harbinger of things to come, everywhere, forever.

    New Jersey is the “Garden State”. It’s simply amazing that virtually no growers, foresters, conservationists, scientists, or even back-yard gardeners aren’t screaming with their hair on fire about the dieback of vegetation.

    I guess, we on the East Coast of the US are probably mentally about where the Aussies were, 5 years ago, before it became obvious their orchards are frying and their houses are burning and their ferris wheels buckling from the heat.

    Wake up folks, this isn’t some far off, remote and distant problem. This is right here in our backyard and it’s going to make our children extremely desperate in very short time.


  10. Dean says:

    Have folks seen the April National Geographic? The drought in Australia was the lead story in the magazine (“Australia Goes Dry”) though the picture on the front was of ancient Egypt’s Hatshepsut. The discussion of climate change was prominent.

    It had a second shorter article on extreme weather: “Outlook Extreme: As the planet warms, look for more floods where it’s already wet and deeper drought where water is scarce.”

    It seems that some media has decided that there is a journalistic need to counter the lack of accurate information elsewhere, with a secondary aspect about how climate change could cause political unrest.

  11. Dean says:

    Also, the LAT did an editorial today at,0,5613275.story

    An excerpt:

    “Climate skeptics believe that Australia is simply in the midst of a cyclical change in weather patterns, or that the steel-warping temperatures turning the interior into a Martian landscape are the result of a natural warming period rather than a phenomenon with human causes. Most of these skeptics live outside Australia. There, the effects are too dramatic and the science too conclusive to leave much doubt. The country’s biggest tourist draw, the Great Barrier Reef — among the world’s most biologically diverse places and the largest structure built by living organisms — is vanishing before Australians’ eyes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that this astonishing natural wonder will be “functionally extinct” by 2050.”

  12. Gail says:

    All I can say is,

    You ain’t seen nothing yet.

    Will humanity wake up in time to spare us utter devastation?

    That is the question.

  13. paulm says:

    This guy is much more eloquent than most….and he is from auz, where they know about what it is like on the curve of climate change…

    Poor prognosis for our planet

    Every patient with an incurable illness will ask how long they have to live. The answer goes something like this: “No one can say how long you may live, because every individual is different, but focus on the changes you observe and be guided by those. When things start changing for the worse, expect these changes to accelerate. So the changes that have occurred over a year may advance by the same degree in a few months, then in weeks. And that is how you can judge when the end is coming.”

    Apply that thinking to climate change. When An Inconvenient Truth opened in 2006 it was generally supposed we had a window of two or three decades to deal with climate change. Last year that shrank to a decade. Last month Australia’s chief scientist, Penny Sackett, told a Canberra gathering that we have six years to radically lower emissions, or face calamitous, unstoppable global warming.

    Six years. Given that this problem is usually described as a process unfolding over centuries, how can it be that things have spun out of control in such a short time?

    Climate change is often described as linear decline followed by some kind of distant “tipping point”. But consider these statistics: in 1979 Arctic sea ice cover remained above 7 million square kilometres all summer; from 1989 it was consistently above 6 million; in 2002 above 5 million; since 2007 above 4 million. I read recently we may have reached a tipping point and the ice will be gone in 20 years. But there is no tipping point – a curve is always tipping, and each new finding redraws the curve.

    If this year’s figure comes in under 4 million square kilometres the patient could be dead inside five years, and ships will be crossing the North Pole in September 2014.

    I do believe the evidence. Which leads me, personally, to the bleak conclusion that the human race is stuffed. The current financial crisis is merely the curtain raiser to a grand opera of social and ecological collapse. Our children – forget our grandchildren, I’m talking about my own kids, aged 14, 11 and 9 – are going to live in a world in which major cities are flooded, fertile plains become deserts, populations run out of food and water, rivers run dry, fishing grounds become dead zones, our rainforests and living coral reefs become curiosities of history.
    Of course, there is a great problem with declaring that point of view because one immediately becomes labelled as a mad Cassandra spouting visions of the apocalypse.

