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It never rains: Brisbane, January 2011 

Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen. Usually it doesn't, but sometimes a poem gets quoted in a national argument because everybody knows it, or at least part of it, and for the occasion a few lines of familiar poetry suddenly seem the best way of summing up a viewpoint. Just such an occasion has occurred recently in Australia.  By the time the heavy rains first hit Queensland early this year, the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW, to borrow the unlovely acronym) was ceasing to exercise unquestioned thrall in the minds of Australia's progressive voters. But spokespersons for the Green party clung on to it, encouraged by the fact that the theory, in its Climate Change form, was readily applicable to any circumstances.  

Before the floods, proponents of the CAGW view had argued that there would never be enough rain again, because of Climate Change. When it became clear that there might be more than enough rain, the view was adapted: the floods, too, were the result of Climate Change. In other words, they were something unprecedented. Those opposing this view — those who believed that in Australia nothing could be less unprecedented than a flood unless it was a drought — took to quoting Dorothea Mackellar's poem "My Country", which until recently every Australian youngster was obliged to hear recited in school. In my day we sometimes had to recite it ourselves, and weren't allowed to go home until we had given evidence that we could remember at least the first four lines of the second stanza, which runs like this. 

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror —
The wide brown land for me.

The first four lines of the stanza are the bit that everybody knows, partly because they are so addictively crafted, and partly because they fit the national experience of what Australia's geography and climate are actually like. In any household, the seniors (known in Australia as "the wrinklies") remember the droughts and the flooding rains of their childhood. I myself remember the Maitland floods of the early 1950s. The whole of the central seaboard of New South Wales was under water. I can remember rain you couldn't see through: right there in my southern suburb of Sydney, the creek flooded the park, and the lake in the park spilled into the bottom of our street, prompting the construction of a galvanised iron canoe in which three of us sailed to what would have been certain death if the contraption had floated for more than a few seconds.  

All three of us are old men now, of differing achievements and views, but none of us would be easily persuaded that the recent floods were a new thing. They come and go in long cycles, spaced apart by droughts. When white explorers first set off to cross the country's vast interior, they didn't have to go very far before they encountered the sort of parched terrain that would eventually convert them into corpses suitably posed for Sidney Nolan. There was nothing wrong with the weather, only with their expectations. As any Aboriginal might have told them had they known how to ask, the Australian climate is simply like that. For Queensland, this has been one of several floods in a hundred years, and not even the worst. Though the fashionable propaganda about the unprecedented nature of the inhospitable weather has been largely the product of inner-city intellectuals who rarely see the inland except when they fly over it on their way to another city, the truth is that even a city-dweller will catch on to the facts if he or she lives long enough. First it never rains, but then it pours. Hence the expression, perhaps; and hence Dorothea Mackellar's poem, certainly. 

Younger people can less easily call up the past, and usually younger journalists are the worst people of all to grasp an historical context, but this time the lore handed down by the "the wrinklies" has done its work. Even the most dedicated of warmist journalists — the ones who will go on preaching the doctrine until they expire, all undaunted that a more general doomsday never arrived — are against the Greens on this issue, the Greens having perhaps failed to realise that if they absurdly oversell the forthcoming catastrophe then they threaten the careers of those who fancy themselves to be selling it by the right amount. As to that, the warmist argument should always have looked shaky in Australia — which produces only a tiny percentage of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions, and could therefore hope to reduce global warming only by a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage — but there were large reservoirs of credulity to greet it, perhaps because Australia is blessed with an intelligentsia which, almost without a dissenting voice, is united by the conviction that the high standard of living they enjoy is the product of the West's contempt for the world's poor. 

We could quarrel forever about whether this display of concern is genuine or feigned. Let it suffice for now to say that the virtual entirety of the country's higher media, with the ABC at the apex, could usually be relied upon to blame Western industrial society if something untoward happened to the weather in, say, Bangladesh. But this time the bad weather was happening at home, and the reality principle suddenly got a look-in, because there were too many people in possession of a folk memory about those droughts and flooding rains. Even by his erstwhile admirers, Green Party Senator Bob Brown was thought to have gone over the top by saying firstly, that man-made global warming had caused the floods, and secondly, that the coal mining industry should pay the bill. This absurdity proved too much. Even the coal miners' union thought he was talking nonsense. 

