Floods, fire and drought: Australia, a country in the grip of extreme weather whipsaw.
Amid record temperatures, severe flooding and devastation of wilderness, the political message from the government is business as usual.
The people of Townsville know about heavy rain, but this was new. Over the past fortnight, the northern Queensland city’s 180,000 residents have been hit by a monsoon strengthened by a low-pressure front that dragged moist air south from the equator to Australia’s top end.
It dumped an unprecedented 1.4 metres of rain in less than two weeks – roughly double what falls on London in a year.
The ensuing chaos has wrecked homes and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to property. Two men have drowned and videos posted to social media have shown crocodiles climbing trees and taking to elevated highways in search of shelter.
But amid the deluge, not everyone heeded the evacuation advice.
Mark Parison was one of those who stayed. The tide where he lives in Hermit Park peaked at least two metres high on some homes and the road was decorated with debris – furniture, white goods and children’s toys – pulled from homes as the water receded. But Parison’s traditional Queenslander home, elevated on concrete pillars, remained largely intact.
As he moved piles of damaged property to the roadside for local authorities to collect, he told Guardian Australia why he ignored the advice to run.
“It was a scary old night [but] this house has been here for a long time. We decided … it’s been here that long, it’s been through some big floods,” he said.
Asked if he was concerned that climate change was making floods more extreme, he was clear: “If anyone mentions that, I’ll punch ‘em.”
“The weather events seem to be getting more extreme. Whether it’s manmade or natural or who knows.
“These people crying about climate change, they’ve got to look at how they live themselves. They’re still driving around in cars, they’re still wearing nice clothes. They’re using mobile phones. So give that up, I’ll start listening to you.
“City people are stalling us. We need the economy here to be boosted.”
In a city with nearly one in ten unemployed his view holds purchase. And so goes some of the public debate in Australia about the impact of rising greenhouse gas emissions.
A historically hostile summer
The north Queensland flooding is far from the only punishing event in what has been, even by the standards of the continent, a historically hostile summer. Internal polling for political parties and environment groups suggests Australians are increasingly concerned that this is linked to climate change and want to see action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a priority at this year’s federal election. It matches public polling that has found a comfortable majority accept it is a significant problem that needs to be addressed.
But after a decade of political fights and ideological warfare, discussion on the subject is often still a combat zone. The Coalition government would prefer not to talk about it at all.
Australia is, of course, no stranger to extreme weather – bushfire, flooding, rains and skin-peeling heat are central to its history and mythology – but the contrasts this southern summer have been particularly stark. Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University and councillor with publicly funded communication body the Climate Council, says few parts of the continent have not experienced an extreme weather event in recent months.
More than 3000 kilometres to Townsville’s south, Tasmania is burning. For the second time in four years, dry lightning strikes sparked a series of blazes on the usually cool, temperate island, many of them in the vast world heritage wilderness area that covers nearly half its territory. In one 30-hour period in mid-January, an extended electrical storm danced across the summer sky, sending down more than 2400 lightning strikes without rain.
About 200,000 hectares – 3% of the state’s surface – has been burned, including unique alpine heath landscapes that had not been touched by fire for centuries. The fires are expected to burn for another month at least. Hundreds of people, many of them from in and around the southern town of Geeveston, spent the best part of two weeks camping at evacuation centres. Six homes were destroyed before rain late in the week reduced the threat to communities.
Elsewhere, communities in the sparsely populated Australian outback continue to deal with the fallout from a long-term drought. On social media, a Greens MP in New South Wales, David Shoebridge, highlighted a constituent forced to pay $70 a week on drinking water for her and her son after the raw water supply in the town of Walgett was turned off.
A political battle is also raging over the use of water in the vast Murray-Darling river system that fans across the country’s eastern state agricultural districts, with drought-afflicted downstream communities arguing they are being denied water by a national river plan that did not factor in climate change and has been designed to keep dams full at water-hungry industrial agriculture sites in northern states.
This claim has been backed by a royal commission convened by the state of South Australia, which lies at the end of the river system, and the continuing disaster of up to a million fish having perished in three mass kills in the west of New South Wales due to water deoxygenation, with more deaths predicted.
Inquiry into Townsville flooding
The sense of a country playing extreme weather bingo has heightened as flood and drought collided this week, requiring the defence force to be called in to distribute fodder to cattle that had suddenly found their long-parched home under water. By Friday, it was clear that up to 300,000 cattle had been killed in the floods. With evidence mounting that authorities were unprepared for the extent of the rainfall, the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, announced an independent inquiry.
For most, the most obvious extreme weather shift has been the heat. January was Australia’s hottest month on record by a wide margin, with average national temperatures nearly a degree beyond the previous benchmark and 2.9 degrees warmer than the long-term mean. In New South Wales, the average temperature was nearly 6 degrees hotter than what has been considered normal for the past century.
Blair Trewin, senior climatologist with the Bureau of Meteorology, says: “Even taking into account the sustained long-term warming trend of a degree or so over a century, this is certainly at the far end of expectations.”
