Flooded with climate vitriol

The politics engulfing climate change are distracting governments from seeking out information on climate variability, despite its already devastating consequences for lives and businesses.

The news this morning across the three eastern states, particularly NSW, is bad. Very bad. Thousands of lives are affected by the floods, small businesses, including so many in agriculture, are being washed away. Some lives are already lost. The NSW budget will be pushed further into deficit, and the federal budget, so stubbornly 'on track' for a surplus, will strain to find flood relief this time – how many flood levies can we have?

At least this time there does not seem to be any fallacious claims by either side of politics that this is a global warming event. While extreme climate variability, such as we are seeing, is not unrelated to climate change, discussing both together is at best confusing. That's a debate for another day.

A major shortcoming in our national debate is that it seems only to be politicians that get the two debates mixed up – scientists don't find it very confusing at all. Separating out natural cycles that have been around for millennia from longer-term warming trends is in many regions of Australia relatively straightforward – certainly in comparison to the modelling required to make assertions about the entire globe.

Yesterday I spoke with Ian Goodwin, associate professor of climate risk at Macquarie University, about the current deluge and what, if anything, we know about these events.

The short answer is a great deal indeed – as reported a year ago (The climate for a new economy, February 2011), a region-by-region breakdown of Australia produces a number of quite predictable regions, and some others that are much harder to predict.

But how would the business community (beyond the insurance companies, who track it closely), or Australians in general, find out about this? The 'climate change' debate in Australia has become so polarised, so oversimplified, and so vitriolic that scientists like Goodwin are hesitant to speak out for fear of being instantly labelled climate change 'preachers' or 'sceptics'.

Goodwin gave me one shocking example of the disconnect between Australian politicians and the scientific community. In recent weeks he was asked to make a presentation to the NSW government on his area of expertise – not long-term climate change, but the more predictable 'variability' caused by things such as the El Nino/La Nina patterns seen in ocean temperatures.

One question he was asked was in relation to what kind of forecast he and his colleagues made at the time of the commissioning of the NSW desalination plant under the former Labor government. ‘Did he tell them that a big 'wet' was around the corner, or that it would be followed by equally damaging dry conditions that preceded it?’ The current heavy rains have led to calls for the plant at Kurnell to be shut down, with Premier O'Farrell furious that a "stupid contract" entered into by the former government means it will keep running through the current period of overflowing dams.

Goodwin's answer? "We weren't asked."

Astonishing. While the thrust and parry of the climate change 'debate' makes for good headlines, the truth is that Australian politicians are doing far too little to explain to Australians – not least those whose lives are being washed away – why their policies are taking account of two bodies of science that should be easily distinguished from one another – natural variability and long-term climate change.

Both are important, but as Malcolm Turnbull complained in the Fairfax papers over the weekend, "the denigration of science is a real threat. If scientists are mocked and derided, then soon we will have the total triumph of 'know nothing'.”

Indeed. And even when we're not deriding them, governments could at least be asking them for advice.

{{content.question}}

SMS Code Sent…

Hi {{ user.FirstName }}

Looks like you've already taken a free trial

Please enter your payment details

We have sent you a code via SMS to {{user.DayPhone}}

please enter this code below to activate your membership

If you didn't receive SMS code please

Looks you are already a member. Please enter your password to proceed

Please untick this box when using a public or shared device


Verify your mobile number to unlock a FREE trial

Please sign up for full access

Updating information

Please wait ...

  • Mastercard
  • Visa

Related Articles