More importantly, the journalists won't wear it either. They have been quoting Dorothea Mackellar's poem in their articles. The famous lines about the droughts and flooding rains get quoted from memory in every television discussion. You can appreciate how unusual this is, only if you realise the completeness of the shut-out that previously obtained. Until the rains came, the voice of Professor Tim Flannery had been loud in the land. More moderate professors, who said that there might indeed be some man-made global warming, but not a lot, were heard only occasionally. Professor Flannery was heard all the time, and always predicting that the major cities would run out of water. The nice thing about him was that he was without guile and therefore ready to say that a certain city would run out of water in some verifiable time: say, two years. Two years later, abundant rain would be falling on that city. But he always had an explanation, and the media always liked his story best, because it was a story about Australia eventually and inevitably running out of water, even though what appeared to be water might currently be seen to be falling out of the sky. Then an awful lot of it fell on his head at once and he was finally seen to be short of credibility. 

Some of Australia's noisier warmists — Clive Hamilton is an especially piercing example — pronounce the necessity of suspending democratic rights, so that citizens can be punished for sinning against Gaia. Flannery is less poisonous than that, but he was nevertheless running a business. The features pages loved his message about impending disaster. A real disaster, however, makes real news, and, dangerously for him, brings less servile commentators on the case, ready to quote poetry at him. He hasn't had to face that sort of thing before, but now he must, and so must all those who share his convictions, including, especially, the Greens. It was Green pressure that stymied the construction of dams. Probably, from now on, dams will come back into favour, in recognition of the fact that the climate of the sunburnt country, in all her beauty and her terror, is still the way it always was. After the First World War, the desirability of up-river flood control was already well understood. Indeed Australia pioneered such engineering, and the Tennessee Valley Authority borrowed the idea from Australia, not the other way about.  

If, from now on, dams are built instead of desalination plants — which in recent years have been proved to yield a fraction of the water at a multiple of the cost — then we will be able to tell that sanity has returned to at least one section of the vast area covered by the pretensions of the climatologists. But it's quite likely that, in general, their view will continue to be dominant. Though the idea that there is consensus on the subject among climate scientists has become harder to push now that so many other scientists have joined the discussion, the media, on the whole, would probably rather stick with a high-concept drama than report a debate. So we can't tell yet whether common logic has prevailed. But we can be sure that poetry has benefited. 

It might be said that "My Country" is not very good poetry, but it would be said in error. Dorothea Mackellar knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote it. Born in Sydney in 1885 and raised as a city dweller of fine family, she knew the inland only as a privileged young lady usually did, as a place for holidays. But on the family farms at Gunedah she took it all in, the terror along with the beauty. Indeed she might even have found the terror rather beautiful, as we Australians tend to do. At the age of 19, she wrote the poem when she was on a genteel tour of England. First published there in the Spectator in 1908, the poem is an address to the charms of the old country, telling it that although she appreciates its sylvan virtues, her soul is ruled by the new country's rough edges. The argument is carried out with a firm but subtle command of rhetoric and a sense of form unusual in a poet so young: it's one of those works that you wouldn't dream of calling mature until you found out it was precocious. Certainly, there is no reason for Australia's intellectuals of today to patronise her — she, after all, had by far the superior education. 

Leading a productive life that didn't end until 1968, she was still in action when I was standing beside my desk reciting her most celebrated lines in the hope of being given what was then called an "early mark". (I imagine it still is, but I doubt if you have to recite poetry to get one.) Her work added up to several volumes and nobody except scholars has read all of it recently. But the same is true for Wordsworth, and an awful lot of ordinary people have been remembering that chunk from the second stanza of "My Country". Some of them might go on to read the rest of the poem. They will be well rewarded. Listen to this: 

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die — 
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.  

Ideally, you might say, poetry should never be that relevant to current circumstances. If it is, it's the equivalent of a picture postcard, is it not? Yes, but there are picture postcards that help define an era. Another question: can poetry ever be at its best when evoking something so large as an entire country? Well, if Shakespeare hadn't thought so, he would never have given that speech to John of Gaunt in Richard II, Act II, Scene I, the speech that ends with "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

There might possibly be a Romanian equivalent. But there is no doubt at all that Mackellar's masterwork is in the same ball-park, if not quite in the same league. The more cerebral poets, along with the stricter critics, have always hated the very suggestion that poetry might mainly depend on the catching of a mood. But it almost always does, and patriotism is a mood too. It's a raw emotion and easily perverted, and a nation with too much of it is bound to cause trouble, but a nation entirely without it is lost indeed. This year, at a moment of real crisis, Australia discovered, or rediscovered, that it was in possession of a simple-seeming work of art that could help it to feel proud of itself, even in adversity. Pride comes from facing facts, and in Australia the facts are that the climate will starve you or wash you away, unless you build something. Banning certain categories of light-bulb will never be enough. Such measures imply the desirability of a return to some kind of benevolent natural state. There is a natural state all right, but any benevolence is our idea. The blue sky is pitiless.

