Floods and extreme weather send message on climate

This summer has seen extreme weather events across Australia. Queensland’s devastating floods were followed closely by Cyclone Yasi. Widespread flooding also occurred in Victoria, while the region around Perth has suffered some of the most devastating bushfires in its history.

What we have been experiencing is exactly what climate scientists predicted would result from climate change.

Yet in the aftermath of the Queensland floods anyone who dared to mention this faced a backlash. Bob Brown came in for particular attack, after he linked climate change to the extreme flooding and, quite reasonably, called for big polluters like the coal industry who are causing climate change to be taxed to help pay for reconstruction.

Conservative commentator Gerard Henderson chastised Brown by claiming that equally serious floods have happened in the past—and were therefore nothing new. 

Queensland has always been prone to flooding, but there is strong evidence climate change is making these events more severe. The year 2010 was Queensland’s wettest on record, with rainfall almost three times the average.

The main factor influencing the flooding in Queensland is the current La Nina ocean-atmospheric phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. A La Nina event increases sea-surface temperatures off Australia. These warmer waters are associated with tropical cyclones and flooding, as they lead to more evaporation and therefore, higher rainfall.

Dr David Jones, head of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology, has stated that, “The general view is that this is one of the strongest La Nina we have had in modern history where we have data going back to the early 1900s. The ocean temperatures last year were the highest on record and we know the oceans around Australia are warming quite quickly and that’s the fuel for the storms and rain events.”

This is something that the Queensland and federal governments are well aware of. Numerous reports on the affects of climate change on Queensland have predicted an increase in extreme rainfall.

A 2006 report produced by the CSIRO for the Queensland government warned of, “increases in both average and extreme temperatures across the state as well as increases in extreme rainfall events”. 
Although climate scientists warn against claiming that individual weather events are the product of climate change, the scientific evidence all points to the fact that climate change contributed to the severity of the floods.

At the very least they are a taste of what we can expect more of in the future. 

Wrong way on climate policy
All this reinforces the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. But in a demonstration of the Gillard government’s refusal to take the threat seriously, $495 million of the budget cuts to pay for flood reconstruction came from climate programs. They have now restored $100 million of that after making a deal with The Greens over the flood levy. But the Solar Flagships program, set up to provide grants to build large scale solar, is still $190 million poorer.

But the federal government will not make polluting companies pay for their contribution to climate change. They are not even going to touch the $9 billion of annual government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry! 

Instead, Australian governments are proposing a massive expansion of coal power, with 12 new power stations on the cards across Australia. The NSW government has offered coal discounted at around 40 per cent to private-sector buyers of the state’s power assets. 

At the federal level the Gillard government is promising to legislate for a price on carbon by the end of this year. This is shaping up to be another “worse than nothing” policy in the vein of Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). 

Neither an emissions trading scheme nor a carbon tax will achieve the emissions reductions necessary to tackle climate change. They both allow polluting companies to continue their operations while passing on increased costs to consumers. They have failed overseas and they will fail here.

Many people in the climate movement support a price on carbon, while acknowledging that other programs will be required for effective action on climate change. Yet Gillard made it clear in her speech announcing the cuts to solar programs that she views a price on carbon as a panacea—so that other climate programs are unnecessary. This emphasises the need for the climate movement to oppose the carbon price, if we want to win policies that will actually work, like direct government investment in renewable energy.

Unless we act swiftly to drastically cut emissions we will experience more natural disasters like the recent floods. We need to build a movement that can challenge the might of the fossil fuel industry and force the government into action that will achieve dramatic reductions in greenhouse emissions.

By Ben Dharmendra


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