- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #1999
Lismore. (Photo: @stukhan)
Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the floods along the east coast of Australia as a “one-in-a-100-year event”; NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet called them a “one-in-1000-year event;” Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce went even further calling it a “one-in-3500-year event.
If they took the trouble to read the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report or even the summary for policymakers, they would know such floods or worse are the new normal.
To give the impression that there won’t be another such extreme weather event for 500, 1000, or 3500 years is dangerous and without scientific foundation. Such claims may appear to be based on ignorance and stupidity, but they are politically designed to divert attention from their failure to phase out fossil fuels or put in place transformative climate change adaptation measures.
The interval between floods is becoming shorter and the floods are becoming more severe. In the NSW town of Lismore they reached an incredible 14.4 metres, the highest flooding by far on record. During a Morrison visit angry residents who have lost all their possessions, have been left homeless, many without a source of income were in no mood for the “Scomo” stage-managed photo op there. They were demanding action and planning – two themes central to the IPCC report.
The report is the second of three parts of the IPCC’s sixth assessment. The first part was released on the 9th of August 2021. (See Guardians #1974 “No time to waste,” #1975 Australia’s role,” #1976 “Australia fails Pacific Islands.”) More than 40,000 experts from around the world including Australia took part in the drafting process.
“Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the report’s launch, pointing his finger at the G20 countries in particular. Australia is notoriously one of the worst offenders.
“The facts are undeniable,” Guterres said.
“This abdication of leadership is criminal.”
STRONGER COMMITMENTS REQUIRED
The report finds that based on current country commitments, global emissions are set to rise by almost fourteen per cent over the next decade. Whereas the science tells us they must fall by forty-five per cent by 2030.
“That spells catastrophe,” Guterres warned. “It will destroy any chance of keeping 1.5°C alive.”
Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, stated: “This report recognises the interdependence of climate, biodiversity and people and integrates natural, social and economic sciences more strongly than earlier IPCC assessments. It emphasises the urgency of immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks. Half measures are no longer an option.”
The report highlights how climate change interacts with global trends such as unsustainable use of natural resources, growing urbanisation, social inequalities, and losses and damages from extreme events, thus jeopardising future development.
“Our assessment clearly shows that tackling all these different challenges involves everyone – governments, the private sector, civil society – working together to prioritise risk reduction, as well as equity and justice, in decision-making and investment,” said IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair Debra Roberts.
“In this way, different interests, values and world views can be reconciled. By bringing together scientific and technological know-how as well as Indigenous and local knowledge, solutions will be more effective. Failure to achieve climate resilient and sustainable development will result in a sub-optimal future for people and nature,” Roberts warned.
“To avoid mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, ambitious, accelerated action is required to adapt to climate change, at the same time as making rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. So far, progress on adaptation is uneven and there are increasing gaps between action taken and what is needed to deal with the increasing risks, the new report finds. These gaps are largest among lower-income populations.”
The report warns; “Further climate change is inevitable, with the rate and magnitude largely dependent on the emission pathway.”
Chapter 11 of the report deals with the Australasian region. The picture for Australia is bleak if rapid and decisive action is not taken. The report recognises that this requires the political will and funding as well as the collective effort of all sectors of society, including the involvement of Indigenous Australians who have an important role to play.
In Australia, the earth has already warmed an alarming 1.4°C. Extreme events noted in the report include Australia’s hottest and driest year in 2019 with a record-breaking number of days over 39°C; major floods in eastern Australia (that was prior to most recent floods); three major marine heatwaves during 2016-2020; and catastrophic bushfires in southeast and eastern Australia in 2019- 2020. The most recent floods could be added to that list.
The 2019-2020 south-eastern Australia bushfires (during which Morrison went on holiday in Hawai’i) burned between 5.8 and 8.1 million acres, 114 listed threatened species lost at least half of their habitat and forty-nine lost over eighty per cent.
The impact of the bushfires on humans was costly with thirty-three people killed directly, a further 429 deaths and 3230 hospitalisations due to cardiovascular or respiratory conditions. Three thousand houses were destroyed. In dollar terms, the health bill was $1.95 billion and insured losses cost $2.3 billion. The economy took a $3.6 billion hit because of the impact on tourism, hospitality, agriculture, and forestry.