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Ross Brisbane
May 14th, 2011
7:05 AM
The article is full of hyperbole typically characteristic of this man's ability with words put to thought and read here. There is not one grain of credibility in this fud approach to reality as it stands. As a Queenslander who had relatives in the flood that swept down the Toowoomba ranges I am reminded that this was indeed PREDICTED in Climate Warming Modelling. Add to its weight that this was released by the QLD Government three months earlier before it happened. I am weary of old timers who think all known records of rains and floods since occupation were not broken in the big wet that blanketed Australia for nigh on THREE months (2010/2011). I am also aware the whilst climate in our world is complex - it is not beyond reasonable science to state along the lines that over 90% of all global scientists agree across the board that something is happening. Over 150 years the trends are evident like STRONGER and more prevalent El Ninos and weaker La Ninas. This is more then reading weather and looking out your window. Just like the experience of growing up in my backyard. I am at the age of 58 - thus far my brain has not "calloused" over with faulty thought processes. I am with the younger generation on this one. Proudly I'll stand against anyone who thinks we can play the game of business as usual. I've read it all and no I don't go to blogger puerile stuff ups about the science. Of such there is a verbatim denial pattern of words repeated here by the great Clive James. Don't go there - please don't. But he did in all brilliance and in his tirade of clever up sparkles of thought. Enough said when I look at multiple lines of evidence. When I examine thousands of papers on Global Warming (even moderates) - I could place my house on it that these things will surely visit us all no matter what words we throw at this or how hard we stick out at our muck racking clever verbiage. Playing stupid in sticking our heads in sands of times long ago. I winch at it. We as mere mortal men only walk this earth on the average for 60 to 80 or so years. We think we can play God to those of the younger generations still going to kindergarten.

Power to the people?
March 29th, 2011
9:03 AM
A reply to "Mr or Ms Anonymous March 5th, 2011 6:03 AM And yet, Mr James, the world is warming." Sorry to disillusion you, temperatures which are normal fluctuations in an interglacial, plateauxed in 2000 - 2009, and are cooling now. Try to keep in mind that this "warming" is nowhere near the warming of the medieval warm period, where Vikings grew grain in "Greenland", etc. So, despite your idea that human CO2 emissions are causing continual warming, which the panicked Flannery thinks simply sit up there accumulating, CO2 has been much higher than now in ice age ( try during the pre-Cambrian, when sequestration resulted in limestones in the Cambrian. Limestone is made of calcium carbonate, Ca CO3. So, all the carbon in the rocks had to come from the atmosphere) . That is CO2 goes through a vast cycle, it does not sit around up there! I prefer to think I got lucky to land in an inter-glacial, rather than an ice age. And as stated prior, the history of climate shows we are barking up the wrong tree here. If sun observers are to be believed we are due for 20 years of cooling; but even that does not mean ice age, it could be a normal fluctuation. I'd suggest people have got too used to walking out of an air-conditioned office these days to be affronted by what is in their view insufferable heat, when really, if they'd spent the season properly acclimatising, as one would in say Darwin, Australia; then they would realise that heat is a relative thing. It's like moving from Brisbane to Melbourne; Melbournites find what a Brisbane person would find mild heat insufferably hot and stuffy as they are unused to heat. And vice versa, a Brisbanite finds Melbourne insufferably cold. Perhaps the clue is for us all to switch off our airconditioned fantasy lands and get back to real life temperatures to which we adjust over time, and then there would be less of this heat sink Gen Y generated hysteria that their comfort zones are violated and more real hard sceptical science. The trouble is this debate has been made precious and hothoused by the green minorities. Sure, we need to watch our populations, or we like any species might meet plague proportions, and this is the real issue to face; but to do hysterical things like proliferating windmills or solar panels with large carbon footprints anyway, have problems of low level sound frequency damage to humans and fail to meet baseload power even is just a stupid option. You cannot gear a power station to run at 85% load and then expect it to pick up the slack of built in 15% wind/solar power; it does not work that way; it simply means if the wind's not blowing or the sun's not shining, then the power station will load shed to create brown outs and black outs in peak demand. This may be why your power goes off and noone's telling you this. In the meantime it takes 8 years to build a coal fired power station, and noone seems to be building any more power stations in Australia, so I fail to see how they are going to build a big Australia on windmills. And this is while China's replacing its outdated coal fire power stations with new ones that have 40% less emissions; not that this matters in terms of warming and cooling anyway! In the meantime Australia's power stations are simply dateable by 30 years, they have a life of 30 years, and this government is so blindsided by the climate scientists (?) they are dropping us in a power vacuum. It takes longer and 4 times the cost to build a nuclear station. So, we are behind the 8 ball here; with ageing power technology with a shelf life, where's all our power going to come from, and Labor's not got the balls or the leadership or the foresight to provide it for us. I say again, we should have the cheapest power in the world here in a country rich in energy resources!