It is the heat that seems to be shifting public concern about climate change. Political polling suggests it is registering in the top two or three issues of concern for voters in a way it has not since the 2007 election, when the country was enduring a decade long drought, if not ever. The trend is headed in this direction even in some outer suburban electorates, which have traditionally been more driven by jobs and cost-of-living issues.
But the shift is not universal. The government is hearing similar messages, but there has been no change in messaging from prime minister Scott Morrison. He visited the Tasmanian fires and Queensland floods within a 24-hour period, speaking with people who had been forced to flee their homes, thanking emergency service workers and, in Townsville, was photographed climbing into a tank. He drew no link between the extreme weather and emissions in his public comments and he dismissed as a stunt a suggestion by the Greens that he should apologise for backing coal given there was evidence it was making natural disasters worse.
The Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, went a step further while visiting the site of the Menindee Lake mass fish kill, choosing language that suggested outright scepticism about climate science.
“We are looking at climate, of course, (but) climate has been changing since year dot,” he said, before adding: “We don’t want to go down a path of renewables, which is not going to solve anything apart from de-industrialising Australia and making sure we don’t do manufacturing here and pushing electricity bills into the unaffordable state.”
While concern about climate change is growing, there is evidence this position retains support – Essential Media polling late last year, for instance, suggested a slim majority of voters may back public financial support for a new coal power development than would oppose it, though more than quarter said they did not know what they thought.
Dependent on mining
The suggestion governments may force coal industries to close are particularly challenging issues in Townsville, which is the centre of support for the Carmichael coalmine, the long-stalled greenfield project proposed by Indian billionaire Gautam Adani that has become a proxy for debate over climate change. The mining industry posits itself as a jobs saviour. But, as always, views are split.
Katie McGrath was among the lucky ones in the Queensland floods, having got caught up and seeing her car in a metre of water. A nurse who works in Townsville but lives on nearby Magnetic Island, she had not realised how great the threat was before getting into trouble. “I’ve never seen the island flood like this before,” she said.
McGrath has little doubt that what Townsville has been experiencing is part of a bigger picture, but acknowledges she is out of step with many in her community.
“There’s clearly things happening around the world that are alarming,” she says. “It’s like anything, if you don’t know enough about it then you seek advice from experts, and what they’re telling us is that we’ve got a real problem with climate change and we need to do something about it.”
But despite the experts, Townsville is the epicentre of support for the Adani coalmine. For every flood affected resident who is concerned about climate change, several others share Parison’s views.
Roughly one in 10 people in Townsville are unemployed. About 16% of the population is university educated, compared with 22% Australia wide. People want economic growth and employment opportunities. And, for all the boom and bust cycles places such as Townsville have endured in the past, the mining industry still posits itself as a jobs saviour.
But McGrath believes adequate communication about the opportunities that come with a cleaner economy is missing.
“For those people, work’s been hard to come by for a while and that’s been a real issue for people in Townsville,” she said.
“There’s not really been much put forward, and this region is really dependent on mining. People want to see jobs in mining, they want to see Adani go ahead. That’s the priority for people at the moment. Whether they agree with climate change, care about it or whatever, that’s a secondary priority to making ends meet now.
“I don’t necessarily think people are addicted to coal, or think that coal’s great. We haven’t been offered different information or alternatives about different jobs that are available. At the moment that’s not there.”
Her observations underline the challenge in some parts of the country for the Labor party, which is favoured to win the election with a platform of taking climate change seriously, but beyond the electricity sector is yet to explain what meeting its more ambitious greenhouse targets would mean.
Part of the challenge of communicating climate change is explaining the science, particularly the extent to which any extreme event can be linked to increasing emissions.
Attribution science is a rapidly evolving field. Lesley Hughes, who helped launch a Climate Council report called Weather Gone Wild, says emissions are effectively loading the dice to increase the likelihood of an extreme weather event. “What we are now observing is consistent with the climate science – as the Earth warms up, more extreme weather is inevitable,” she says.
In the case of the floods, a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which in the event of a storm can mean heavier rain in a shorter space of time.
In the case of the Tasmanian fires, not only has the state become warmer (2.5 degrees above average in January) but low-pressure weather patterns that used to produce rain over the state have also moved further south as the climate has warmed, and evaporation rates have increased. Both increase the risk of dry lightning strike causing a blaze. Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, recorded just 0.4 millimetres of rain in January, the lowest on record.
Hughes says governments can obfuscate for only so long before publicly accepting that climate change is now both a mitigation and adaptation challenge. Failing to acknowledge the role humans are playing is holding back conversations about, for instance, whether Australia needs to invest in fire-fighting aircraft rather than sharing with the US, given the northern and southern fire seasons are increasingly overlapping.
“The prime minister is still pandering to the right-wing sceptics in his party by not talking about climate change. But arguing black is white doesn’t make it so,” she says. “The government has to accept these events are going to get worse over the next few decades and plan accordingly – both to adapt and to be part of the solution instead of the problem.”