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A stranded walrus in the Arctic
Photo: a walrus has climbed on a tiny remnant of the melting Antarctic Ice Shelf to survey the scene. (image source unknown)

Got that sinking feeling?

Some of Australia's closest neighbours are getting 'that sinking feeling' - and with good reason

The lands of some of our neighbouring countries are 'sinking': rising sea levels increase the likelihood of entire countries becoming uninhabitable.

Their citizens are rapidly becoming potential "climate refugees".

Environment Reporter for The Age Liz Minchin outlines developments in the Torres Strait and Southern Queensland, and brings the case for assistance so close to home that Australia can no longer ignore it. The Torres Strait islands are part of Australia: they are not part of another country so we can dismiss their issues.

Also from this August 12 2006 weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, an exposing opinion piece by Executive Director of the Australia Institute Clive Hamilton that points a finger at Tim Flannery: how come Flannery is so cosy with the Howard government?

Flannery is an advocate of individual consumer action as the answer to environmental problems. Instead of being understood as a set of problems endemic to our economic and social structures, we are told we each have to take personal responsibility for our contribution to every problem.

Flannery concludes his book by arguing that "there is no need to wait for government action" - voluntary action by well-meaning consumers is the only way to save the planet.

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Torres Strait: Going under

With rising seas swamping the graves of their forebears, Torres Strait Islanders face an uncertain future. Liz Minchin writes.

Sydney Morning Herald
Liz Minchin
August 12, 2006

BABY Sedoi Passi was alone in her parents' bedroom just before midnight when the waves broke through a wall and began flooding the room.

"The tide had been rolling in all afternoon, bigger than usual, like surfing waves. But we kept thinking it's going to stop," Sedoi's father, Sunny Passi, recalls.

"But it just kept coming up -- So we were all running around like crazy, moving stuff, and with everything happening my partner and I didn't realise our little girl was still inside."

When they went back in, says Passi, there was about a foot of water through the house.

"We found Sedoi sitting in her cot, covered from head to toe in sand, poor girl. She didn't cry the whole time, it was like she was in shock or something."

For Sunny Passi and others living on Australia's northern frontier, climate change is no longer just an abstract threat; they believe it is happening to them right now.

Over the past two years, half of the populated islands of the Torres Strait in far north Queensland have been hit by unprecedented flooding from surging king tides.

The islanders can't prove that climate change is to blame for the tidal flooding or inexplicable shifts in the weather, but elders are baffled by what they are seeing.

Although the flooding of the islands has gone largely unnoticed on mainland Australia, from next year it is set to become a globally reported issue.

According to the draft fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, written by the world's leading climate scientists and seen by the Herald before its official release next year, the recent king tides exposed the need for better short-term coastal protection and long-term planning to potentially relocate up to half of the 4000 people living on the islands.

The draft report also warns, in the cool, clinical language of science, that those islanders may not be alone in seeking refuge on the mainland.

"About 60,000 to 90,000 people from the Pacific islands may be exposed to flooding from sea-level rise each year by the 2050s.

"This would place pressure internally on these countries and on surrounding nations (such as New Zealand and Australia) to help sustain communities or to consider emergency immigrants. Displacement of Torres Strait Islanders to mainland Australia is also likely to occur within this time frame."

Donna Green, a CSIRO scientist, is working with remote indigenous communities in northern Australia on adapting to climate change, and says the Torres Strait is among the most vulnerable regions in the country.

"While we don't have historical records of sea levels in the Torres Strait, we do know that climate change is causing sea levels to rise in this region and is increasing the intensity of extreme weather events," says Dr Green, who was on the islands in February when monsoonal king tides struck. "So it is likely that climate change is playing a part in these recent inundations."

As the light plane rumbles through the last puff of cloud, a teardrop-shaped island appears below, its dark green interior of palm trees fringed with pale sand above the opal-coloured sea.

There are more than 100 of these remote islands scattered between the tip of Cape York and Papua New Guinea, but only 14 are inhabited.

For mainland Australians this coral teardrop, known as Masig or Yorke Island, is the most recognisable part of the Torres Strait after its starring role in the recent SBS television drama Remote Area Nurse.

Masig is among six low-lying islands in the central and north-western Torres Strait that have been hardest hit by a series of floods over the past two years from unseasonably strong winds pushing king tides ashore.

"When I went out that night with my family, geez, my eyes nearly popped out," recalls Father Ned Mosby, an Anglican priest who acted and sang on RAN, and who is the island's senior sergeant of police, SES controller, fire warden - and a father of six.

The waves surrounded the white-washed walls of Father Mosby's church, St John the Evangelist, and lapped halfway up the steps. "My kids asked me, 'Dad, what's happening?' I told them, 'I don't know'. But that night I told them, 'Hey, this is our home, but the day will come when you have to move."'

It is a message Father Mosby and colleague Father Edward Nai reluctantly preach to their congregation.

"I get upset talking about it, but I'm a realist," says Father Nai. "That's why I'd like John Howard to start talking to indigenous people on mainland Australia now, about places where you might be able to settle islander communities in the future -- And I'd also ask the Prime Minister to do everything he can to slow down the process of global warming, because otherwise God only knows how much longer we will be here."