    The parlous state of our planet’s health could not be more evident, and still nothing has happened, except that eminent scientists like Jim Hansen have been driven to join the barricades. Demonstrating last month in Britain for a complete moratorium on new coal-fired power stations he said with typical understatement: “The democratic process doesn’t quite seem to be working.”

    We would rather watch TV shows glorifying some brainless criminal underclass than engage in meaningful civil disobedience. Since Greenpeace went corporate there has been a global shortage of eco-warriors, and most scientists lack the mongrel element to start a revolution.

    The rest of us are less evolved; my suspicion is that most of us still don’t get it. Because here’s the paradox: wherever you look in the natural world the message of exponential change is reinforced, yet humans have a weird predisposition to see change as linear. I’m guessing this is a throwback to the caveman days when, if someone threw a rock or a spear at you, it was sensible to assume that the missile would keep coming at a constant speed. Strangely, we unconsciously apply the same neanderthal logic to our understanding of ageing, birth and climate change.

  14. Harrier says:

    If climate change is beginning to advance exponentially, wouldn’t that imply that past warming events, even if they started more slowly than ours, also eventually reached a point where the changes, and the warming, advanced at exponentially greater speed and intensity?

    I get annoyed when people use the metaphor of a sick and dying person for the Earth. As George Carlin liked to put it, “The planet is fine. The people are fucked.” Ultimately, our concern with regard to climate change is saving ourselves, and we ought to be honest about that.

  15. ecostew says:

    Just remember, changes are occurring on ecosystem margins today as AGW intensifies and as AGW intensifies so will ecosystem margin changes.

  16. Harrier says:

    But doesn’t exponential change now imply that there was exponential change in the past? Since the Earth has gotten warmer, even significantly warmer, than it currently is, there must have been a point during the earlier periods of warming where it and its effects began to manifest with exponentially greater speed. Reaching that point may have taken much longer than it has with our modern human-caused warming, but the point must have been present all the same.

  17. Suchi says:

    umm, I don’t know what the discussion is all about. it is already too late.

    the catastrophic climate change ateroid is about to hit. 2 years from now, or 6 or 10? the extiction of animals, fall of man could happen. but WHAT IF WE HAVE UNBALANCED THE EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE TO THE POINT THAT IT CANNOT RECOVER. what if the process is a positive feedback loop that ends with Earth turning into a planet unable to support any life?

    that is now the ultimate question.

  18. paulm says:

    mmm, it certainly difficult to see how a ‘natural process’ would have returned all the carbon sequestered away as fossil fuels to the atmosphere (and so immediately).

    Human intervention has definitely contributed something unprecedented in the history of Gaia. The earth’s righting functions will find it difficult to counteract this event.

    I must confess that I am a little more worried than Lovelock that Gaia will be able to cope with AGW. After all Mars could have been earth like at some stage.

  19. David B. Benson says:

    Suchi — Micro-organisms evolve rapidly. I am confident that single-celled life will continue.

    That sorta leaves out all mammals, doesn’t it?

    Harrier — PETM appears to be a time with, for awhile, a positive feedback of substantial size, as “the event saw global temperatures rise by around 6 °C over 20,000 years, with a corresponding rise in sea level as the whole of the oceans warmed.” from

    Unfortunately, excess CO2 from fossil fuels might produce that much warming in a mere 120 years or so. :-(

  20. Joe – Thank you for pointing out this excellent article. Coincidentally, I just finished reading the chapter on Australia in Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse”. Although the book was published in 2005, Diamond’s analysis of the factors that cause societies to collapse (including climate change) and his review of historical developments in Australia point toward the same result documented in the LA Times article.

  21. Neil Howes says:


    I thought it was obvious to most of your readers that this article was sensational but then your comments

    “JR: Nothing sensational here. What you don’t get is we’ve had total global warming of 0.8 C. We’re gonna see another 5 C this century on current emissions path. You guys ain’t seen nothing yet!”
    I do think global warming is the major issue( after avoiding nuclear war), and we need public awareness but not exaggerations of facts, the real facts are scary enough.

