This decade has been good to Australia. it opened with Sydney staging a highly successful Olympic Games and things improved from there. The rise of China has helped fuel unprecedented economic prosperity, as Asia's insatiable dragon consumes more and more iron ore, coal, uranium and bauxite. In 2000, primary products accounted for 36% of all Australia's exports. By 2008, thanks to massive price run-ups, it was above 46%. Australia's GDP more than doubled between 2000 and 2008, when it passed $1 trillion. As Chinese growth gathers pace again following the global financial crisis, mines in Australia's vast, barely populated west are struggling to keep pace with demand.
But even as Australia ships off its rocks and earth and grain to feed the rise of the next superpower, there is a growing realization that the exploitation of the country's resources and perhaps especially its overreliance on coal for its power needs come at a tremendous cost. In the middle of the latest mining boom, many Australians are coming to the conclusion that the frontier mentality that has allowed the country to grow rich on the back of its livestock and its mineral wealth has to change. Australia's greenhouse-gas emissions are the largest per person of any developed nation. It also exports more coal, one of the main sources of greenhouse gases, than any other place in the world.
Australians have always had a precarious relationship with the land. Few farmers have never known drought and many struggle for water even in the good years. But now water shortages have begun to impact urban dwellers too, with year-round water restrictions, bans on people washing their cars and government campaigns to encourage households to catch water in buckets when they shower. If the world wants an idea of how global warming will change how we in the West live in the future, Australia's a good place to look.
Few people have done more to question the old relationship between Australians and the land than paleontologist and author Tim Flannery. Quiet and introspective, Flannery likes to downplay his influence. But his books 1994's The Future Eaters, which brought debate about ecological sustainability to the dinner table, and 2005's The Weather Makers, which turned state-of-the-art climate science into everyday conversation have made the Melbourne-born scientist a household name.
Flannery sees himself as a climate-change missionary, trying to bring enlightenment to a continent that is the world's hottest, driest (excluding uninhabited Antarctica) and most vulnerable to global warming. But his habit of musing aloud means Flannery has also become something of a walking headline, an often controversial figure, as hated by conservative columnists as he is respected by a growing number of middle-class voters. Sydney, he once said, should be named Weerong in acknowledgment of the local Aboriginal word for Sydney Cove, where Australia's first settlement was founded in 1788. Tuna-fishing should be as reviled as whaling. Nuclear power should be Australia's answer to climate change.
A 2007 book full of thought experiments and possible nightmare climate scenarios was designed to get people thinking about their relationship with the land. "How do you step beyond this fiction that we are a frontier society with boundless plains to share? That's what I'm interested in exploring," he says. "A lot of these questions are cultural and spiritual questions, really ... Maybe I'm not the best qualified to be asking or discussing them, but I still feel that we can consider them in the broader context of the science."
As Australian of the Year in 2007, Flannery had hoped to convince then Prime Minister John Howard to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Along with the U.S., Australia was the only developed nation to reject the international agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions. But Flannery's attempts to arrange talks with the Prime Minister failed. "I'm not sure why, but we couldn't make it happen," Flannery says. "I tried to contact him a few times, and nothing. I moved on."
For environmentalists, it was symptomatic of the Howard era. A group of industry executives and lobbyists exercised a powerful influence on the federal government's policies, delaying several key measures including the development of an emissions-trading scheme.
Little wonder that climate change figured prominently in the 2007 election, which ended 11 years of conservative rule. Or that the first significant act of the new center-left administration headed by Kevin Rudd was to ratify Kyoto, and take a more active part in world climate negotiations. But changing the habits of generations is not easy. The new government has not pushed the wholesale policy shifts that many greens want. Industry interests have gnawed away at the Rudd government's climate agenda, with many elements of a planned emissions-trading scheme watered down, and billions of dollars of compensation directed to the mining and manufacturing sectors. Most importantly, Australia's climate plan allows for the unlimited purchase of carbon offsets overseas. This means that Australia can achieve its relatively modest planned emissions cuts of between 5% and 25% by 2020 without actually changing the way it does business. Instead of switching to renewable energy, it may prove cheaper to buy up forests in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
So while Australia may have reached a new understanding of the need to conserve and renew its resources, it is yet to start on the hard slog of actually doing so. Flannery sees ratification of Kyoto as an important symbolic step. "But the lobbyists still influence government behind closed doors, and purchase influence via election donations," he says. "Lobbying has to be made completely transparent, and the buying of political influence abolished, before symbolism can be turned into fully meaningful action." That will take time. So will reinventing the way Australians use the land.
Cubby is an environmental reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald