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When drought spells cash

By Julian Cribb - posted Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Modelling by the UK’s Hadley Climate Research Centre suggests that by the second part of this century half the Earth’s land surface could be in regular drought, while 30 per cent will face extreme drought by 2100.

The prognostications for Australia are equally unsettling: we may experience 20-80 per cent more droughts by the second half of the century. These are liable to most affect the populous regions of the south, east and southwest.

The pundits foretold extreme events, and their auspices are already coming true: climate change has unleashed the biggest academic gold rush in recent history, with state and federal governments splashing tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars around almost weekly on new projects and research centres - a classic Australian response to decades of indolence, neglect and bad planning.


In recent weeks, for example:

  • the Federal and Victorian governments have poured $100 million into a clean brown coal project;
  • the New South Wales Government announced it would spend $22 million on two pilot clean coal projects;
  • Victoria has begun work on a $30 million underground carbon storage project;
  • SA is spending $800,000 on a wind tunnel to improve wind turbine performance and a further $200,000 on various clean energy projects;
  • Queensland has put $9 million into a Climate Centre of Excellence;
  • the University of NSW has announced a new $6 million national climate change research centre;
  • the Australian National University has created the Fenner School for Environment & Society for research into areas including climate change and water;
  • Adelaide University has launched a Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability;
  • Griffith University has signed an agreement with the Government of Indonesia to study the regional impact of climate change; and
  • the University of Ballarat has launched a project in community-owned renewable energy.

In all the excitement the area most affected by climate change - agriculture, and the science that backs it - has largely remained like Cinderella.

Agricultural science, for 100 years one of the fields in which Australian science was an acknowledged world leader, is today in crisis. University agriculture science enrolments have fallen steeply in recent years while governments have pursued a long-established trend of cutting back on research, development and extension.

On top of this most scientific leaders will retire in the next 5-10 years and young researchers are too few to replace them.

So how good are we at agricultural science, and why should we keep it up? One figure that is hard to argue with is that, in the midst of what the media bravely terms the worst drought in the last 1,000 years, agriculture has still managed to generate $26 billion in export income this year and contribute its regular 3 per cent to gross domestic product.


This borders on the miraculous and is testimony not only to the tenacity and skills of our farmers, but also the phenomenal quality of the science and education that underpin them. It’s doubtful if any other country in the world could match such an achievement.

So what were we doing about it? We’re cutting back, that’s what. We’re sending the Melbourne Cup winner to the knackers, sacking the Australian Cricket team, disbanding the Institute of Sport before the Olympics, shutting the Stock Exchange - pick your own analogy.

That’s nothing unusual. We spent quarter of a century massacring energy research - the Government actually closed the Energy R&D Corporation - and now there’s panic. So don’t blame the academics for inventing a host of climate-shaped buckets to catch the latest funding downpour.

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First published in The Australian on March 28, 2007.It is republished in collaboration with ScienceAlert, the only news website dedicated to Australasian science.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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