    Let’s look at a few examples;
    “Australia is witnessing the collapse of its agricultural sector and the nation’s ability to feed itself.”

    Australia’s major exports are meat, wheat, dairy, wool and wine. The irrigation regions were over-allocated water rights, and the government is trying to buy back some of these. Citrus growing has been reduced years ago because of imports of cheap Brazilian orange juice. NZ is trying to get Australia to allow apple imports and the dried fruit industry has suffered because grapes have been sold for wine making. We still have an over supply of wine. We export 75% of our grains. Under world trade we now import some fruits. By no stretch of the imagination have we lost the ability to feed ourselves.

    [JR: Well, you have changed “is witnessing” to “lost.” LAT says you are seeing an ongoing process that if it continues — which it will — will have catastrophic impacts.
    It may be a strongly worded statement, but I don’t see it as sensational.]

    “Most Australians live on the coast, where they are vulnerable to flooding because of rising sea levels, projected to increase by 6 1/2 feet this century.”

    True, most Australian’s live on the cost, but 99% are not vulnerable to flooding from a 2 m sea level rise (who is predicting 2 m rises this century?). Now if (or when) a large part of the Antarctic ice sheet melts some would be flooded by a 10-50m sea level rise, just as in US.

    [The most common prediction of studies in the last two years is about 1.5 m, give or take, and those weren’t made with the new accelerated warming forecasts. I suspect that most Australians would view that as catastrophic.]

    “When you start talking about places where 45 degrees [113 Fahrenheit] is commonplace, that raises the question of ‘Can you really live in that?’ “

    There are places in Australia where 45degrees is common place in summer( Karatha WA) just as parts of the Sahara and other desert regions get hot. This is unusual for Melbourne( in fact a record of 46-47C) but both Melbourne and Adelaide have had many days of >40C. The question ;can you really live in that? has a less alarming answer, YES , as long as it’s low humidity. I have experienced 45C days in South Australia but it felt a lot cooler than a 32C day in Miami.

    You and your readers should be able to pick some of the other sensational comments, otherwise as I said, get ready for 20 million starving, heat stressed, Aussies, covered in dust and wood ash, suicidal and trying to sneak into US or Canada. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration!

    [JR: I repeat we’ve had total global warming of 0.8 C. We’re gonna see another 5 C this century on current emissions path. This LAT piece is a fair warning of what is to come. In about 10 years, stories like this will be quite commonplace, and in 20 years, they will be the norm, and in 30 years, such a story would be viewed as understating the problem. Kudos to LAT for this story.]

  22. ecostew says:


    I agree with Diamond, but not your take on what he is saying, if anything, relative to AGW.

  23. Sasparilla says:

    Dean, thanks for pointing those two things out, I’ll be picking up an April National Geographic ASAP and finally an editorial page (LA Times) that talks it!

    Everyone do yourself a favor and go read that LA Times editorial that Dean linked to – that this was in a US newspaper publication almost astounds me (based on what we’ve been seeing). It points out how Australia is really feeling the effects and yet is totally blowing it on the emissions front – then it says we (the US) have to do better.

    This is the kind of straight talking we need from US Editorial pages.

  24. Harrier says:

    David: I’ve become familiar with the PETM. It seems quite similar to what we may be on track to experience.

    What I suppose I was attempting to understand was the ability of the Earth- Gaia, if you will- to cope with very rapid changes in climate. There’s nothing in Earth’s history that is like our emission of CO2 over such a short period of geologic time, but the Earth has gone through periods where the climate became substantially warmer than it currently is now. If the rate of change is now accelerating exponentially after an initial period of no change, then past periods of warming must have followed a similar pattern: a slow buildup in temperatures until certain tipping points are hit, after which the change increased at an exponentially greater rate. If the length of the buildup between those past times and our own differed, it doesn’t fundamentally change the pattern.

