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Why do analyses of environmental issues have to be negative?

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 24 May 2004


Tim Flannery's recent comments about Sydney and Australia's possible future under climate change and his claim that Australians remain among the most vulnerable populations in the world offer a bleak prognosis. The plague is coming and it's coming to a city near you!

Cities in the eastern states will, according to Flannery, become like Perth - ultimately "ghost metropolises" - and all of south-eastern Australia will be severely affected by climate change, with our environment severely diminished. Southern Australia "is going to be severely impacted" and "there will be conditions not seen in 40 million years".

Chilling stuff! Looking at such comments, and also back on the past 20 or so years, I am forced to wonder if it is possible to be in favour of the environment and conscious of possible threats without being a pessimist?

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For at least a quarter of a century we have been fed an endless diet of gloom and doom and provided with bleak and depressing pictures of famines, droughts, epidemics, environmental pollution, rising sea levels, rapidly escalating population and decreasing biodiversity.

Every schoolchild has come to "know" that Australia's environment is progressively getting worse and that the main villain, which was once population growth, is now climate change. The media embrace such an approach.

People in general are more moved by the tempest than by the gentle rain and bad news of impending environmental disaster makes good copy. Having discarded population growth as the "great evil", a new sort of "environmental demonology" has grown up whereby climate change is often blamed for just about everything.

That said, climate change would seem to be a critical issue for the next century and these days it is rare to find a recently published environmental or health text which does not pay attention to the subject. Debate no longer centres on whether it will happen, but now more on the nature and magnitude of its impacts and the adaptations that should be made.

Certainly, the "dryness of the continent" will make Australia more vulnerable to any climatic change and it is possible that it will influence a wide range of environmental and health outcomes.

To this end, drawing our attention to it and trying to predict its environmental consequences is a worthy cause and plays the important role of raising public consciousness.

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Whether we will see "ghost cities" and "devastated landscapes" in Australia is probably unlikely, but at the least such comments capture the imagination. One should also remember that not all Australians will be affected equally by environmental change, nor will all be equally capable of making the required "adjustments" to cope with a warming climate.

In the context of a rapidly ageing population, with a substantial increase in the "old-old" (80-plus) group expected over the next 20 or so years, with increasing levels of chronic illness, disability and medication dependence, and with many older people retiring to warmer parts of the continent, the geography of vulnerability and risk to climate change might well be considerably rewritten. Just witness the fact that the majority of the 13,000 people who died during last year's heatwave in France were elderly people living alone or in severely underfunded rest homes.

To me, this is a much more critical issue than whether or not people in NSW should be able to water their gardens or fill up their swimming pools.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 20 May 2004.



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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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