CANBERRA Australia warned on Thursday that its World Heritage-listed outback Kakadu wetland, made famous in the "Crocodile Dundee" films, was at severe risk from climate change, as the government faced a growing battle to introduce a carbon tax.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard's one-seat majority government is embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious climate policy debate, pitching mining magnates against environment activists including Oscar winning Australian actress Cate Blanchett.
Gillard, struggling to sell her plan to cut greenhouse emissions through a carbon tax and emissions trading, said without global action one of Australia's major tourist areas, Kakadu, would eventually be devastated by rising seas.
"Salt water will get into the fresh water in Kakadu, changing the ecology, being a real risk for the native animals that live there, being a real risk for the indigenous communities that still rely on this ecosystem for their bush tucker," Gillard said, referring to native foods.
Gillard's Labor plans to introduce a carbon tax on 1,000 of the country's biggest polluters in 2012, transitioning to emissions trading three to five years after that.
But Gillard needs to convince a handful of Green and independent MPs, who hold the balance of power, to back the scheme, and has yet to convinced voters to support the policy.
Opinion polls say some 60 percent of voters oppose a carbon tax, with only 30 percent in favor. Gillard's failure to deliver her climate policy would be seriously damaging to her and her Labor party, with elections due until 2013.
Mining firms warned this week that the planned carbon pollution cutting scheme would slash investment, output and jobs, demanding the minority government enter talks to recast its ideas.
In a TV campaign this week, Blanchett called on Australians to finally act against climate change, while opposition leader Tony Abbott has ratcheted up his attacks on the policy, visiting factories and warning of grocery price rises and job losses.
Without strong world climate action Australia, the driest inhabited continent, would suffer some of the worst consequences from rising global temperatures, Gillard said.
The Kakadu Park, a crocodile-infested area near the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory, covers an area half the size of Switzerland and is one of very few places World Heritage listed for both cultural and natural values.
A government-commissioned report modeled the impacts of sea level rise on Kakadu's South Alligator River system for 2030 and 2070, and found rising sea and storm tide levels would carry the sea into fragile freshwater habitats.
Climate scientists have previously warned the country's Great Barrier Reef won't be spared either, its coral a victim of rising ocean acidity from higher carbon dioxide levels from burning fossil fuels and felling forests [ID:nL3E7GN09J]
"The landscapes and native wildlife we know and love will inevitably change. Our challenge is to minimize the dangers, the impacts and the risks," Gillard said.
The report was released as a key committee of lawmakers, including Greens and independents backing Gillard's Labor against a conservative opposition hoping to force fresh elections, try to agree on carbon price details.
The committee was looking at a price of between A$18 and A$23 ($19.10-$24.40) per tonne, the Australian newspaper said on Thursday, without naming sources.
A carbon price of A$18 to A$23 a tonne would collect between A$8 billion and A$10bn a year and would be between the A$26 recommendation by the government's main climate policy adviser and calls by the mining industry for a price of A$10 per tonne.
The government, wary of its precarious support and recent polls putting conservatives ahead, has promised compensation for households, as well as trade-exposed industries, and said it would unveil full details of its plans in July.
The conservatives opposition says it would repeal a carbon tax if elected, as well as any income tax cuts linked to the scheme.
(Editing by Ed Davies)