In Parliament today, a teary Julia Gillard expressed her "profound regret" at the impact of natural disasters across Australia this summer. In a stirring speech to the House, Gillard recited a litany of floods, cyclones and bushfires and predicted that this summer would be recalled for this proliferation of natural disasters and for the responses of Australians to those disasters.
It will take years to gauge the impact of these disasters — and longer perhaps to gauge the significance of Gillard’s decision to cut carbon abatement programs in the name of rebuilding after the Queensland floods. Question is, with extreme weather events like those that have turned this summer upside down predicted to occur more and more frequently in the future, will the Gillard Government continue to focus solely on short-term disaster repair or address long term climate instability?
The floods in Queensland, the bushfires in Western Australia, the cyclones on the east coast, a heat wave in Sydney all fall into the category of "extreme weather events". We can’t say with any certainty that any one natural disaster is caused by climate change, but the scientific consensus we can expect more extreme weather events down the track.
Gillard, however, seems intent on mopping up the damage rather than fixing the leak itself. On 27 January, the PM addressed the press in Canberra with a bold statement about the floods: "I see what needs to be done and I will do it".
A more accurate statement would be "I see what needs to be done but I will only do what I absolutely have to do, to deal with the immediate calamities at hand."
Gillard announced that the Government will be "abolishing, deferring and capping access to a number of carbon abatement programs" — but still remains committed to a carbon price. The latter part of this statement is excellent news. A price on pollution is critical to transitioning to a sustainable society and essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions which are directly connected to global warming.
A unilateral approach is not sufficient.
A price on pollution without investment in renewable technologies will leave Australia in a mess. The sort of mess that arises when you begin the move away from coal but haven’t developed the infrastructure to meet the country’s energy needs. Considering the warnings of more extreme weather events in the future issued by Global Change Prof Peter Grace from Queensland University of Technology, and other experts like University of Melbourne meterologist David Karoly; it would seem prudent to not only deal with floods and cyclones and bushfires today, but to also prepare Australia for such events in the future.
Natural disasters leave massive economic loss in their wake. Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser summed up the economic uncertainty when he said that while it is not possible to put a price on the damage caused by the flood, it is certain that the figure will "start with a ‘b’ and not an ‘m’".
The decision to cut low-pollution schemes will also have economic consequences. Who will foot that bill down the track? And how will we deal with extreme weather events of similar magnitude if they become more frequent?
This last is of particular significance in the wake of Cyclone Yasi. It’s a legitimate question: will Australians face a levy each time an extreme weather event occurs? Or are plans being laid to mitigate and prevent the likelihood of those disasters occurring in the first place? At the moment, not enough attention is being paid to safeguarding Australia’s future — by carbon abatement programs and investment in renewables as well as by putting a price on carbon.
Gillard has talked extensively about the need for the government to have a long term economic focus and transition the budget into surplus. Surely future natural disasters which will potentially cause economic loss to the tune of figures starting with a "b" and not an "m" is not in keeping with a sound and prudent economic policy.
In the face of the drought and fires in Western Australia, floods in Queensland, Victoria and NSW and Cyclone Yasi there are two options available for governments.
The first is to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale and tragedy of the devastation that nature can reap upon a country. Considering the human toll and damage also caused by natural disasters in Brazil, and in Pakistan and Russia last year, it would be easy to see the current situation as a war between man and nature that is out of our control. That is, to see the role of the government as to simply help repair and rebuild after each and every disaster. This flies in the face of scientific evidence and eliminates any possibility of long term economic security.
The second option is to recognise that the recent disasters are warning that we are living in a global society that is consuming and emitting more than the earth’s atmosphere can tolerate — and begin the transition to a society that exists in cooperation rather than competition with the unlimited and renewable natural resources that are available to us. Following this logic, governments have a responsibility to roll out a long term plan to transition to renewable energy sources, and in the name of economic and social stability the public would have a big stake in ensuring that the government fulfilled this duty.
Right now, we need to mop up the mess left by floods, bushfires and cyclones. And when we’re done with that, let’s start thinking about longer term measures. In Parliament today, Gillard proposed that when we write a history of the summer of 2011, it should record more than loss and grief and should celebrate the courage and heroism of Australians. It would be great to add another chapter to that story: the willingness of Australian legislators finally to tackle responsible climate policy.