Natural disaster: a tale of two cities

Recovery from disastrous events like floods and earthquakes involves vision and  imagination as well as hard yakka.

Christchurch’s airy new “Cardboard Cathedral”

Christchurch’s new “Cardboard Cathedral”

Hobart and Christchurch have a lot in common. They’re around the same latitude and each is the main centre on a southern island. They also tell us quite a bit about natural disasters.

Natural disasters are by definition beyond human control, but people can and do influence them. What we do after the event can make a huge difference to the ultimate outcome, but we can also play a part in causing or preventing them.

The failure to extinguish fires burning ahead of Hobart’s biggest natural disaster, the 1967 bushfires, increased the likelihood of a conflagration, though maybe not by much. But the fingerprints of human excess are all over the flash floods of 11 days ago. I’ll come back to that.

Christchurch’s biggest disaster was definitely natural. Situated close to the boundary between two major tectonic plates, it was free of major quakes for nearly a century until getting a painful reminder of its vulnerability over four years of tormenting tremors that started in 2010.

More than 14,000 tremors, including some big ones in which 186 people died, made recovery for business and residents difficult or impossible and rendered some suburbs uninhabitable by turning the ground to a black liquid. I can’t imagine a more crippling or dispiriting experience.

Many left and did not return, but those who stayed, helped by a national Natural Disaster Fund, are steadily bringing the city back from the brink.

The tremors ended nearly four years ago. While on a family visit to New Zealand this month, I was struck by the buzz of construction activity around the city centre and a general air of people up and about. Christchurch is well and truly on the move.

A disaster like this, in which most major buildings were damaged and many destroyed, is a rare opportunity for visionary thinking. It offers a strong incentive for authorities and citizens to think big, about innovations they’d like to see, what should be kept and what scrapped.

The great stone cathedral that once dominated the city’s heart now lies in ruins, encircled by weeds and a high fence. A couple of blocks away, a temporary structure designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban offers a vision of a new cathedral, and the contrast with the old couldn’t be more stark.

The “Cardboard Cathedral” features a translucent polycarbonate roof supported by large cardboard tubes, a feature wall of coloured glass, neatly-integrated shipping containers for offices, and comfortable seating for 700. The interior is bright, cheerful and informal.

With much of its built heritage reduced to rubble, the city is choosing a different persona. The new Christchurch aims to be the world’s most people-friendly city, and has employed Jan Gehl, the same Danish urban designer who advised Hobart City a few years ago, to help it get there.

Bicycle paths are everywhere, cars are being restricted in the city centre, pedestrian-only precincts are opening up and the public transit system is one that any city would be proud to own. The city aims to be among the world’s most resilient, climate-friendly cities.

Hobart, too, has such aspirations, and its administration has rightly earned accolades for innovations in transport, waste management and energy use. Which makes last month’s deluge seem like a kick in the guts.

The fact is, had the world acted decisively on scientific advice 20 years ago to make deep cuts to the use of fossil fuels, events like this would tend to be less damaging today. But faced with denial and prevarication among political leaders, that turned out to be beyond us.

In those 20 years we’ve learned a lot about how global warming affects rainfall. A warm atmosphere lifts the rate of evaporation from land and sea while being able to hold more moisture. The 1C of man-made warming to date has increased moisture in the atmosphere by about 7 per cent.

That doesn’t mean fewer droughts – many parts of Australia are likely to get more of those – but it does increase the prospect of rain falling in large dollops. A 2017 US-Swiss study found that in most places rainfall will become as much as 15 per cent more intense for every degree of warming.

Recent observations tend to support this broad, global study. In Australia, extreme rain events are increasing in both frequency and intensity. The CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology estimate that this century will see a steady rise in the number of such events for most of Australia.

The US has seen a strong upward trend in extreme rain events. The US Global Change Research Program calculated in 2014 that one-in-five-year precipitation events, measured over two days, have quadrupled since the 1960s.

The impact of these events on cities’ stormwater and sewage infrastructure is huge. Such public facilities are generally designed around averages, but extreme rain events, like earthquakes, are as sporadic and unpredictable as they are devastating.

We can’t stop either of these from happening, but we can mitigate the impact of extreme weather by cutting global carbon emissions everywhere, starting now. As it happens, that fits neatly with making cities more liveable.