Now, following the floods, hundreds of thousands of people and small businesses face rebuilding their lives. Some are uninsured because the insurance companies refused them cover or they could not afford the high premiums. The costs will run into billions of dollars. Worse is to come!
Telling flood victims that the floods are a “natural disaster” blurs the fact that they are a result of human induced climate change.
Climate change has had an impact on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, with for example the sea-level rise and storm surges in the Torres Strait resulting in the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys, an endemic mammal species. Ocean warming and acidification are resulting in extensive coral bleaching events and loss of temperate kelp forests. Some marine species have been forced southwards.
The report states: “Key enablers for effective adaptation include shifting from reactive to anticipative planning, integration and coordination across levels of government and sectors, inclusive and collaborative institutional arrangements, government leadership, policy alignment, nationally consistent and accessible information, decision support tools, along with adaptation funding and finance and robust consistent and strategic policy commitment.”
This strong message to the governments must be heeded if Australia is to implement strong mitigation and adaptation measures, practice climate resilient development, and the authorities be able to respond rapidly and appropriately to major events such as the recent bushfires and floods.
Otherwise, many more lives will be lost, many thousands more people subjected to trauma, and ecosystems destroyed.
The Morrison government, which has ignored the IPCC report treats the extreme weather events as inevitable; continues to promote fossil fuels; blames the states for the under-funded emergency services that despite the Herculian efforts of their personnel were unable to cope with the emergency.
Morrison attempted to deflect his government’s tardiness to act and failings by saying, “No amount of support is going to measure up to what people need in a desperate situation like this”, adding, “I’m just being honest with you.” He also suggested that volunteers should be first on the scene and government intervention be complementary if required! Talk about abdication!
Adaptation measures suggested by the report for policy makers include:
- no build zones
- clean-up responses
- elevated buildings
- insurance premium incentives
- changes to storm water systems
- engineering options such as tidal barrages to address sea-level rise.
The report also pointed to some limitations to adaptation in human systems including the impact of high temperatures, lack of safe fresh water, and the inability of some low-lying coastal communities to adapt in-place.
In Australia the question of lack of safe fresh water was starkly evident during the recent drought and bushfires. The floods raise the question of whether coastal communities can or should rebuild in the same place and if and what adaptation measures would be required. Apart from misleadingly claiming the next big floods are hundreds or thousands of years away, there is deadly silence from governments on such pressing questions.
Adaptation alone will not be enough. Rapid reduction of greenhouse gases in the next ten years to keep climate change below 1.5°C is required. Even temporary overruns above 1.5°C could result in irreversible harm to humans and ecosystems, according to the report.
These are questions that can only be addressed by governments in consultation with communities and not left to market forces, corrupt planning authorities or money-grubbing developers.
As long as private profit dictates development, the necessary urgent action will not be taken.
The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) that took place in Glasgow last year decided to reconvene in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt from 7th-18th November 2022. The expectation – and necessity – is for participants to increase their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Australia has been heavily criticised internationally for its inadequate commitment of a 26–28 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030.
Every country must honour its Glasgow commitments and strengthen their climate action plans every year until they are on the path to 1.5°C.
Australia is one of the best placed countries with its vast land mass and oceans to reduce net emissions and should have the target of net zero by 2030.
Next Week: equity, social justice, and the most vulnerable.
KEY RISKS FOR AUSTRALIA
Nine key risks were identified with a level of very high or high probability:
- Loss and degradation of coral reefs and associated biodiversity and ecosystem service values in Australia due to ocean warming and marine heatwaves.
- Loss of alpine biodiversity in Australia due to less snow.
- Transition or collapse of alpine ash, snowgum woodland, pencil pine, and northern jarrah forests in southern Australia due to hotter and drier conditions with more fires.
- Loss of kelp forests in southern Australia due to ocean warming, marine heatwaves and overgrazing by climate-driven range extensions of herbivore fish and urchins.
- Loss of natural and human systems in low-lying coastal areas due to sea-level rise.
- Disruption and decline in agricultural production and increased stress in rural communities in south-western, southern and eastern mainland Australia due to hotter and drier conditions.
- Increase in heat-related mortality and morbidity for people and wildlife in Australia due to heatwaves.
- Cascading, compounding and aggregate impacts on cities, settlements, infrastructure, supply-chains and services due to wildfires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, storms and sea-level rise.
- Inability of institutions and governance systems to manage climate risks.