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If Al Gore is right ...

By Peter Curson - posted Tuesday, 10 April 2007


Sea level rises, coastal areas inundated, persistent heatwaves, prolonged droughts and parched farming regions, more severe cyclones and tropical storms, more mosquito-borne disease - climate change could generate countless problems for us all.

This month the Atlantic Monthly published an article on the likely winners and losers in the global warming stakes. The article is important for the issues it raises and perhaps we all need to think about what climate change might deliver for us. Who will be the winners and who the losers in the climate change lottery in Australia over the next 30 years?

Should those of us living in low lying coastal areas consider selling out now? If Al Gore is right - perhaps we should. Will coastal flooding increase the propensity of mosquito breeding and related human diseases, as well as erode the underpinning of our beachside properties? Will our sewage systems be able to cope with such coastal flooding?

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And what about our reef systems and wetlands, how will they cope? All important issues, particularly for the hordes of retirees currently migrating to our warmer coastal areas, and for anyone interested in Australia’s future.

Will our cities be able to cope with a doubling and trebling of the number of summer heatwave days? Will the New South Wales Government be forced to air condition all its suburban trains? Would we see air conditioned shelters established in the inner part of our cities for the disadvantaged aged, as is the case in some US cities? Will there be widespread power cuts as a proliferation of air-conditioning units in offices, shops and homes take their toll on the electricity grid?

And what about the land? Will a potential cycle of prolonged droughts and heavy rains impact on our farming economy? Will more cyclonic activity in Northern Australia impact upon the tropical fruit market and bananas become the new currency?

Perhaps a warming of winter temperatures and a reduction in frosts will deliver some benefits to farming land currently underdeveloped? If growing seasons and rainfall patterns change markedly in some areas, might not we see important changes in land management, crop and animal practices and possibly genetic engineering of some crop plants?

And let us not forget the millions of Australians who suffer from asthma and hayfever. Will changes in temperature, rainfall and growing season produce more allergens like pollen than before?

Who else might benefit from climate change? Well, if warmer temperatures, drought and heavy rains impact on the breeding cycle of our mosquito populations, Big Pharma may reap benefits from heavily investing in new vaccines for diseases like dengue and Ross River Virus as well as producing more asthma medications.

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Perhaps healthcare providers will also have a boom period looking after an ageing population during higher summer temperatures.

Probably the builders of dams, desalination and recycling plants, and the manufacturers and retailers of sun cream, umbrellas and mosquito repellents will also benefit.

There has been much talk about the necessity of an adaptation strategy at government level, one that might enhance the resilience of human and natural systems to respond to changes in climate conditions. There is also considerable discussion about climate change being made an integral part of decision-making at government and business levels.

But perhaps we need much more, such as crops that grow in higher temperatures, homes and buildings that stay cool without air conditioning during heatwaves, vehicles that run on far less fuel and properties in northern Australia that can withstand severe storms?

Six months ago the United Kingdom Treasury estimated that in a worst case scenario, global warming might eventually remove up to 20 per cent of the gross domestic product from the world economy. If that turned out to be the case then even the best share portfolio might not save you.

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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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