Monday, July 14, 2008

Crocodiles, climate change and the pattern of adjustment

For the benefit of my international readers, there are two types of crocodiles in Australia - fresh and salt water. Males of the salt water variety can be seven metres long. Anybody who has seen them will tell you that they are not to be trifled with.

I have not written much about the current debate on climate change including the possible policy responses because I have little original to say. However, I have been musing over the outcomes of various scenarios. This includes questions like just how far south the salt water crocodiles might move as water temperatures increase.

I find with climate change that I simply cannot handle the very broad questions. They are just too abstract. However, I can understand and am interested in far more micro questions, like what it might mean for particular industries or areas. Here I feel that there is a major policy disconnect between the global and the Australian, a bigger one still between the Australian and regional or local.

Assume, for the moment, that something approaching the worst case occurs.

At present, Australia feeds somewhere between 70 and 100 million people. Our agricultural exports remain a major source of national wealth. If rainfall declines by 40%, will we still be able to do this? I am sure that we will still have enough food for ourselves, but our exports will decline in volume. Food prices will rise. The dollar value of our exports may even increase. But all Australians will pay a lot more for basic food stuffs.

Then we have the lakes at the bottom of the Murray. Can they survive, or should we be writing them off now? Can we afford the luxury of maintaining them when we need the food and cash? On the worst case climate change scenarios. I think that they will have to go.

The current problem with petrol prices provides a salutary reminder of our future worst case world.

Present petrol prices are a function of limited supply and rising demand. However, they provide a useful reminder of just what happens if transport costs rise. I have not done the maths, I do not have the information, but at eight dollars per litre for petrol or a petrol equivalent (and this is one projected price) our entire social and urban structure would have to be be reshaped.

How do you maintain our current distribution and service delivery systems if we can no longer afford them? As a simple but striking example, how do you justify a centralised base hospital if the cost of getting a patient there for a doctor's appointment exceeds the daily pay of a specialist?

Now we can debate the detail. But my point is that we are dealing with a totally new scenario.

As I write, water buffalo's are making a come-back in Thailand because they are presently better value than tractors. I can see this type of thing happening across the board.

I am not being negative in all this. I am simply saying that we might need to start thinking about things in new (and old) ways.

No comments: