The Politics    Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Wild weather warning

By Rachel Withers

Image of Minister for Emergency Management Bridget McKenzie during Senate Estimates in October last year. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Minister for Emergency Management Bridget McKenzie during Senate Estimates in October last year. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The devastating floods and the latest IPCC report together form a warning impossible to ignore – unless you’re the federal government

For Australia, the latest devastating Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report comes at a painfully relevant time. With deadly, “one in 1000 years” floods working their way down the east coast, it’s clear that the increasingly wild weather events the report warns of are increasing in frequency – as if that wasn’t obvious enough already. Speaking to RN Breakfast this morning, Professor Mark Howden, the vice chair of the IPCC working group, said that while floods were no doubt part of the weather cycle, climate change was “embedded in” the current disaster, with warmer water and air making storms more likely and more severe (a fact that has been reported elsewhere), just as had been predicted. But when pressed on the report today, government MPs insisted that now was not the time to talk about climate change, while claiming – laughably – that this event could not have been foreseen. If there’s one thing that both the floods and the IPCC report make clear, it’s that now is the time to talk about climate change.

It’s hard to read yet another damning IPCC report, and no doubt harder still for the scientists, journalists and UN leaders to keep ratcheting up the volume of their warnings. (The previous report, after all, was referred to as a “code red for humanity”.) Experts have nevertheless given it a red-hot go overnight. United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres has referred to the report as “an atlas of human suffering”, claiming it shows “how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change”. The report warns that we are about to miss the window to secure a liveable future, with literally everything at stake. Australia, specifically, is warned of more catastrophic storms and floods, while a “managed retreat” from coastal living may soon be the best option, as normal outdoor activity becomes potentially fatal across much of northern Australia. In a dire op-ed in the Nine papers, climate scientist Lesley Hughes and former fire commissioner Greg Mullins warn readers to “brace yourselves” for what they are about to read, including an “irreversible loss of coral reefs, loss of alpine species, collapse of forests in southern Australia, loss of kelp forests, a drastic rise in severe fire weather conditions, sea-level rise and a dramatic increase in fatal heatwaves”.

Those warnings, however, remain totally lost on the federal government, which this morning made a mockery of the IPCC report with ministers delivering predictably glib, insulting deflections when discussing the floods. When asked about the fact that there clearly weren’t enough emergency boats available, given that local volunteers were forced to step up, Minister for Emergency Management Bridget McKenzie told RN Breakfast that “nobody could have predicted” the current storms – nobody “except the IPCC, the Climate Council, even the BOM,” retorted independent candidate for Hughes Georgia Steele. (Never mind that the government was specifically warned about exactly this kind of disaster in November 2021, according to national cabinet documents obtained under freedom of information.) Near the end of her interview with Patricia Karvelas, McKenzie admitted that climate change was playing a role here, as did affected Nationals MP Kevin Hogan. But it was a “discussion for another day,” Hogan insisted, while pushing back against the idea that Australia should be doing more to lower its emissions faster, noting that the Coalition had signed onto the wildly insufficient target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (no thanks to McKenzie and Hogan’s party, of course).

It was a similar line to that trotted out on News Breakfast by McKenzie, who – under fire from Labor for not spending more from the massive Emergency Response Fund – told the hosts that it was “pretty poor form” to be asking questions about disaster funding while people were still being rescued.

The entire episode feels reminiscent of the Black Summer bushfires, that other “code red for humanity”, during which Coalition MPs insisted that the likewise “unprecedented” bushfires could not have been foreseen. (As I wrote at the time, the government had very much been warned.) The period following those devastating fires, similarly, was supposedly not the right time to talk about climate change, even as victims were calling it out. Those affected by this week’s floods, likewise, are more than ready to talk about climate change. Former deputy mayor of Lismore Simon Clough, whose wife’s business has been flooded, told media today that the flooding, which is at least two metres higher than the town has ever previously experienced, could only be explained by climate change.

The question is, how many more warnings does the Coalition need? If neither frequent bushfires and floods nor increasingly dire IPCC reports will make the government treat the climate crisis with the urgency it demands, what will? The bushfires, of course, were meant to be our Sandy Hook moment: now or never. But now here come the floods, along with a war in Eastern Europe that should make renewable energy a no-brainer. None of this, as Adam Bandt tweeted today, is normal. On the contrary, the government’s predictable response to this predictable disaster is entirely par for the course.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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