Although the 113-year-old church was not damaged in the flooding, its asbestos-sheet roof needs replacing at a cost of $101,000, creating a dilemma for the small congregation. "Do we try to raise that money to replace the roof here, or do we start thinking about having to rebuild the church somewhere else?" asks Father Nai.

Community leaders such as John Toshie Kris, chairman of the federally funded Torres Strait Regional Authority, say elders who could once accurately predict the weather cannot keep up with the rapid changes. "The monsoons are becoming later than usual -- and although we have had high levels of king tides before, it seems to be happening much more frequently than it used to."

Some islanders have a nickname for mainlanders - particularly politicians - who fly through the Strait, make a lot of noise about local concerns, and fly off without doing anything to help.

They call them "seagulls".

But after years of frustrated lobbying by the authority and the Queensland-based Island Co-ordinating Council, there are finally signs that politicians are listening.

Late last year the Federal Government granted $300,000 towards a major study of the six islands at greatest risk from surging king tides: the sandy coral cays of Poruma, Iama, Masig, and Warraber in the central Strait, and the swampy north-western islands of Saibai and Boigu.

As well as preparing long-overdue emergency evacuation plans, the islands have also lodged an application for $4.4 million from the Federal and Queensland governments for urgent construction work to patch up crumbling sea walls, raise houses on stilts, and protect vital infrastructure, such as water and sewerage.

The authority's chairman says relocation has been discussed "as a last resort", but says it can be avoided with government help. "At the moment you cannot move these people because they are connected by blood and bone to their traditional homes," Kris says.

Over on the far-eastern volcanic island of Mer - also known as Murray Island - five Meriam men led by Eddie Mabo fought an epic High Court case over native land rights, which overturned the legal myth that Australia belonged to no one before the British arrived.

But today it is the sea, not the law, that is taking their land.

Over two nights in July last year, Mer was struck by strong winds and king tides that damaged beaches and shacks along the eastern shore, prompting more than half a dozen families to move inland.

It came as no surprise to the council chairman, Ron Day, who has been warning for years that "no one can stop the sea from rising" and is doing his best to entice people to new subdivisions in the hills.

But like other Torres Strait Islanders, the Meriam people have deep ties to the sea and land, which they celebrate in a slow, tender song about living "within thy opal waters -- blessed with all good things".

The song was written a century ago by Scotsman John Stewart Bruce, whose family were the first Europeans to live on Mer and loved it so much they were buried there.

Last July, their overgrown graves were flooded with sea water.

It was that flood and the fright from finding his sand-covered daughter Sedoi - now a chirpy toddler who turns two next month - that convinced Sunny Passi to pack up his beachfront home.

"We're getting out of here now, and going to rebuild this house up on that hill back there," the 34-year-old says.

Although Passi knows his family is luckier than many to have the choice of moving to higher ground without leaving their homeland, he says it will still be hard for his children to give up their backyard beach and falling asleep to the sound of lapping waves.

But he is trying to be optimistic about the future and is excited about building a new, environmentally friendly home.

"We're going to have solar panels on the roof, a wind generator, our own vegie garden, a compost toilet and all that stuff. I'm just going to start by doing my little bit, and see where we go from there."

Liz Minchin is The Age's environment reporter. Andrew Meares is the Herald's chief photographer.

Rising waters may flood her island home

Sydney Morning Herald
Liz Minchin
August 12, 2006

FOR thousands of years the people of the Torres Strait in far north Queensland have sung of their deep, abiding love of their remote islands and the opal waters surrounding them.

But today the sea that has sustained them for all that time may be turning against them.

An international report on climate change, seen by the Herald and which is to be published next year, says that up to 2000 people - or half the strait's inhabitants - may eventually be forced to leave their islands because of rising sea levels and bigger storm surges.

The draft report, written by climate experts, warns that Australia should be working on better short-term protection of the islands and preparing long-term relocation plans for those living on the most vulnerable, low-lying islands.

On the flat, swampy northern island of Saibai, where the village has been repeatedly hit by tidal floods since 2000, Lola Jackonia, a mother of eight, is unsure whether her family should stay or move to Cairns, where her eldest son lives.

"The kids think when the high tide comes up it's just time for a swim," Ms Jackonia said. "But it's frightening -- I've never seen a high tide like this. If it's bad again I'll think about moving."

Sea wall no match for tide's fury

Sydney Morning Herald
August 12, 2006
by Liz Minchin

"NATIVES quit vanishing Torres Islands," shouts the newspaper headline, published more than half a century ago above a photo of sombre-faced women and children.

"This Saibai Island group -- are being dispossessed by the encroaching sea and will be housed in a Government settlement on the mainland."

On most of the low-lying Torres Strait islands, even elders agree that the recent flooding from king tides is the worst they have seen.

But on Saibai, which mostly lies only a metre above sea level, they have seen tidal flooding this bad once before, in 1948 - and it was enough to drive hundreds of people to resettle on the mainland.

