THE Federal Government has warned that Australian icons such as the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park, the Tasmanian wilderness, Carlton Gardens and the Sydney Opera House could be damaged irreparably if the Coalition fails to support Labor's emissions trading scheme.
Less than two weeks before a Senate vote on the Government's climate change legislation, a government report to be released today has found Australia's 17 world heritage sites could be devastated by lower rainfall, rising sea levels, higher sea and land temperatures, ocean acidification and extreme weather events.
It warns that the Opera House, which is 3.5 metres above sea level, could be swamped by high tides. Eighty per cent of Kakadu's freshwater wetlands could be lost and the Great Barrier Reef would face "catastrophic" coral bleaching by 2050.
A senior Labor source said the report would mark the beginning of a campaign to pressure Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull on climate change and emissions trading.
"We'll be pulling every policy lever and using every means at our disposal to argue a case to protect jobs and protect the environment by tackling climate change," the source said.
The Coalition is deeply divided over the issue of climate change. Mr Turnbull has endorsed Labor's target to cut emissions by up to 25 per cent by 2020 but, facing significant disunity in his ranks, he is refusing to clarify whether his party will support Labor's legislation until after the US position is finalised and Copenhagen global climate talks are concluded in December.
The report, prepared by the Australian National University for the Department of Environment, said that with continued warming there would be "substantial reductions" in rainforests, declines in the abundance of native flora and fauna and potential damage to architecture.
It said temperatures in Australia were likely to rise by up to 5 degrees by 2070 under a high emissions scenario, with a 10 per cent fall in average rainfall, lower stream flows, worsening water security and quality and more cyclones. By 2030, sea levels were likely to rise by about 17 centimetres.
"Higher sea and land temperatures, sea level rise and ocean acidification, and prolonged drought pose a significant threat to marine and terrestrial biodiversity across Australia's World Heritage estate," the report concludes.
"Climate change effects are likely to exacerbate the current problems associated with human-induced changes to the landscape through deforestation, fire, urban expansion, water extraction and tourism, as well as … the spread of exotic pests and diseases."
Climate Change Minister Penny Wong had to defend the Government's emissions trading legislation at the ALP's national conference yesterday.
In one of the rowdier sessions during the three-day talkfest, Senator Wong's speech was interrupted by Labor protesters angered by concessions being offered to the coal industry, but it also drew strong and vocal support from members of the audience.
Senator Wong said: "We need to act now to protect Australia's unique environment, especially these World Heritage sites that support so many Australian workers in the tourism and hospitality industry.'' She said efforts to reduce carbon pollution were essential to securing Australia's prosperity.
"In 11 days, the Parliament will vote on legislation to start reducing carbon pollution for the first time ever.''
The government report singled out Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, warning they could face deterioration from higher temperatures and drought. But it said the World Heritage-listed location would be among the least affected of the 17 Australian sites. Environment Minister Peter Garrett said it was the first comprehensive report by any country into the impacts of climate change on all its World Heritage properties.