    So either climate change doesn’t ramp up exponentially, or it does now and has done so in the past. If the latter case is true, then a fear about the elimination of all life on Earth is exaggerated. The Earth is not dying. It’s changing. The change is going to be bad for us, the human race, because our entire way of life is dependent upon the current state of the Earth. Our life can’t continue, at least not as it has, if the Earth changes into a new state.

    So I’m not worried about Earth. I’m worried about us. Earth can handle itself.

  25. Phillip Huggan says:

    A devastating map, hopefully sprinkled with wave power:

    Why is the Eastern Seaboard shaded, floods or Katrinas?
    Canada, Russia, NZ, Chile, Argentina, Antarctica?!, Scandinavia, Iceland, Alaska, UK, should co-rdinate agriculture policies to focus on shared technological challenges now:
    Food crops that grow in acidic and taiga soils.
    Improving cutting edge modelling of arctic ice free rainfail of temps. GMO contingency plans to keep permafrost methane sequestered with insulating superlichens and mosses (but not too weedy).
    Where are China, India, Bangladesh, South America, Indonesia, Africa and Pakistan supposed to emmigrate too?! They will storm Russia. Russia will need to create a treaty to admit immigrants in return for controls on unrestricted migrations and perhaps the jurisdiction to collect punative income taxes from migrants. China will be the most advanced military in the world and they will have the capability to amphibious assault for survival.
    Such potential militarization is probably not an issue for USA to Canada and Southern Europe to N.Europe migration. Western Antarctic is better made an international farm than cities, unless there are already advanced low footprint greenhouse technologies.

    Alot isn’t known about the behaviour of the Gulf Stream and whether Katrinas occur in a warmer world. Shouldn’t there be a fossil record inland of such occurances, if they occured pre 3M years ago when the Arctic become locked, and especially 14M years ago when Australia and Antarctica separated to permit modern ocean current flows? That is, if giant storms brought seawater inland to USA or wherever, shouldn’t at least some of these microbe or seaweed lifeforms have been fossilized or are otherwise detectable in a distribution that suggests giant storms and not some other phenomena? Are there other markers of deep sea water inland like increased Iron (IDK) content inland? IDK my geology.

  26. ecostew says:

    And Sasparilla, not just the editorial pages – the news of the day.

  27. Thinker says:

    I am new to this blog and ventured here to find some good, solid information about current research and developments. I have to say I am quite disappointed to find that nearly the whole site…or at least the most responded to posts are simply sensational stories about apocalyptic predictions of the future.

    Specifically, this post about Australia is really disappointing. The claim is made out of hand that Australia is the “canary in the coal mine”. Are there any scientific studies which show a significant statistical probability that droughts in Australia are predictive of droughts in the American South West?

    Let’s back these things up people, or they will not be taken seriously.

  28. Phillip Huggan says:

    Duh. Sea salt.
    If superhurricanes were a reality in the early Pliocene and especially pre-mid-Miocene, there should be a sea salt distribution curve tailing off away from the Eastern Seaboard and/or Gulf of Mexico, inland USA.
    If not, maybe one less thing to worry about. I think this should be detectable just by examining cores already unearthed for prospecting.

    Some university should set up a website for prospective research project ideas (though this specific one may already have been undertaken or be otherwise untenable).

  29. John Hollenberg says:

    > Are there any scientific studies which show a significant statistical probability that droughts in Australia are predictive of droughts in the American South West?

    The scientific studies revolve around the fact that the root cause of Australia’s problem (global warming) will affect the American Southwest. Click on the links in the article to see as much data as you like. In particular, see:

  30. Neil Howes says:

    Did you mean to provide a link to the 16 Dec 2008 climate progress story[Probably should read “by up to 6 1/2 feet this century” or “by 3 to 6 1/2 feet this century” see……?