Today, the 379 people who remain are not just afraid that history is repeating, but that it is getting worse.

Even after a long sea wall was built along the waterfront, which overlooks Papua New Guinea's southern hills, Saibai's streets have been repeatedly washed out, most recently in February - sometimes in water so deep that people rowed dinghies into the village.

A wooden placard hammered into a palm tree sums up the locals' fears: "Urgent: To the leaders of this community, please help me, I'm sinking ... To the community, please pray for me."

But the chairman of Saibai council, Jensen Warusam, insists it is not too late to save the island, and is pushing for funds to repair the crumbling sea wall. "We do have to think hard now, because some areas [that were flooded] this year were untouched by water before," Warusam says. "But we will lose our identity as Saibai people if we scatter. If we separate, there will be no more Saibai."

A trump card in the nuclear power play

Sydney Morning Herald
Clive Hamilton
August 8, 2006

Dr Clive Hamilton is executive director of the Australia Institute.

WITH its strongly pro-business orientation, the Howard Government has found it difficult to gain credibility for its environmental policies. It has nevertheless made considerable headway through the use of a clever and aggressive strategy of dividing the environment movement by cultivating friendly organisations and individuals and punishing those that refuse to fall into line.

WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature) is the foremost of the friendly organisations. It is close to the Government, providing a stream of favourable commentary on its policies and bestowing several awards for the Government's environmental achievements, including three "Gift to the Earth" awards, which the Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, displays in his office. In return, the Government has been generous, sending tens of millions to the fund for various programs.

The force behind the emergence of the organisation as the leading group backing the Government's environment policy is the businessman Robert Purves. He has made a very large donation to WWF and is now its president.

Purves has drawn Tim Flannery into the orbit of conservative environmentalism by funding the preparation of Flannery's book on climate change, The Weather Makers. Flannery, who came late to the climate change debate, has eloquently summarised the work of hundreds of climate scientists and his book has undoubtedly raised public awareness and understanding of the threats posed by global warming. Purves is said to have spent $1 million promoting Flannery's book, including costly backlit billboards outside Qantas Club lounges around the country.

But isn't there an inconsistency here? Why would Purves, sympathetic to the Government, spend large sums funding and promoting a book that rings alarm bells about climate change, which can only make life more difficult for the Government?

The answer is that Flannery's book does not make life harder for the Government, but sends the sort of message the Government wants us to hear.

Flannery is an advocate of individual consumer action as the answer to environmental problems. Instead of being understood as a set of problems endemic to our economic and social structures, we are told we each have to take personal responsibility for our contribution to every problem.

Flannery concludes his book by arguing that "there is no need to wait for government action" - voluntary action by well-meaning consumers is the only way to save the planet.

"It is my firm belief that all the efforts of government and industry will come to naught unless the good citizen and consumer takes the initiative, and in tackling climate change the consumer is in a most fortunate position."

He then lists 11 things concerned citizens can do to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, urging each of us to "do the right thing" in the belief that these noble appeals will transform the market: "If enough of us buy green power, solar panels, solar hot water systems and hybrid vehicles, the cost of these items will plummet."

This is music to the Government's ears. The assignment of individual responsibility is consistent with the economic rationalist view of the world, which wants everything left to the market, even when the market manifestly fails.

Yet it is at best a naive, and at worst a reckless, approach to the looming catastrophe of climate change. The world did not eliminate the production of ozone-depleting substances by relying on the good sense of consumers in buying CFC-free fridges. We insisted governments negotiate an international treaty that banned CFCs. We did not invite car buyers to pay more to install catalytic converters, the greatest factor in reducing urban air pollution. We called on government to legislate to require all car makers to include them.

When pressed, Flannery will call on government to act, too, but his consistent headline message is an appeal to consumers. Thus, when accepting a prize for his book recently, he gave a four-word acceptance speech: "Install a solar panel."

Green consumerism such as that advocated by Flannery privatises responsibility for environmental decline, shifting blame from elected governments and industry onto the shoulders of individual citizens. The cause of climate change becomes the responsibility of "all of us", which, in effect, means nobody. It is obvious why a government that wants to do nothing finds such an approach appealing: it can pretend to be concerned while protecting powerful business interests.

Flannery's "firm belief" that we can be saved only if consumers take the initiative is one he shares with the ideologues of the right-wing think tanks who argue that environmental problems should be left to the unfettered market. If consumers don't make green choices then it is obvious they don't care much about the environment.

But it is not just his advocacy of do-nothing green consumerism that endears Flannery to the Government. Alone among Australian environmental advocates, he has declared his support for the development of a nuclear industry. The Prime Minister, John Howard, now regularly buttresses his nuclear push by saying that even some environmentalists "like Tim Flannery" support nuclear power.

Even Howard knows it would be folly to build nuclear power plants in Australia, a fact that his nuclear inquiry will conveniently affirm. The Prime Minister's game is to provide cover for his plan to expand uranium mining and get an enrichment industry established.

Flannery is now part of the climate change debate, and whether he likes it or not, has become a trump card in Howard's hand.