Global Warming Alarm: Doomsday for Australia?


SYDNEY, Feb. 24, 2007 — -- It was something of a double whammy for one of the world's most desirable cities.

The ominous report issued earlier this month by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was frightening enough: The evidence of global warning was unequivocal, most likely caused by humans, and likely to continue for centuries.

But another report had been issued, just one day before, by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. And its conclusion read like a dagger through the heart of the land down under. If global warming continues at its current rate, the CSIRO report warned, life in the city of Sydney could be completely transformed by the year 2070.

In just one generation, Sydney could slide into a near permanent state of drought. There could be a dramatic rise in deadly bushfires. Temperatures would rise 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or more. Heat-related deaths would soar from nearly 200 to more than 1,200 a year. The report was very grim reading, especially for the people of Sydney.

To better understand how Australians were responding to this "doomsday scenario," I met with Michael Archer, the dean of the science faculty at Sydney's University of New South Wales.

Watch Mark Litke's report on the "doomsday scenario" tonight on "World News." Check your local listings for air time.

Professor Archer is a noted geologist and paleontologist, who has studied the history of climate change and its effects on prehistoric life. He is among the prominent scientists who have warned repeatedly that global warming posed a dire threat to mankind.

I interviewed Archer as we walked on the predictably sun-drenched Bondi Beach in the Sydney suburbs. It seemed an appropriate location, since Australians have known for years that the growing hole in the ozone layer over neighboring New Zealand has made the sun's rays increasingly harmful in this part of the world.

Were residents of Australia surprised by the two reports?

In a sense, it was a confirmation of what we knew was going to happen anyway. As a geologist, I've seen these sort of things recorded in the rocks we've studied for the last 30 years. The thing that worries is the rate of change, the pace at which this is going to happen.

How are Australians responding?

I think the biggest problem we've got in Australia is the one that we have all around the world. We are very poor responders to SLOW change. If someone takes a swing at you. You know what to do -- DUCK. But if somebody tells you over the next 50 years your world is going to profoundly change, you think, "Eh! Am I gonna be alive or not? … Do I really worry about it?"

We've always been a little bit, "Ah, she'll be right, mate! Ya know, it's not too much of a panic." But just now, they seem to be worrying up. I think the message is coming in from all over the globe from this latest report. Suddenly people are saying, "Okay, maybe MY life won't change personally that much, but what about my KIDS?"

The people of Sydney certainly did not need a report to know that something was terribly wrong. This part of Australia is in its seventh year of drought.

Absolutely! Everybody who's been affected by this drought says they don't have any living memory of anything as bad as this. We know that geologically, there have been far worse droughts in the past. So we think, "Okay, this is a taste of what's to come."

If we have climate change, what we do know is southern Australia is going to go powder dry, northern Australia is going to be afflicted with violent weather patterns. We don't know what's going to happen in eastern Australia. My guess is mangrove forests are going to invade the beaches, Bondi Beach (where we're standing now) is gone, so there are changes coming down the line.

Yes, the drought has been a wake-up call.

Could what's happening in Australia be the "canary in the coal mine" for the rest of the world?

Yes, in more ways than one. We've got about 95, maybe 98 percent of our population living along the coastline. [With the ice sheets at the poles and Greenland melting] the sea levels will be 100 meters (330 feet) higher than they are today. Forget Venice. I mean we're talking about sharks in the middle of (downtown) Sydney.

The warnings now being issued by the scientific community sound almost biblical, the coming of an apocalypse.

They are apocalyptic. On the other hand, they're appropriately apocalyptic. We think of an apocalypse as something that happens overnight. Okay, this is a slightly slower apocalypse, if you like, but it's no less profound. And it's going to obliterate the world as we currently know it. It's going to make change within one generation very, very visible and very uncomfortable. It is an apocalypse. I don't think that's inappropriate.

While walking on Bondi Beach with Professor Archer, this correspondent forgot to apply a healthy dose of sun block cream on his face. The gentle coastal breeze, as it often does, masked the damage being done by the UV rays penetrating that hole in the ozone layer. At the end of a one-hour-long interview, this correspondent's face was fried to crisp. The dead skin was still peeling off one week later.

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