Living in the eye of a climate storm

A couple of years ago, newspaper cartoonist Matt Golding depicted PM Scott Morrison in front of a smoke-obscured parliament house asking a handful of people, “Why should we take the lead in acting on climate change?” Their response: “Because we’re hosting it.”

If that was true then, it’s gospel now. Like Black Summer, last week’s disastrous floods were orders of magnitude worse than anything ever known in Australia. Multiple centres including major cities reported the best part of a year’s rain in a single day.

The Lismore-Ballina flood – two metres above the previous record – was a 1000-year event, said NSW premier Dominic Perrottet. Last week we heard of flood levies and bridges built to a level to withstand 100-year floods that had gone under twice within two years. Welcome to the mind-bending world of man-made climate change.

Of all the disastrous consequences of climate change, river flooding is possibly the least disastrous. The loss of homes and possessions, public infrastructure, crops and livestock is really bad, but apart from the deadly impact of heat itself the gravest threat to our future is not wetting but drying, and a consequent inability to feed ourselves. 

But for the human victims of last week’s flooding, this is irrelevant. The inundation of whole towns, along with the uneasy sense that given recent history another even worse event may not be far away, is having a devastating impact on the morale of individual people, families, neighbourhoods and whole regions. 

It was ironic that the big flood news (plus the Ukraine war) deflected media attention from last week’s IPCC scientific report on global climate impacts and vulnerabilities. Yet as UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres pointed out, the report’s 3675 pages are effectively “an atlas of human suffering” and a damning indictment of a “criminal” abdication of leadership. 

The report has Australia in the topmost rank of places where climate has changed most dramatically, and where future impacts will be most keenly felt. There is a sense of desperation in its explanations of cascading and compounding risks and impacts, describing developing situations that are taking us beyond the managing capacity of any human agency, no matter how well resourced.

The report points to consequences of urban flooding that are especially hard on poorer households including mental ill-health, domestic violence, bad drinking water, undetected chronic disease and, of course, death. Such human impacts are also visible as a result of Black Summer and its preceding drought, as they are in countless other events such as the heatwave calculated to have killed over 1000 in western North America last summer. 

In addition to planning future flood protection, governments could choose to analyse risk and plan for housing, land tenure, transport and services to reduce vulnerability of people and communities, applying such planning standards in every Australian jurisdiction.

But they haven’t. Those who govern us appear almost transfixed by the emergencies – climate, health, now military – falling on us thick and fast, powerless to mitigate the devastation, let alone get their heads around dealing with more to come.

If the past three calamitous years taught us anything, it has to be be that we as a country must put every penny we can into shoring up defences against climate change. The Coalition has a $4.8 billion Emergency Response Fund, but we need something many orders of magnitude larger, right at the heart of government, which can be drawn on as needed.

A decade ago Australia had something like this in the form of a price on carbon (call it a tax if you will) intended to lower emissions, help pay for things like flood mitigation and set Australia up for a post-carbon future. Tony Abbott’s government, with the help of coal magnate Clive Palmer, is still the only one in the world to abolish such a measure. 

Back then you would hear climate action advocates talk about wanting their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to inherit a world safe from climate disaster, as if consequences were somewhere round the end of this century. But they’re right here, right now, and net-zero carbon by 2050, our only remotely ambitious emissions target, is not enough.

People of the eastern seaboard and the Murray-Darling basin who endured Black Summer and the horror drought that led into it – and now voters of Brisbane and surrounds, the Northern Rivers, the Hunter valley and the Sydney region – will surely agree: we have to do better than this.

From this election onward, we should all be resolved to stop arguing over the need to act, and simply act, as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.

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