The branches have been removed, the leaves swept away and the roofs patched up, but the insurance claims keep rolling in. The storm that hit Perth and surrounding areas on Monday 22 March was no regular storm.
As the Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported, the dark clouds that approached from the north pelted Perth with the largest hailstones ever recorded in the city (up to 6 centimetres in diameter), dumping 23 millimetres of rain in just 10 minutes as 120 kilometre-per-hour winds blew.
The initial repair bill from flooding, broken windows and structural damage to buildings and cars is estimated to be between $100 and $120 million. Fifteen schools were too damaged to open the next day, while at the University of Western Australia, where the damage has been estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, the Education, Fine Arts and Architecture Library will be closed for three months after extensive flooding destroyed a significant portion of its valuable collection.
Within 24 hours the Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett declared the storm a natural disaster. The Premier’s words were oddly reassuring. When he stated that the storm "was an extreme and very unusual, freakish event for Perth", the subtext was clear: this is unlikely to happen again.
But how correct is that? Perth residents have just endured the hottest and driest summer on record. Even the most cautious climate change models predict more "freakish" weather in the future. The Garnaut report (pdf), for example, warns that without mitigating action, climate change poses "a significant risk to coastal buildings from storm events and sea-level rise, leading to localised flooding and extreme wind damage". If Garnaut’s predictions are correct, it’s reasonable to expect more and more extreme weather events. While it seems impossible at the moment to confidently link individual weather events to climate change, it does seem likely that we’ll need to recalibrate our understanding of what qualifies as a meteorological freakshow to factor in new climate realities.
As the clean-up operations got underway, the Barnett Government focused on responding to this particular emergency. However, on the wider issue of climate change the Government has put its head in the sand. Apparently the Government believes that "extreme and freakish" events don’t call for reconsideration of climate policy.
As the leader of his party, Barnett’s failure to develop a detailed climate policy was in evidence during the 2008 election campaign (as David Ritter discussed in newmatilda.com at the time). The Libs’ climate policy statement barely ran to two pages and failed to even mention the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A visit to the Premier’s website in search of a meaningful public statement on climate change is an unfulfilling exercise. Barnett’s statement to Parliament outlining his government’s agenda in March 2009 claimed that "the protection of our environment for future generations is a significant responsibility and one that we take seriously". Little detail, however, was provided as to the kinds of policies the state would implement to address the challenge of climate change.
In a statement in February the Premier did announce $12.5 million funding for a demonstration wave power station near Garden Island and made general promises that his government would focus increasingly on environmental issues, with some specific emphasis on national parks and World Heritage areas. Much more of this statement is devoted to boosting the mining sector in the state.
Should we be expecting much more from a premier who is stuck in a paradigm of balancing economic development and environmental protection as if the two tasks are entirely unrelated? The WA Liberal Party website is currently spruiking Tony Abbott’s target-free "direct action" plan to reduce emissions.
The reality is that Barnett, a savvy politician, strategically appeals to notions of collective community spirit. The Premier praised those who assisted in the aftermath of bushfires that hit the community of Toodyay last December. Similarly, he (rightly) thanked those who had helped in the aftermath of the storm, telling the people of Perth that "this incident is going to cost tens of millions of dollars to repair buildings [and]restore power lines but that’s what we do — that’s what government is for …".
With a bit of team spirit and good leadership, all would return to normal. When it has come to curbing emissions, however, there haven’t been any comparable appeals to the community and Barnett’s commitment of government resources has been, at best, dangerously equivocal.
The supreme irony of the WA Government’s business-as-usual approach is, of course, that the Garnaut report specifically warns of the threat posed by climate change to the state’s prosperity — something which Barnett is apparently concerned with above all else. Regardless of what one makes of the benefits of the state’s resource-driven boom, Garnaut predicts that mining activity in the West will be cut back as water costs soar. But this may be the least of the state’s worries. If responsible emissions reduction policy is not put in place, the division between natural and human induced disasters will become as meaningless as Barnett’s approach of balancing environmental concerns against those of industry.
If Barnett believes that it is the role of government to lead in disaster recovery, we can only hope that he will show leadership in preventing future catastrophe. The long-range weather forecast is looking alarmingly unnatural. When exactly will we find out what the emissions reduction target is for the mining state? And how on earth will it be achieved?
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