Power to the people?
March 29th, 2011
8:03 AM
The history of climate shows temperatures peak hundreds of years BEFORE CO2 peaks thus is not causal. CO2 has been much higher than now in ice ages. I suggest you all look up at the glowing yellow ball in the sky for your answers! As for Flannery's notion that CO2 simply sits up there forever, everyone would know that carbon has a radio active isotope carbon13 with a half life that makes it ideal for dating human history ie around 50,000years. Carbon put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (which are many millions of years old) has no carbon 13 and hence depletes the atmosphere in carbon13 relative to its more common isotope carbon12. By sampling the atmosphere it is possible to determine that the man made CO2 makes up 4% of the atmosphere which is roughly in line with the calculation that oceans contribute about 20 times that of human industry. It also implies that the CO2 in the atmosphere is sequested back into the lithosphere quite rapidly, ie. in the space of a year.

March 16th, 2011
2:03 AM
I find it incredulous that climate change is debated so long and furiously by so many poorly informed people, each of whom is determined to pursue their own agenda. If the housing industry building standards were subject to such vigorous debate, and held the building industry at a standstill whilst the debate was settled, we'd never build ever again. Our global atmosphere is monitored by atmospheric scientists with the highest of standards in their industry. They debate their standards within their journals. Who are these ameteurs who demand to be heard? Science is debated within peer reviewed journals. If you want to be heard, get a degree and convince your peers.

March 14th, 2011
5:03 AM
Clive, of course you are right. I remember growing up the late 70's early 80's in Queensland and it really rained sometimes - really hard - and other times it didn't rain for ages. Dorothea was a great poet. I can't believe how the greedy scientific community has been trying to alarm the population for so long regarding this, all in a conspiracy with the UN and member state governments to raise extra taxes and create a one world government, as well as lining their pockets with research money along the way. The whole time the poor Fossil fuel companies have had to patiently explain and communicate that the science behind the CAGW conspiracy is flawed, and that for the benefit of mankind they will just continue to struggle along financially to provide accurate information, job prospects, and better living standards to all of us. Hoorah for them! Anyone who thinks otherwise is obviously an alarmist conspiratorial kook,and should give up considering fact and evidence and just read some poems.....hey mate.

All Hail the Black Box!
March 13th, 2011
4:03 AM
<@Richard Pinder March 6th, 2011 5:03 PM @The warmist predictions for drought depend on the tropospheric temperature rising at twice the rate of the surface temperature, the computer models show this but observations don’t. > Congratulations for examining the warmists’ modelling! The chattering classes seem to be most amazed by a magician with a “computer model” without knowing what a computer model is. The model as far as i can tell appears to model heat exchange and ignores the weather component of climate. The effect of water vapour and hence the formations of clouds, low pressure and high pressure systems and the effect these have on albedo and atmospheric convection appears to have been ignored. As unscientific as I am (I have been accused of such on an ABC blogsite although I hold two postgraduate science degrees), i have noted that rainy days are cooler than sunny days. I have calculated that three extra rainy days each month is enough to lower average temperatures by half a degree celsius.

March 13th, 2011
2:03 AM
I am stunned by the levels of ignorance and arrogance displayed in the eminent Mr James' literary essay.

5th generation Aussie
March 12th, 2011
9:03 AM
Clive - While you're at it, why not take a crash course in basic chemistry rather than concern your unqualified self about climate change? There you will see that industrial CO2 is the progeny of fossil fuel emissions that are carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic. Some fossil fuel chemicals are reasonably benign and pose few problems for public and environmental health except that CO2 is irrefutably a warming gas and heats the planet. Carbon based chemicals burn to CO2. Those that miss the burning process and dump in rivers, oceans and soil also oxidize to CO2 well after they have trashed the biosphere. Please if you hate the environment, show some respect for the hundreds of thousands of victims of carbon based air pollution who have met a premature death or a slow lingering fate from fossil fuel pollutants.

John E
March 11th, 2011
9:03 PM
Thank you for this Clive. Most refreshing to find someone who appreciates the impact of well structured and focused poetry.I have six simple questions for the warmists:What percentage of the atmosphere do you think is CO2? Have you ever seen the percentage given in any media? What percentage of the CO2 is man-made? What percentage of the man-made CO2 does Australia produce? Is CO2 is a pollutant? Have you ever seen any evidence that CO2 causes a greenhouse effect? The answers can be found here.

Peter Rhodes
March 11th, 2011
6:03 PM
Climate change may or may not be happening but if it is, it has nothing to do with man.The only man made thing about climate change is the way government has seized on it to tax us all more and making objection to these taxes heresy.

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