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Monday, January 10, 2011

Australia’s summer deluge is a Christmas parable for our climate-troubled times

Massive floods besetting the north-eastern Australian state of Queensland over the long, languid Christmas-New Year holiday season of a summer Down Under are a parable for our climate troubled times.

The morality story here is all about how we’ll live in a world too full of people when climatic stability – never something to be taken for granted given natural variability over years and decades – is threatening to break down badly this century.

You'll find great up-to-date coverage of these floods by Australia's national broadcaster the ABC at

It is understandable that all the attention now is focused on the misery of flood victims, and getting them safeguarded or rescued, aided by governments and supported by community charity. This blog post, however, anticipates the difficult, mature post-flood conversation that Queenslanders, Australians and the world need to have.

If more and more people and property are exposed to more and more extreme weather events - in a world where average temperatures are hotter, sea levels are rising and disaster recovery times are being reduced – there will be very serious implications. What should responsible governments be doing? How might businesses respond? When will the pressures of catastrophic destruction becoming more common start to tear communities, even whole nations apart?

Recent dinner guests, even hardened journalists, have accused me of being uncharitable to the flood victims. My Christmas seasonally-inappropriate argument is that if people build their homes and commercial premises on river floodplains or low-lying coastal zones or in bushfire-prone areas, or if they choose to farm on the driest inhabited continent on the planet with a long history of weather extremes, then they will experience disasters like floods, fires, storm surges and drought.

This is not a risk. It is a certainty waiting for a ‘when’. Insurance companies know this, which is why flood insurance for example normally is either not available or is ruinously expensive for properties in known flood zones. Modern developed economies rely hugely on the availability of insurance to spread the risk of catastrophic loss. Without it, banks won’t lend, people won’t invest and economic growth as we know it stalls or never starts.

I don’t make these arguments lightly or from ignorance of the ‘reality’ in which the affected people live. While I’ve been living in Sydney for over two decades, my roots are in ground zero for the Queensland floods. My childhood memories of a cattle property west of Bundaberg are of the brutal 1967 drought, when grasslands became bare dirt and we tried to save stock by feeding them sawdust and cane trash sprayed with molasses; of the wet 1970s when we seemed to spend more time flooded-in than dry for a whole decade; and of swollen rivers rolling huge dead tree trunks end-over-end like they were kindling wood. 

If climate change means more extreme weather events – and on this both the scientific modeling and observable evidence are clear, with previously 1-in-100-year flood and storm and fire events becoming more common – then logic says insurance will either be unavailable or unaffordable. That is an unpalatable (and inconvenient) truth.

If insurance isn’t available, then people and businesses either bear the weight of catastrophic loss themselves, or they get bailed out by government aid and community charity. And there’s no guarantee that the disaster, whatever it is, won’t repeat itself; because while lightning may not strike twice, floods for example can and do - as some stricken Queensland communities are learning right now.

At some point too many disasters mean whole areas become uninhabitable, at least in the context of a modern developed economy, because with the best will in the world there has to be an end to individual resilience, government aid and community charity. This is the pointy end of the parable in the Queensland floods. We might be able to save a house or even a whole street or suburb from flooding with sandbags, but we can’t sandbag our entire civilisation.

On recent days and weeks, the visually impressive Queensland floods have been seen around the world, on the news and via social media. Scientists are being ultra correct in not blaming climate change per se for this spectacular version of what we’ve always known as the ‘wet season’, even if the monsoons had gone AWOL for a couple of decades.

Now that Spanish-named girl La Niña has brought them back. Gidday chica bonita, we like you more than that sinister drought-bearing El Niño bloke.

These floods are a potent reminder of what science has been telling us for well over a decade now, that inexorable global warming almost certainly caused by human activities will lead to more extreme weather events.

For Australia, mere business as usual means a steady menu of droughts, floods, bushfires, cyclones and hail storms, although we’re generally spared northern hemisphere specials like blizzards and tornadoes. We don’t muck around with weather-related disasters down here! Along with the world’s deadliest snakes and creepy crawlies galore, when the weather goes bad things often get extremely nasty.    

As poet Dorothea Mackellar wrote so evocatively, Australia is a land of ‘droughts and flooding rains’ filled with ‘beauty and terror’. For the past decade we’ve had the drought, a severe one for nature and farmers alike, and now the heavens have opened up to deliver the remedy. There’s terror in the floods, but beauty in the amazing greening of Mackellar’s much-loved ‘wide brown land’, the filling of its streams and lakes and inland sea, and the resurgence of animal life and farm prosperity that comes after the deluge.

We humans, however, live more in the agony of the moment than the benefit for the longer term (I know, I just couldn’t work ecstasy in to the line). With the latest floods, nature’s capacity for violence is on show. People are suffering everything from minor inconvenience - capsicum prices are tipped to double or worse - to devastating financial and emotional loss, and already the conservative political lobby is trumpeting the need to fight back against the elements: dam more rivers, build more bridges and tame this terrible environment.

Also on show is the wonderful generosity of spirit of Australians as they, like many peoples around the world, rally together in times of hardship for their fellow citizens and donate to the flood appeals popping up like the green shoots after the rains. Some months ago it was the Pakistan floods, although Australians were not always so charitable there. Less than two years ago it was bushfire appeals after the terrible blazes that killed hundreds of people.

Appeals and government payouts are great. The media love them. But how sustainable are they if the disasters at home and abroad keep on getting worse and more frequent? At what point do we move to the centre of the political policy debates with our questions about when we should act decisively on climate change, how much we should be prepared to spend, and what the cost will be if we fail to act?

Australians won’t suffer alone in a world where dangerous climate change becomes irreversible through our own inaction. But it will suffer terribly.  

Sigh (read long sigh) … my holidays are over and I have to go back to work this morning. In Aussie media terms, this is still ‘the silly season’, and a good old rapid-action extreme weather event is a godsend. The deluge is something to fill up the news bulletins and newspapers, and blogs too, especially when the cricket is going against Australia and the beach conditions are less than sun-filled days of surfing and tanning.

Is it really too much to hope that we could start to ask and try to answer the big questions for our nation and the world?

As I get close to finishing this post the midnight news on my Australian Broadcasting Corporation local news channel leads with a story of Queensland bracing itself for more flooding, with new heavy rains in the heavily-populated south-east of the state, including the capital city of Brisbane. I was at boarding school in Brisbane the last time it flooded badly in 1974 and got to miss a whole week at the start of term. My sister’s flat in the suburb of Auchenflower was inundated and my wife’s family home in riverside Fairfield was destroyed with all of their belongings.

I don’t think building more dams will fix the real problems we face in 2011 and beyond, and I’m damn sure that more coal mines and coal-fired power stations aren’t the solution. When these floods recede, as they always do, I hope we’ll have the real conversation.   

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!

- Extract from My Country by Dorothea Mackellar

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