Australia Debates the Floods: Climate or Coincidence?

The flood-ravaged Australian state of Queensland faces a rebuilding task of “post-war proportions,” with swathes of it still underwater. But floating on the surface of the catastrophe is a refreshed debate about climate science and a government response that some say is nothing short of ironic.

Observers note that Prime Minister Julia Gillard has decided to divert climate-mitigation money to pay for the damage, and the country’s clean energy industry is reeling from the blow to its potential finances.

State Premier Anna Bligh has described the flooding as the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. Australia’s farming and mining sectors were left in disarray. The crisis looks set to cost the nation about $30 billion, to be covered by a “flood tax.”

Scientists say that man-made global warming is one likely cause of the extreme weather that pounded the country. Given that, is there any sign that climate-skeptical politicians and pundits may be yielding even a bit on the issue?

The floods caused havoc in major cities in Australia

For his part, Friends of the Earth Australia campaigner Cam Walker sees no indication that the floods have converted any climate deniers yet. Still, Walker said, they have stirred debate and created a space for scientists and skeptics to fight it out afresh.

Old Debate Gets New Life

The skies opened on December 10. With many properties already under threat, conditions worsened when a cyclone hit northern Queensland on Christmas Day, dumping tons of rain across the state. Flood waters surged through the state capital, Brisbane, fueling panic and drenching thousands of homes.

The floods, which seemed to echo “Day After Tomorrow” disaster movie deluges in South Africa, Brazil and Pakistan, peaked in mid-January. At least 35 people died, with one victim sucked down a storm drain by the muddy water.

Australian Greens leader Bob Brown has suggested that revenue from another proposed tax, on mining, should go to the flood appeal because mining is a key global warming contributor.

“We know that climate change is due to the burning of fossil fuels, primarily coal,” Brown told ABC Online. One of Australia’s leading newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald, also argued that climate change was a key suspect in the flooding. Not surprisingly, Green Left Weekly echoed the Herald.

Climate Skeptics Unswayed

Elsewhere, media support for that view was thin in the country that routinely comes top in the OECD list of the world’s largest emitters per head of the population. In Australia’s Murdoch-run Herald Sun newspaper, columnist Andrew Bolt hit back at what he called “warming preachers” who profit from the “greenhouse house gas scare,” spawning a torrent of comments.

“Warmists,” Bolt said, have predicted “all kinds of general disasters and ‘extreme events,’ from floods to droughts, hurricanes to wild fires, and insect plagues to lousier beer (true). So if we got a flood followed by a drought, they could always say they predicted both, which is very handy.”

Warmer seas mean more evaporation and more condensation overland, noted one commenter. “When it does rain, it will rain harder,” the commenter said, adding that the science is so simple that even Bolt should understand. But many other commenters backed Bolt’s view.

The managing director of the sustainability hub Australian CleanTech, John O’Brien, cements the suspicion that the science side of the debate has failed to gather irresistible post-flood steam. As with the 2009 fires that ravaged the Melbourne area, green activists are apparently wary about jumping in to strengthen their arguments for climate action, because the flooding took lives.

“No-one wants to be seen to be taking advantage of a catastrophe,” O’Brien said.

He added that, however, many extreme weather references have been made without an “organized backlash” from skeptics who typically retort at lightning speed.

What’s more, some subtle twist-driven shifts in the debate have occurred.

PM Cancels Climate Policy to Pay for Floods

Until a year ago, Australia was in the thick of one of its longest-ever droughts, which looked semi-permanent and was widely linked with climate change. When the drought broke, a skeptical chorus of “I-told-you-so” rebuttal arose.

After the rain began and kept coming, however, the excessive wetness deflated the chorus. “And so the noise has lessened,” O’Brien said.

But, when the flooding finally fizzled out, O’Brien added, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard canceled almost all climate change mitigation measures in place to pay for flood damage reconstruction. He said it’s a “bizarre” move for a government that came to power amid severe drought, on the back of promises to address climate change.

The managing director of the clean energy fund ArkX Investment Management, Geoff Evison, echoed O’Brien.

“There is a cruel irony that to pay for the damage caused by the floods, the government plans to cut spending on renewable energy programs which will reduce the effects of climate change,” Evison said.

* David Wilson (author) contributes to SolveClimate.com

Image: NZRico, Solveclimate.com

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