    The US geological survey report says on sea level rises by 2100, substantially EXCEED ipcc projections(0.28-0.42m). Going through the text the only figure I could see for what that would be was 0.5 to 1.0 m.
    A paper in Science by Pfeffer may be the source of that 2m figure;

    “We find that a total sea-level rise of about 2 meters by 2100 could occur under physically possible glaciological conditions but only if all variables are quickly accelerated to extremely high limits. More plausible but still accelerated conditions lead to total sea-level rise by 2100 of about 0.8 meter.”

    I can understand a newspaper reporter picking on the “could” figure of 2m and ignoring the “more plausible” figure of 0.8m, but please Joe say it isn’t so, that you also picked out the better headline number!

    [JR: Thanks for pointing out my incomplete sentence and lack of link. I don’t get what you are saying in your final sentence, though.]

  31. Mike D says:

    Okay guys ease up a bit, global warming will be terrible for many living species, but it’s not going to extinguish all life. Multicellular life is not going to have to re-evolve. Life has gotten through much worse: Snowball Earth. The End-Permian extinction. Chicxulub. And we’re not talking microbes here. Heck, atmospheric CO2 may have been as high as 2000ppm in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous Periods and you had the largest animals ever to exist flourishing worldwide. In fact, that climate regime is a major reason they evolved in the first place. Not saying we’re gonna see sauropods walking around again but it’s not going to turn Earth into Mars either.

  32. Alex J says:

    Mike, perhaps some people overdo it, but only because they want to see the holocene biosphere and it’s relatively stable climate left intact. After all, that is our world, and it has helped civilization advance as far as it has. The concern here is ACCELERATED climate change and it’s impact on today’s ecology and billions of people. Never mind Mars. We could rapidly go back to a prehistoric hothouse Earth, with CERTAIN organisms thriving, but would that be acceptable to most? I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t want it for my children. We do what we can to temper the consequences of even NATURAL disasters, so why can’t we consider our collective impact and act accordingly? If we do that, we have a chance at thousands of years with which to advance and make civilization less vulnerable to upheaval. It’s at least POSSIBLE that humanity will be ultimately worth that, isn’t it?

  33. John Mashey says:

    I’ve read the paper, and the simulations certainly show it getting worse faster near Perth, i.e., Western Australia. Of course, the Murray-Darling already appears to have problems, but that’s SouthEast Australia, where most of the people and agriculture are.

    Mike D:
    I don’t think many people are worried about life ending, but some of us would like to think there might be human civilization around, and the multiple pressures on agriculture and water are bad enough by themselves.


    If you the PNAS paper Joe mentions, or the IPCC, it’s not that
    Australian drought => US SouthWest drought, it’s that:

    AGW => poleward expansion of Hadley Cell circulation =>
    some dry regions get drier yet, and the precipitation moves poleward.
    (So, US upper mid-West gets more rain, as does Canada, and some Australian rain goes into the Southern Ocean.

    Also, it gets warmer, hence more evaporation.

    All this is standard stuff, not new in this study.
    Google: hadley cell global warming

    This is most easily seen in Figure 3. (Joe? might you post that? In some ways, it’s more compelling for many readers than Figure 4.)

    [JR: Yes, haven’t really looked at that picture before closely. I’ll post it.]

    Australian drought doesn’t *cause* SouthWest drought. One well-known effect (Hadley+evaporation) will likely increase the frequency and severity of drought, and because Australia is the driest continent, and in the zone where this happens, it is a canary.

  34. Mike D says:

    I understand, just responding to a few of the more hysterical comments in this thread. Clear-thinking people find solutions, not people who have scared themselves into a panic.

  35. J.B.M. says:

    Thanks Joe, apocalypticism and harbingers of the end of humanity are exactly what we need to solve global climate change! If we can simply scare enough people into their psychological tendencies of fatalism, complacency, and denial in the face of clear evidence, we can really get things going. Oh wait, we’re already past the tipping point, so…

    How do people feel when they read this? Scared absolutely senseless with no way to solve something much bigger than you? Or inspired, empowered, willing and able to confront the realities of global climate change, biodiversity loss, and natural resource degradation. Apocalypticism is not what we need Joe, and an audience scared into concern for a week then giving up because they feel completely and totally powerless is not the kind of global citizen we need.

