CANBERRA Australia's major rivers are shrinking and farms are gripped by drought as scientists warn of climate change, but that has not convinced some skeptical politicians to back carbon-trade laws.
In a pointer to the difficulty of striking a pact to curb global greenhouse gas emissions at climate talks in Copenhagen, Australia's parliament is at an impasse over a scheme to slash carbon emissions blamed for global warming.
The main conservative opposition is split over whether to support the laws in an obstructive upper house of parliament, with its third-most senior member and high-profile Senate leader Nick Minchin convinced climate change is all a conspiracy.
"For the extreme left it has provided the opportunity to do what they've always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialize the Western world," Minchin recently told Australian television.
"The collapse of communism was a disaster for the left. They embraced environmentalism as their new religion," Minchin said, sparking a blizzard of controversy.
Minchin's climate skeptic views are being echoed in other countries, like the United States, as they seek to reach agreement on climate policy ahead of Copenhagen next week.
Australia is already witnessing the effects of climate change, scientists say, with farmlands in the grip of a decades-long drought, drying riverbeds, record heatwaves and warnings of catastrophic bushfires as well as freak flash flooding in the north.
Large icebergs were also sighted recently near shipping lanes close to nearby New Zealand, much further north than usual.
AIMING TOO LOW
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose government holds the rotating European Union presidency, warned in China on Monday that countries were not aiming high enough to reduce carbon emissions at Copenhagen.
Britain's Gordon Brown has put world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, on notice that they "cannot afford to fail" in Denmark, which British climate expert Nicholas Stern has called the "most important international gathering of our time."
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hopes to land in Copenhagen after sealing passage of controversial laws setting up the largest carbon trading platform outside Europe.
But Rudd's carbon trade laws look doomed with climate skeptics like Minchin, who comes from a state where rivers are drying up, likely to reject or delay the laws.
A leading Nielsen opinion poll on Monday showed 66 percent of Australians back the introduction of an emissions trading scheme. Other surveys have shown support as high as 80 percent.
Rudd's problem, as opponents realize, is that many voters are also wary or even outright opposed to an emissions scheme if it comes at a high personal cost. Fresh elections are due late next year and the emissions row could yet yield a snap poll.
"Australia is not going to do anything that changes the course or nature of the temperature of the globe," said rural-based Senator Barnaby Joyce, who has become something of a maverick "pin-up" for climate skeptics.
"It's a gesture that will be reflected in a massive tax delivered to you from every corner of your house, from every power point, by the price of food, it will be in your fridge as it's going through the middle of the night," Joyce said.
Despite Copenhagen looming, climate fears have also failed to dent Australian consumption, with figures on Monday showing Australians are building the world's largest homes on average and filling them with air conditioning and appliances.
That can only add weight to the arguments of emerging giants like India and China in Copenhagen that they should not curtail economic growth ambitions over climate change, while countries like Australia remain on a path of comfortable consumption.
(Editing by Michael Perry)