‘Unprecedented’ I heard a man comment to a friend as he fanned himself with a scrap piece of paper and held another above his head. But it’s not unprecedented. In fact, extreme weather events are becoming far more common than we’d like. According to insurance company Munich Re, there were 820 natural catastrophes worldwide in 2011, well above the 30 year average of 630. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg – scientists and even Prime Minister Gillard are concerned that the climate will become even more extreme and unpredictable.
But climate change and extreme weather is not simply a problem for the future. We are already experiencing devastating impacts today. In the 2009 Victorian heatwave, 374 heat related deaths were recorded, as was a 2.8 fold increase in cardiac arrests. Victoria’s fruit growers fared badly, with growers at Shepparton reporting losses of 30 to 70 percent. Train lines buckled and power lines failed. But it’s not just people and the built environment that are impacted. For example, during January and February of 2009, two heatwaves resulted in the deaths of 4,868 Grey-headed Flying-foxes from the Yarra River colony. No-one is saying that climate change alone caused that heatwave, or this one. But climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of these events.
Perhaps more frightening because of the visceral fear they create are bushfires, like those now sweeping across swathes of our sunburnt country risking lives, homes, businesses, crops, livestock, and natural habitats. In the aftermath we shake our heads, commit to improve processes, and say we hope to never see another day like it. But we will, and it will be worse if we fail to take serious action to prevent further climate change.
We are seeing some action. The fire authorities are improving warning systems and educating at-risk communities. Local governments and the health system are better prepared for heatwaves and some farmers are changing the crops they grow, to adapt to the hot and dry conditions. Politicians and bureaucrats call it ‘adaptation’. But how far can adaptation really go, and just what kind of world do we want to adapt to?
Climate science is now pointing to a future of at least 4 degrees of warming. And if you don’t accept the climate science, how about the highly conservative World Bank or the International Energy Agency who are each recommending preparation for a 4 degree and even 6 degree warmer world. 4 degrees is double the warming threshold that governments across the globe have agreed to stay below to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’. The extremes of today could well get more extreme, and more frequent.
For example, a 2008 report by the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute found that with just 3.5 degrees of warming, we could see one-in-100-year temperatures of 50 degrees in most of Australia by the end of the century. The consequences of this are almost unimaginable. Our natural environment, our infrastructure, our economy and the human body are not designed to operate in such extremes. There are some things to which we simply cannot adapt. We must take comprehensive and urgent action to prevent the worst scenarios from becoming a reality.
The Gillard government’s introduction of the carbon price was a great first step towards Australia doing its fair share on climate change, but the government’s efforts are undermined by the more than $10 billion they give annually as subsidies to polluters to keep doing what they’re doing – polluting. And the federal opposition want to scrap the carbon price altogether.
At a state level, Ted Baillieu’s government is making the climate problem worse by reducing support for solar and energy efficiency, making it harder to build a wind farm than a coal-fired power station, and supporting new brown coal developments ‘come hell or high water’. Unfortunately with climate change, they could well get both.
The threat of climate change and more extreme weather is bigger than politics. It’s about the safety of our families, the health of our children, the strength and viability of our businesses and communities.
But until we see concrete action from our leaders that indicates they understand the threat of climate change and are willing to act responsibly as decision makers, the fear of the future we know is waiting will continue to hover until it is no longer just a fear, but a reality.