A Warmer World

Under dry sky, Aussies turn to the sea

Nate DiMeo Jan 28, 2008
A Warmer World

Under dry sky, Aussies turn to the sea

Nate DiMeo Jan 28, 2008


Doug Krizner: Most scientists agree it’s too late to stop global warming. If that’s true, seems like we need a “Plan B.”

Today, we kick off our series on how we’re adapting to a warmer world. While some look for ways to reverse global warming, investors are already funding projects to help us cope with it.

Reporter Nate DiMeo traveled to Australia, where climate change may already be worsening drought. Now many cities “down under” have their eyes on water from the sea.

NATE DIMEO: Ross Young is a bureaucrat. He runs a semi-private consortium of all the water utilities in Australia. And for 20 years, he’d tell a cabbie or a woman he met at dinner party what he does for a living.

ROSS YOUNG: They would’ve yawned and “Oh, water, that’s boring. Who cares about it?”

But lately, his social life is picking up.

Young: Now, you mention you’re in water and all they want to do is talk to you about it. And I just sort of pinch myself … and say “Wow!”

These days water is a dinner-table issue in Australia. It’s always been a dry place but now the country’s experiencing its worst drought in a millennium, and its rain patterns may have changed permanently.

A couple of hundred people cram onto concrete bleachers on the beach at Prince Phillip Island, a popular day trip from Melbourne. They’re looking out to sea, trying to spot penguins making their way to shore. Last summer a timely rainstorm helped avert catastrophe here. The island’s taps had nearly run dry. And with communities all over the continent having experienced similar crises, it seems the whole of Australia is looking to sea for a solution.

Nearly every major coastal city here has a desalination plant in the works. Almost all of Perth’s fresh water now comes from the ocean. And soon 20 percent of Melbourne’s and Sydney’s will too. But conventional desalination plants use an enormous amount of energy and Australia is loathe to follow suit.

Young: It would be the height of irony if the response to climate change was to actually increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Susan Truesdale: Wind, solar, wave, thermal, hot rocks…

Susan Truesdale is figuring out how to make Syndey’s new plant sustainable.

Truesdale: Any sort of renewable energy proposals. We got 13 proposals in yesterday.

She says Sydney’s massive plant won’t increase the city’s energy use or its emissions output a bit. It’s the same story with Australia’s other new plants, whether they’re powered by on-site wind farms or offset by switching other utilities to green power.

In Sydney, the average family will have to pay an additional $150 a year to cover that clean fuel. But throughout Australia, voters are willing to pay, and they are forcing politicians to choose sustainable options. The Australian public is obsessed with its climate footprint. It’s been forced to be.

YOUNG: Australia is really the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the world.

That’s water bureaucrat Ross Young:

YOUNG: What we’re experiencing in Australia will begin to be experienced in the United States. I think your time will come when you will realize that the rainfall patterns of the past are probably going to disappear.

He says the rest of the world should follow Australia’s lead and find ways to adapt to climate change that don’t actually cause it.

In Sydney, Australia, I’m Nate DiMeo for Marketplace.

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