Posted in Adaptation, built environment, Bureau of Meteorology, bureaucracy, business, investment, employment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, CSIRO, economic activity, extreme events, extreme events, future climate, investment, land use, leadership, local economy, local government, planning, science | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

We are a nation in denial

Experts, opinion leaders, politicians and the rest of us are in denial about Australia’s grossly inadequate climate response.

Atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, from 1958 to April 2018, in parts per million (ppm). IMAGE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, from 1958 to April 2018, in parts per million by volume (ppm). IMAGE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Next time you hear a political leader talk about progress in curbing greenhouse emissions, bear this in mind: right now, the level of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere is rising at a record rate.

Observations on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa show CO2 levels since 2010 rising at an average rate of 2.38 parts per million per year, well above the average annual rise of the previous decade, 2.04 ppm.

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the air are now at their highest level since the Pliocene, about three million years ago. Back then the world was about 2.5C warmer than today and sea levels were about 20 metres higher. That tells us a lot about where we’re heading now.

Australia and every other country that signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement claim to be on track to meet their Paris targets. The atmospheric readings tell us another story altogether.

When a person rejects scientific evidence that humans are changing Earth’s climate, we call them a climate denier. Most political and business leaders are keen to let it be known they’re not in that category – they say they believe what science says and support measures to fix the problem.

We keep hearing from governments all over the world that measures are effective and targets are being met when CO2 readings show that this isn’t true, that measures are not working. Saying that all is well when it is not is a form of denial.

Australia can lower its emissions a little through better agricultural and forestry practices, but 80 per cent of our emissions are from burning fossil fuels: oil mainly for transport, gas for generating electricity, heating and industry, and coal for electricity and steel-making.

The only way to make an impact on emissions is to target fossil fuels, and our only scheme to do that was the carbon tax – inadequate because it didn’t tackle transport emissions, but much better than nothing. In 2014 the Coalition replaced it with the Emissions Reduction Fund.

The ERF pays for lowest-cost abatement projects out of existing revenue, without a supporting tax. Far from the economy-wide scheme it replaced, it focuses on land management and farming: avoided deforestation, soil carbon, savannah burning and methane from piggeries.

Working within very narrow limits, the ERF funds low-hanging fruit, involving feel-good actions that could offend no-one, like tree-planting and waste management. It has had no impact on the big emissions sources: coal-fired power, transport and industrial processes.

Environment minister Joel Frydenberg continues to tout the scheme as an outstanding success. After the most recent ERF auction in December he asserted that “the ERF is in stark contrast to Labor’s $15.4 billion carbon tax” which he said produced “little emissions reduction”.

But comparing the ERF with the carbon tax is comparing apples with oranges. The effectiveness of the carbon tax, which dealt directly with fossil-fuel emissions, was clear from generating and market data. Not so the ERF, whose emissions claims are all but unverifiable.

One of the principal objections to the ERF among those who have seriously studied it has been a lack of scrutiny of proposals to ensure they aren’t simply seeking government funding to do things, like leaving trees in the ground, that would have been done anyway.

Back in 2016, in the ERF’s early years, an environmental economist at the Australian National University, Paul Burke, expressed concern at the amount of money awarded to low-effort land projects – sometimes many times the value of the land concerned.

In February, University of Queensland senior economist Ian MacKenzie wrote in The Conversation that the “safeguard mechanism” intended to stop big business increasing its carbon emissions was not working because the government kept increasing emission baselines.

“This underlines the importance of having a climate policy that operates throughout the economy, rather than only in certain parts of it,” wrote MacKenzie. “If heavily polluting businesses can so readily be allowed to undo the work of others, this is a recipe for disaster.”

The Turnbull government’s state of denial about climate change was thrown into stark relief a fortnight ago when it announced a $500 million Great Barrier Reef restoration package which ignored the elephant in the room: a warming Coral Sea that has killed vast areas of coral.

Less obvious but just as dangerous is the shared fantasy in political, bureaucratic and business circles across the developed world, including Australia, that nations’ Paris pledges are somehow going to do the trick, when they are orders of magnitude less than what is needed to contain climate change.

Most leading economic advisers and commentators, while protesting their full support of national and international action to reduce emissions, continue to overlook climate factors when ruminating about future prospects. That crucial omission leaves a gaping hole in all their analyses.

As long as our governments continue pretending that they’ve done what’s necessary to address carbon emissions, and as long as leaders and pundits refuse to acknowledge the climate demon, looking every which way but squarely into its face, ours is a nation in denial.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, carbon, carbon cycle, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, carbon record, carbon tax, contrarians, forests and forestry, fossil fuels, land use, leadership | Leave a comment

Beneath the waves, a disaster in the making

Marine heatwaves are devastating our coastal ecosystems like nothing we’ve ever seen.

