For the first couple of weeks of 2011 the big story has been the weather — it well and truly pushed politics off the front pages.
But not for long. Not that the weather is likely to get all that much better, but that’s not the point. From here on in it will become inextricably entangled with politics.
Indeed, to some extent it already has. When Tony Abbott went to Queensland to inspect the flood damage, he made it clear that his main objective was not to express sympathy and compassion for the victims, but to gather political ammunition. He was there, he announced, to check up on the government’s relief measures, to make sure there was no more waste.
And then he sent his hapless Mr Fixit, Andrew Robb, into a committee stacked with irrational Nationals to mastermind the construction of lots of new dams. These, he said, would not only prevent flooding, but would also store water against future droughts and generate lots of clean electricity.
As various experts hurried to inform him, this was all nonsense: dams were hugely expensive and also environmentally damaging and if they were to be built at all it had to be for a well formulated purpose, not just as some kind of political panacea. And in any case the real problem was towns located in flood plains; how do you dam a flood plain? But Abbott was happy to have struck the first blow, and followed it with a demand that the implementation of reforms for the Murray-Darling system be postponed for at least a year because he didn’t like them.
Julia Gillard, meanwhile, stuck to the traditional script, being shocked and sorrowful and promising relief. But if she was genuinely depressed by the human suffering she saw, she must have been equally horrified at the budgetary implications. Quite apart from the billions needed to repair the damage, the loss of revenue from exports of minerals and primary produce will be horrendous; so much for getting back into surplus in 2013.
And domestic prices will rise dramatically, causing a sudden inflationary spike and the prospect of another interest rate rise. The Reserve Bank may be persuaded to discount the increase in the Consumer Price Index as a one-off event, but is it really? Floods such as these are supposed to be one in 100 years events, but in fact parts of Queensland have been hit by similar disasters three times in the past two years, and the weather bureau reckons 2011 is shaping up to be the mother of them all.
Certainly some of the problem can be blamed on an unusually intense La Nina , which is unlikely to be repeated soon — or at least it would have been unlikely under the patterns of the past century. But it just could be that the times have moved on; that, like politics, the weather has entered a new paradigm.
Which brings us inevitably to climate change. The sceptics are, of course, not convinced, pointing out that in Australia 2010 was the coldest year since 2001; true, but that’s because the past decade was the hottest on record. And in fact 2010 was hotter than the average from 1960 to 1990, suggesting that yes, there is a trend. And most importantly in 2010 the sea surface temperatures were also the hottest on record, which may or may not have contributed to the La Nina — we just don’t know.
Looking more widely, in amassing data from 189 nations and territories across the globe the World Meteorological Organisation calculated that the year to the end of October was the hottest since 1850, when they started keeping records. The northern winter may bring this down a little when the annual figures arrive in March but the experts are predicting that 2010 will still be in the top three.
Ah, yes, the northern winter: surely such freezing conditions prove that global warming is a myth? Well no, in fact they are more evidence that it is very real indeed. Global warming does not mean a slow, steady increase in temperature across the planet; it mean that as more energy is trapped in the earth’s system, the weather patterns grow more chaotic; extreme events become the norm. Thus we can look forward to an increase in the severity of droughts, floods, storms, cyclones, hurricanes and yes, even blizzards.
One possible effect of global warming might be to push the gulf stream, the northerly current that skirts the west coast of Europe, further out into the Atlantic; if that happens, freezing European winters will become standard. Prepare for an influx of Pommy boat people.
And at the same time, at least 17 countries broke their maximum temperature records in 2010 and the ice caps and glaciers continued to retreat. And, of course, greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere continued to rise. Since 1990 the increase has been 27.5% and there is no sign of any global strategy that will reverse the trend. In the past 30 years the mean global temperature has risen by just half a centigrade degree — and look at what has already happened: 2010 saw the second highest level of natural catastrophes in that 30 years and almost all of them had to do with the weather.
Even if the politicians get their act together and agree to stabilise greenhouse emissions at 450 parts per million, which is the most optimistic of all suggested scenarios but still an extremely unlikely one, global temperatures will still rise by another two centigrade degrees — four times the increase to date. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
This eventuality should give Gillard and Abbott something to contemplate as they ceaselessly circle each other in an effort to score a point for the evening news; but it probably won’t. They may, however, care to note that the problem so concerns Graeme Wood of Wotif.com that he gave $1.6 million, the largest political donation ever disclosed, to the only party he thought was serious about it — the Greens.
If science and objective evidence will not convince our leaders to act, perhaps the hope of money will.