    [JR: I see. The strategy should be that we don’t tell people the truth, and that’s how we convince them to save themselves from … from … from an imaginary future of nothing particularly worrisome. Yeah.

    My readers want the straight unvarnished truth, which they don’t get from most of the MSM and the other sugarcoaters out there who follow your theory.

    If you want happy talk about how wonderful things will be on our current emissions path, try the right wing websites. They are more than happy to help people deceive themselves.]

  36. Gail says:

    Mike D. and J.B.M., you are making assumptions about people you don’t even know.

    Learning about the consequences of climate change is a very painful process. I don’t see how anyone who takes the time to consider the science and note the empirical evidence can come away complacent. Sure, whether you are a trained scientist or a back-yard gardener like me, the entire potential loss of human civilization is a terrifying prospect, and likely to induce moments of panic and dread.

    That doesn’t preclude thoughtful soul-searching and positive action, however. I don’t think anyone would bother to read Joe’s blog or comment if they had utterly given up any shred of hope that we can, at least to a degree, turn this Titanic around.

  37. Lou Grinzo says:

    I’ve long been convinced that the key element climate chaos and peak oil have in common is timing. Not that they’re happening at roughly the same time, but that they’re both problems with long lead times for fixes, which puts us at the mercy of our ability to recognize and work to correct the problems before they’re fully manifested. In other words, our experts have to understand the science and basic mechanisms involved and then find a way to convince enough of the mainstream public so that the right public policy is enacted to avoid the worst of the pain.

    The nasty detail here, of course, is that the US is a greatest consumer of oil and the first or second (depending on whose numbers you believe) emitter of CO2. And in America, there are few things the masses like more than to cook up conspiracy theories or invent other excuses for ignoring the inconvenient messages from experts. This anti-intellectual streak, coupled with a rugged individualism/central government is always wrong or evil mindset, puts many Americans beyond the reach of logic and fact. They’d rather listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck and “be left alone” than listen to James Hansen and the IPCC and (gasp!) the guvmint and have to make “tough choices” (which for the most part aren’t tough at all).

    This is why I’ve said repeatedly that there is no such thing as “the one big event that will wake up Americans”. Name it–Houston or Miami or NYC devastated by a cat 5+ storm, Australia devastated by climate chaos, the disappearance of glaciers in some parts of the world leading to drinking water shortages, etc.–and a sizable segment of the US population won’t be concerned about anything other than who won last week’s NASCAR event or the price on the next model of iPod.

    Having said all that: Joe, keep it up! Lots of us will keep fighting this fight for the sake of your daughter and my nieces and the middle school kids I’ve presented to and all the others we’ll hand off this planet to in time. But at times it’s hard not to feel like the man trying to smash a boulder with a big pile of glass hammers…

  38. DavidCOG says:

    Mike D,

    No one here, that I can see, has “scared themselves into a panic.” But some of us are acutely aware of what is happening to the climate and that the best science has consistently underestimated the rate of climate change – so taking the upper bounds of SLR or global temperature or ice-free Arctic is not being “hysterical”. Those of us who understand these things are rightly concerned. We are the “clear-thinking people”.

    I’m not sure what the point of this was: “Okay guys ease up a bit, global warming will be terrible for many living species, but it’s not going to extinguish all life.”

    So, as long as there’s some algae and a few insects clinging to existence, that’s OK? I wonder, how many species are you happy to see eradicated before you think you’ve done enough of “easing up”?

    Stick around, read, follow the science and you may gain the sense of urgency that the rest of us have.