Coral damaged by marine warming. PHOTO The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey, via ABC

Coral damaged by marine warming. PHOTO The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey, via ABC

“The great mother of life” was how Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 environmental classic Silent Spring, described the sea. Today the great mother of life is ailing, with a high fever.

Silent Spring was about bird-killing pesticides on land, but Carson’s main scientific focus was actually the sea. If she were still alive and working now she would be writing a story on a far bigger scale, about how human excess has blighted marine environments from the coast to the deep ocean.

As Carson and many others have pointed out, what happens under the sea’s surface is a mystery to land-dwelling humans. But more sophisticated surveillance tools and more focused and finely-tuned scientific observations are giving us unprecedented insights into its role in the planetary ecosystem.

For the past 20 years or more we’ve been getting some unsettling signals about warming ocean waters and how a rising level of carbon dioxide in the air affects the ocean’s acid-alkaline balance.

Now those signals are so strong as to be undeniable. Marine scientists are uncovering something approaching a horror story, with outcomes that will make no-one happy.

Nowhere on the planet is the damage to our marine environment so painfully clear than off Australia’s shores. From the Pilbara coast to the Coral Sea and south to Tasmania, ocean heatwaves have laid waste to species and habitats, leaving behind dramatically altered assemblages.

One of the world’s most persistent ocean-warming “hot spots” is off south-eastern Australia and Tasmania. Over the past 100 years or so it has been warming at a rate four times the global average.

Redmap, a national citizen science website for unusual sightings of marine species operated by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Hobart, is now regularly recording marine creatures previously found only rarely in Tasmanian waters, including tropical species like the snipefish.

Getting a new species on the end of your line can be pleasing, but there’s no pleasure to be got from what some of them are doing. For instance, warm water and an invading sea urchin are together steadily destroying Tasmania’s highly-productive giant kelp forests.

A similar scenario has been playing out off Western Australia, where a marine heatwave event in 2010 wiped out nearly half the kelp forests over more than 100 km of rocky reefs. Recovery has been very patchy, with most of the cold-water kelp being displaced by warm-water seaweed.

In the summer of 2015-16 tropical Australian seas from the North-West Shelf to the Coral Sea warmed by over 2C for nearly four months – the most intense marine heatwave in the region in nearly 40 years of records.

The devastating impact of that event and a weaker warming the following summer is still being felt. The booming tourist trade across tropical Australia, but especially in north-east Queensland, is suddenly feeling threatened by unprecedented coral bleaching caused by warm waters.

A study published in the science journal Nature in April found that the event had permanently transformed the ecology of the reef. Most tellingly, it was severe enough to “cook” some northern Reef corals, which will never recover.

Another bleaching event in 2016-17 saw yet more severe bleaching in the Cairns-Townsville region and as far south as the waters off Mackay. That spells more trouble ahead for the tourism trade.

While that poses a big problem for the Queensland and Australian economies, from an ecological perspective that’s the least of our worries. A Nature Communications paper published last month shows that marine heatwaves are becoming both more frequent and more extreme.

The study, led by Eric Oliver of Canada’s Dalhousie University, looked at ocean surface temperature records dating back to 1925. It found that since then, the average number of marine heatwave days in a year has increased by 54 per cent, and that the trend has accelerated since 1982.

That finding, said Oliver, means that a marine ecosystem which 90 years ago would average 30 days of extreme heat each year is now experiencing around 45 heatwave days per year.

Senior Tasmanian marine biologist Alistair Hobday points out that such exposure to heatwave conditions causes extensive damage to ecosystems, with impacts on both biodiversity and economic activities including fisheries and aquaculture.

It’s the speed of change that has Hobday and his colleagues worried. He is surprised and dismayed that changes which just 10 years ago scientists thought we would take the best part of a century to reach are already being observed.

The Turnbull government’s fix for the Great Barrier Reef, addressing agricultural run-off and developing resilient corals, is a side issue, and tour operators on the Reef and elsewhere should understand that.

We have a full-blown crisis on our hands which can only be stopped at its source, which means an all-out, sustained effort to eliminate fossil-fuel emissions, here and everywhere.

Posted in Australian politics, biodiversity, biological resources, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, economic threat from climate, extreme events, fossil fuels, future climate, marine organisms, marine sciences, oceanography, science | Leave a comment