In Eric Bogle’s great anti-war song ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ his narrator “lived the free life of the rover From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback I waltzed my Matilda all over” before he was called, like hundreds of Irishmen, to fight at Gallipoli.
Neither he or Bogle could have imagined how like the dusty outback Murray’s green basin might be a century after WWI because of man’s misuse of nature’s gifts and climate change. Today, Murray’s green basin is choked, and dying because of poorly controlled abstraction to irrigate farmland eked out of a hostile environment and unprecedented temperatures. The catastrophe unfolds despite a river-system management plan put in place a decade ago to protect the resource. Maybe it’s time to recognise that in the face of escalating climate change humanity’s options to avert and restore are becoming more and more limited.
This week, temperatures in Adelaide hit a record at 46.6C. Seventeen heat records were broken in the region amid animal culls intended to preserve water for farm animals. There have been huge fish kills as deoxygenated, tepid rivers parboil their inhabitants. The fish kill in the Murray-Darling basin has been described as the biggest in world history. As ever industry, farmers, government, and conservationists argue over the precise causes but none has dared suggest that it is anything other than manmade. If Bogle and his narrator could not have imagined a destroyed “Murray’s green basin” they could hardly have imagined that our world faces a threat far greater than anything flowing from either world war but that is now undeniably, almost incomprehensibly the case.
New data shows that while Earth was slightly cooler last year than the previous few years, 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record. Berkeley Earth calculate that last year’s average temperature was 14.96C, 0.77C degrees warmer than the average from 1951 to 1980 and about 1.16 degrees warmer than pre-industrial times. Only 2016, 2017 and 2015 were warmer. Last year, 29 countries, including Ireland and much of Central Europe, and Antarctica had record hot years. Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann warned that the fact that nearly every year recently is in the top five or top 10 hottest years is “clear evidence of human-caused warming on this planet”.
We may imagine that we are a small player in this but, as we like to assert in so many other spheres, we punch above our weight in climate change too. Our failure on emissions reduction is well known but that bad-neighbour behaviour is exacerbated by ESB International in Duterte’s Philippines. The company has won a 10-year contract to run a coal-fired power station in Quezon. This seems a mixture of misplaced ambition and hypocrisy as we press the ESB to end coal burning at this country’s largest single polluter — Moneypoint.
Surely, in 2019, it is time to invoke the not-in-our-name principle and insist that the state-owned enterprise withdraws from that project. Climate destruction is the greatest challenge faced by humanity. It is time our inadequate response reflected that unless we want to join the half-forgotten ghosts heard as they march by the billabong.