  39. Why look to Australia, when you have examples right here in the U.S.?

    Southwest Texas is currently experiencing its worst drought in fifty years. If you thought it was a desert already, you’ve obviously never had produce from the Rio Grande Valley — or, more likely, you did and weren’t aware of it.

    I do believe the water wars (speaking proverbially) will start in Texas, not California.

  40. Dean says:

    Harrier – What are you referring to when you say you’re not afraid for the earth? True – it won’t fall into the sun. But the more serious past episodes of warming have probably contributed to major extinction events, particularly with ocean anoxia. Life won’t end in toto, but lots of lives will end and species will go extinct as a result.

    We humans were probably already causing an extinction event due to habitat loss, and this is adding greatly to it. I know somebody who is heavily involved in open space protection for wildlife. He told me that all that land they set aside to protect wildlife will be useless to most of the wildlife since they will need to move, so they are focusing on migration corridors. Because land this is good for particular species now probably won’t be good for those same species pretty soon.

    And lastly, some of our Congress members need to fly in some of those Australian farmers to testify in Congress about that head-in-the-sand attitude. The LA Times article doesn’t seem to have a comments section, but we know that denialists are about to start spouting about alarmism in the LA Times (as well as NG). I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of those farmers were denying it just a few years ago. Nothing like hearing from the recently converted – who have seen how brutal adaptation can be.

  41. John Mashey says:

    Note the (somewhat theoretical difference) between Australia & US SouthWest, in the effects of Hadley Cell extension that moves precipitation poleward:

    Without minimizing the problems that will cause for TX, OK, SoCal, etc, at least the water is still on the same continent. After all, the only reason Los Angeles exists as it does is that it gets water from the Colorado and Northern California.

    On the other hand, Perth (Western Australia) is a lovely city, but already dry, and is far away from any place that might get more water, and far away from other population centers (1300 miles from Adelaide, 1700 from Melbourne). They already have opened one desalination plant … but such don’t go very far for agriculture.

    Its already-minimal water will tend to fall in the Southern Ocean. See Figure 4 of that PNAS article…

    Unfortunately, if there’s a first-world metropolitan area that will end up seriously downsizing due to climate change, it may well be Perth.

  42. paulm says:

    Reality and Hope are not mutually exclusive.

    In fact you might argue that hope is ultimately based on reality.

    The reality is that we are in the process of a tipping action (all though you might not accept this) which is ultimately going to result in a much hostile planet for life here on Earth.

    A great extinction was well underway even before the dangers of CC were distilled. Human civilization will not survive even the first rise of 2 – 3 degrees that is in the pipeline.

    Hopefully, we will evolve after this event in to a planet and specie more successful at surviving and flourishing.

  43. David B. Benson says:

    Mike D — During Snowball Earth, there were only microbes.

  44. Heat wave in Nebraska has killed 4000 cattle this month. Lost despite efforts to cool them off. The painful twist to this story is that insurance does not cover cattle loss by heat. Most other risk is covered.

    The insurance industry has understood global warming for years.

  45. Jeremy says:

    Great article Joe, but a quick correction, the suicide rate amongst farmers in Australia has actually probably dropped over recent years and the claims about high suicide rates amongst Australian farmers is based on old data that was recorded before the current drought.

    It’s a myth perpetrated by sloppy journalism that continues today despite being debunked.

  46. espiritwater says:

    Neil Howes describes the LAT piece as, “not newsworthy and newspaper sensationalism”.

    The story stated “on the hottest day, 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropped dead out of trees in one park.” That isn’t newsworthy? 4,000 foxes die, all in one day–because of the heat? Seems kind of catastrophic and newsworthy to me!

  47. espiritwater says:

    Paulm, you talked of civil disobedience. We have to get the young people to wake up! They are the ones who are being screwed out of a viable future! If they realize how little time is left and how dire the situation is, they’ll do something to stop it! Think of the Vietnam war. The young people protested CONTINUALLY until the war ended. They need to understand that their future is being flushed down the toilet by the fossil fuel industry!