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Your Ruddiness, the problem with your summit ...

By Julian Cribb - posted Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Your Ruddiness,

If there is a problem with your Summit, it is that it is already thinking too small, although it professes to think big.

One thing the climate change saga is teaching us it is that all human affairs are interconnected. That the Earth is a relatively small place and solving the problems of a country such as Australia will be fairly meaningless if we do not at the same time help to solve the problems facing humanity as a whole.


Take food. We can produce as much food as we like, can solve the problems of the Murray-Darling basin and produce even more - but that will avail us little if there is a run of monsoon failures in India. That would unleash about 200-300 million refugees across the world, some tens of millions of whom would fetch up here. The Irish potato famine expelled six million of a population of eight million - India is a bit bigger. So whatever plans your summit makes, they are liable to be blown away if 20 million refugees wash up here due to a climate-induced food crisis.

This isn’t a joke. For the last eight years the world has eaten more food that it has produced, and the gap is widening as demand rises and production stagnates. Meanwhile Australian governments, Coalition and Labor, have done their level best to ensure a future food crisis by winding back agricultural science in this country and agricultural aid overseas - at a time when every other myopic country on earth is doing the same.

So my first suggestion for your summit is to attend to the most pressing issue of all in the human agenda, and the one most taken for granted, a sustainable global food supply at a time of growing shortages of water, land, science, nutrients and soaring demand. This is something Australians are extraordinarily good at, indeed used to be world leaders at, but have rather abandoned in recent times.

Take the ocean. Every time you start your car or turn on the light it turns a wee bit more acidic. There is now sufficient evidence to support the view that unless something radical happens in the next few years, up to a third of all sea life including the Great Barrier Reef could be killed off by this (it has happened no fewer than five times in the past, so we know it’s possible) - and probably the rest, if the resultant decay strips the oceans of their oxygen.

Australia has a lot of very smart scientists who understand this - but it has a lot of very dumb governments who don’t. It’s time the latter started to listen to the former and grasped that the time in which something can be done to prevent this is rapidly running out. Even if Australia does realise it, there’s a leadership job ahead to convince the rest of the world.

Take energy. We’ve a thousand years’ supply of clean electricity sitting in hot rocks under the middle of the continent which as a nation we have barely recognised though, again, some bright scientists and miners have been trying to tell people about it. We even have ways of burning coal - like oxy-fuel, pioneered here - that avoid greenhouse. We have the world’s first new iron-making process in 2,000 years, also potentially greenhouse free. These can not only fix our problems - they can help fix China’s too. If not, it’s their impact we will suffer from and our borders won’t keep it out.


Take water. The average Australian uses enough in a lifetime to float the USS Enterprise - about 100,000 tonnes per person - which is a bit of a scandal in a dry country. We’ve got some pretty smart people thinking about better ways to use and re-use water - there’s an Aussie technology capable of saving a third of the world’s irrigation water, for starters - but  we’ve also got some pretty dumb or self-interested ones trying to prevent it happening.

Every drop we use should be recycled - several times. If we eventually solve the problems of the Murray-Darling the solution may well help to remedy a few other potential global flashpoints, like the Indus valley, the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Yang-tse and so on. The world’s big rivers and lakes are mostly stuffed, and it should be an Australian aspiration to help un-stuff them.

Take minerals. The boom Australians are currently enjoying is not only down to the big mining houses. It’s also down to a whole lot of under-rewarded and under-recognised scientists who helped make us the most competitive miners and mineral extractors on the planet. This is expertise that can help multiply the world’s resources, so there is enough for everyone, and so prevent the conflicts which arise when shortages occur.

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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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