Indigenous Australians big losers with global warming


Ilana Eldridge

As the 1997 Kyoto Protocol took effect on February 16, despite the Australian government's refusal to sign on, experts pointed out that global warming will have a devastating effect on the country's Indigenous communities.

Prime Minister John Howard said the international protocol would undermine the country's industries with "no environmental gain to Australia".

"Were Australia to ratify, investment would go to those countries with no greenhouse restrictions", Howard said on the website of the prime minister's office.

The protocol, which became a legally binding treaty on February 16, demands a 5.2% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from the industrialised world as a whole by 2012. Each country has been set its own individual targets according to its pollution levels. Scientists say that a total global emissions cut of at least 60% of greenhouse gasses is needed to prevent catastrophic climate change this century.

Australia is already the earth's hottest and driest continent, suffering frequent droughts and uncontrollable bushfires.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's premier research body, predicts that Australia is likely to become 0.4-2 degrees Celsius warmer by the year 2030 and will suffer a 20% decrease in rainfall.

As senior CSIRO research scientist Kevin Hennessy revealed on January 15: "With likely increases in evaporation, this means drier conditions in future with reduced water supply and greater water demand. In the southwest, rainfall has already decreased by about 20% since the mid-1970s."

For those who can afford insurance, air conditioning or have the financial ability to relocate, the problem seems remote and abstract. But for Australia's most marginalised, poverty-stricken and persecuted — the Indigenous Australians — it's another story.

Aboriginal people belong to the land, not the other way around. For those with an unbroken connection to the country, the thought of moving permanently elsewhere is not just financially unrealistic — it's unthinkably irresponsible, a cultural taboo and an emotional impossibility. Meanwhile, a great many Indigenous people live in coastal communities across northern Australia — the likely frontline for cataclysmic weather events.

Indigenous people, like much of the rest of Australia's population, have minimal knowledge about global warming and the likely impacts — natural and cultural.

And when the federal government abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council (ATSIC) — an elected body of Indigenous representatives aspiring to self-governance and tasked with the delivery of general services to Indigenous communities — the future opportunities for communication and involvement in strategies to combat, or even keep pace with global warming issues, became ever more remote.

According to Gary Scott, freshwater campaigner for the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory, "Indigenous people will definitely be the worst affected and there's not a lot of recognition of that amongst the policy makers".

"There's a stated acknowledgement that there's a need to plan for climate change yet the government's greenhouse strategy has been on hold for two years. There seems to be widespread inertia amongst the bureaucrats", he added.

Australia and the United States are the only major industrialised countries that have refused to ratify the international agreement on climate change.

The US produces about a quarter of all the world's greenhouse emissions and Australia generates the most per capita in the industrialised world.

"I just think that the Australian government is a captive of industry", said Terry O'Shane, an Indigenous leader from Queensland, currently on a tour of remote Indigenous communities.

"The Howard government's approach on the issue of global warming is negligent and delinquent. It's appalling. But it's consistent with their approach on a whole range of things concerning Indigenous people", he pointed out angrily.

According to O'Shane, Indigenous Australians were very worried about the future. "People are noticing the weather changes and its effect on their land. They're concerned about hunting and fishing."

Major hot spots for dramatic and rapid change include the tropical parts of Australia, where saltwater inundations into freshwater systems are already happening.

The impact on key Indigenous food species, such as long-necked turtles, freshwater mussels, fish species and aquatic plants such as lotus lilies, will be profound. For such species, perhaps the only viable approach is to "corral" them, that is, isolate them from environmental harm for an unspecified time until it may be safe to re-release them back into their habitat.

This approach is already being taken in Australia's iconic Kakadu National Park, an internationally famous area of spectacular wetlands.

But the CSIRO predicts that with global warming, much of Kakadu's wetlands will instead become mangrove forests, leading to a major reduction in freshwater habitats. Other scientists are expecting a major rise in the spread of mosquito-borne diseases.

Indigenous people could lead the way in reducing the impact of global warming. The method of traditional burning is one area where Indigenous expertise far outstrips current scientific knowledge.

Small, "cool" burns are lit, in different areas and at different times soon after the end of the rainy season, creating a mosaic effect of "clean" country with minimal impact on wildlife. This approach reduces the fuel load of grasses and other vegetation, thereby minimising the big, hot fires later in the dry season that release huge amounts of heat and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane have a cumulative effect in the atmosphere. These gases create a layer that traps solar radiation and warms the Earth like a greenhouse.

Meanwhile, opposition parties are making a last ditch attempt to bring Australia into line with those countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. ALP federal environment spokesman Anthony Albanese has challenged the government to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, introducing a private member's bill requiring Australia to implement the treaty.

"If the Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change Bill is passed, the Australian government will be required to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and become part of the international solution to climate change", Albanese said.

Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown, who went to Kyoto in Japan to celebrate the commencement of the Kyoto Protocol, said: "This is a great occasion for the planet but a terrible moment for Australia."

[A version of this article was published by the Inter Press Service News Agency on February 15. Visit <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.