As the floods in Queensland and Victoria gushed through homes, businesses and streets leaving tragedy behind, all of that murky water and grime sent moral compasses and other measures of taste and decency spinning and cavorting in all directions.

What outrages you, or anyone else, depends on which way your moral, political or ideological compass tends to point. Talking about building dams or the role of climate change while people are suffering could enrage some people, while for others it could simply drift by unnoticed.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown’s assertion that the floods in Queensland were caused in part by the coal industry is a case in point. He made the statement on Sunday, January 16 well after the majority of floodwaters in Queensland had subsided but before the communities of Toowoomba, Grantham and Ipswich had begun to bury their dead. Brown said the coal industry should be picking up some of the clean-up bill for future extreme weather events.

Ralph Hillman, executive director the Australian Coal Association (ACA), responded by saying that, in any case, the emissions from domestically-mined coal in Australia made only a “tiny” contribution to world emissions of greenhouse gases.

Steven Davis, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Energy at Stanford, California, is a climate energy specialist. In research currently in peer-review, Davis has been mapping the sources of emissions of different countries around the globe to see how footprints look when you include emissions caused by fossil fuels, regardless of where they’re burned.

Davis tells me that based on 2004 export figures, Australian coal burned overseas emitted about 511 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. The same year, his calculations show Australian domestic coal emissions of about 191 Mt CO2.  All together Aussie coal, says Davis, accounted for 696Mt or about 2.5% of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels worldwide.

Brown was accused by some, including Resources Minister Stephen Robertson, of using the floods to make a political point. Several mining companies and industry groups including ACA, Macarthur Coal, Xstrata and the Minerals Council of Australia expressed outrage but some could not pass up the chance to make a political point of their own. Macarthur Coal chairman Keith DeLacy branded Brown as “irrelevant to mainstream Australia”.

It was time to pull together, commentators said, rather than point the finger of blame or making political points. Yet in the days preceding Brown’s comments, there had been plenty of wagging fingers.

We heard and read open discussions about the virtues or otherwise of more dams, the ability of the home insurance industry to help flood victims, the wisdom of allowing development on flood plains and discussions of early warning systems.

Before tragedy hit Toowoomba and Grantham (but while residents in areas around Rockhampton and Bundaberg were still underwater) opposition leader Tony Abbott and Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce both took the opportunity to push the idea of building more dams as an answer to future flooding woes. Abbott had also previously suggested the Gillard government should scrap the National Broadband Network and instead use the funds to help the recovery.

Except in the case of Brown, the two “c” words (climate change) had not been taboo to everyone. International news agencies, including Associated Press and Reuters, published stories discussing the link between climate change and the floods. I wrote one too earlier this week. Some climate scientists are willing to apportion some blame for the floods on climate change while others are not. But few are willing to rule it out.

As the Fitzroy River peaked, Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter told reporters: “The thing that we need to appreciate is that we are starting to see the impact of climate change in this region.”

There was no political outrage over the mayor’s statement. No line-up of resource companies bearing condemnation. This could lead some to believe it’s not what you say about the Queensland floods, but who says it.

And what is the cause of climate change? You could of course go to any source for a summary of this, including the website of the ACA which states: “Human activities such as agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) produce additional greenhouse gases, which are accumulating in the atmosphere.”

Many observers, myself included, feel that Premier Anna Bligh has displayed some great communication skills and leadership over the last two weeks. This, in my view, is what happens when someone stops seeing themselves as the head of a political party and instead decides to be a leader.

Premier Bligh has not mentioned climate change either and her public inquiry hasn’t been asked to consider it. On Thursday, January 13 as flood waters were just receding in Brisbane, Premier Bligh — or her advisors — did decide it was appropriate to thank the backers of a $16 billion coal seam gas project for their decision to go ahead.

Peter Fray

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