by Ian Williams, NBC News correspondent
Everybody here seems to be talking about climate change, but when it comes to action, there are two very different responses to be seen in Australia this week. The first will be the discussions at APEC, taking place in Sydney amid intense security. The second couldn't be more different – the practical, dogged and groundbreaking work of conservationists in the country's bush.
Take APEC first. Asia Pacific leaders have started to arrive here in fortress Sydney.
The first to arrive was China's President Hu Jintao, who entered via Perth, the capital of Western Australia, and had coal on his mind. China's the most important customer for that state's big mining companies, buying up natural resources as fast as they can be dug from the ground.
President Bush came next amid the biggest security operation this country has ever seen. His harborside hotel will give him a stunning view of the Opera House – and a three-mile long, nine foot tall security fence, which the local media has dubbed the "Great Wall of Sydney," to keep protesters at bay.
For weeks, the Australian authorities have been calling this meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders the "climate change summit," hoping it might produce a concrete commitment on limiting greenhouse gases. That was always a long shot, especially now that Bush is hosting his own summit on the issue in Washington later this month and he probably won't want to be upstaged in Sydney.
|Ian Williams / NBC News
|Australians hope to restore the Scottsdale reserve to its original state and create a wildlife corridor up Eastern Australia.
Hu's side trip to Perth underscored his priorities – continuing to fuel China's booming (and hugely polluting) economy. Fast-growing India is also reluctant to sign up to anything that will restrict its growth.
And so Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a late convert to the cause of climate change action, is now trying to downplay his hopes for the meeting, talking more generally about "progress" on the issue.
Many Australians are skeptical about Howard's climate concerns. But, with an election due later this year, it's a testament to what an important political issue it has become; respondents in one recent poll named climate change as the single most important external threat facing the country.
That is a reflection of a new reality here, "an extraordinary sea change in public opinion," according to Brendan Mackey, Professor of Environmental Science at the Australian National University in Canberra.
"Our droughts, our floods, our fires have really made people understand just how vulnerable we are to extreme weather events."
We'd visited Professor Mackey in the capital, Canberra, on our way into the bush to witness part of a hugely ambitious conservation project, which has gained wide support – thanks to that new reality.
A sort of climate change corridor
"We know that species are at risk. If we are looking down the barrel of climate change, it's time to start preparing for that," Owen Whitaker told me, as he bumped along in his pick-up truck on the rough tracks of the Scottsdale reserve.
The reserve has been bought by Bush Heritage, a conservation group, using private and public donations. Whitaker is managing the former sheep farm, working to restore its 3,500 acres to its original form – planting native grass and restoring water sources.
Scottsdale is home to dozens of endangered species, as well kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and the majestic wedge-tailed eagle, which although still plentiful, are seeing their habitats eroded.
Scottsdale will be part of a network of habitats, a sort of climate change corridor, which will eventually stretch 1,500 miles down the length of eastern Australia, from the Alps in the south to the Atherton Tablelands in the north. The idea is to allow species to move with changes in the climate, to more easily migrate if any one habitat is threatened.
Bush Heritage believes it could save hundreds of species of plant and wildlife from extinction. This part of Australia is already into its sixth year of drought.
Some of the land in the corridor is national park already, other land will be bought or landowners will be encouraged to set aside some of their land as part of the corridor.
"We have to give animals some options of they are to survive," said Whitaker, for whom the ultimate aim is to enable fauna to stay one step ahead of climate change. He also knows that even if the leaders of APEC fail to come up with anything meaningful in Sydney, opinion in Australia has moved far enough to give his own project a good chance of success.
For more information, go to the Bush Heritage Web site.
See more of Ian Williams report from Scottsdale, Australia on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams on Tuesday evening. This blog entry also posted to the WorldBlog.