I said yesterday that this post would be about a decent climate policy, and I offer an outline of mine. It’s not mine, in any particular way, though I have been advocating it for several years. It doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, though it is neatly summarised in Professor Bob Carter’s latest book Taxing Air, and has been advocated by many others at different times. It is nothing but historically informed commonsense.
And before I offer it let me first argue that it is less than optimal to do the right things for the wrong reasons. You will often come across somebody saying that it doesn’t matter if there really is no problem with global warming, because the fear of it encourages citizens to do what they ought to do anyway — the speaker usually means that they should drive less, leave a lighter footprint on the earth, cut down on wasteful consumption, and so on.
I have always thought that this advice is bad for two big reasons. First, it at once diverts the listener from a perfectly sensible question, which is whether or not global warming really is a problem, and how much of a problem, and to whom, and so on. Second, it seems better to do things for good reasons, reasons that you can explain to others as well as yourself. In what follows I hope I am following my own advice!
Australia needs a strong and robust climate policy, one that is bipartisan, causes few if any wrangles between the Commonwealth, the States and Territories, and local government, and is measurably effective. We need it because we are subject to different types of natural disasters: storms, floods, bushfires and droughts, and their accompanying shortage of water for all purposes. Ever since European settlement, the recording of natural occurrences has gone ahead. Several of the First Fleet, including Governor Phillip himself, kept records of temperature and wrote down their observations of the weather.
People have kept doing that ever since, and we have records from January 1788. They show a pattern of recurring floods, droughts and fires that, at least until the last twenty or thirty years, can have nothing whatever to do with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As it happens, Sydney in 1788 seems to have been in a la Nina phase, followed in 1790 by a strong el Nino.
We are presently enjoying a neutral ENSO year — that is to say, eastern Australia is in neither an el Nino nor a La Nina phase. It follows three years of predominantly la Nina conditions, when we had abundant rain and severe flooding, and those years followed the Millennium drought, that lasted ten years in many places.
We may have thought these conditions were exceptional, but clearly they were nothing of the kind. All established areas can point to floods and droughts that were worse, or as bad, as those in our period. There were other very long droughts at the time of Federation and during the second world war. Brisbane had destructive floods in 1841, 1844, 1890, 1893, 1898 and 1974, as well as the recent ones in 2011 and 2013. These floods seem to coincide with the negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, a natural feature of temperature and precipitation change that is related to ENSO.
It may be the case that the eucalyptus became the dominant tree after an exceptionally long drought 5000 years ago, which greatly reduced the incidence of rainforest. The eucalyptus could survive drought and fire, which became more prevalent in the drier conditions. Our bushfires have also been known from the beginning of European settlement, and are becoming more destructive as more people and more property are exposed to them.
All this is well known, and has nothing to do with carbon dioxide emissions, but the anthropogenic global warming scare simply distracts us from acting collectively to prepare ourselves against these climatic hazards. New Zealand has GeoNet, a natural hazard network, which could be a model for us. Why are the Kiwis ahead of us? Probably because New Zealand has also to worry about earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, and these are more terrifying than droughts.
Why don’t we follow their example — apart from the AGW scare? Perhaps because we have come to see these natural hazards as acts of God, things we can’t do much about. But that is plainly wrong. We allow people to build houses on floodplains, as in Brisbane. We prevent burning off, which allows the accumulation of fuel load to a point where any bushfire will be hot indeed. We don’t build dams any more, because they are thought to be ecologically damaging. We plant eucalypts in our gardens and as street trees, despite knowing that that they can become giant torches.
In short, we don’t do the elementary strategic planning about the coming drought, the coming fire and the coming flood. We wait until it happens, and then congratulate the SES for their fine work— which it is. We tell the farmers that they are now in a drought-stricken area and are therefore entitled to drought relief. Premiers and Prime Ministers fly in to inspect the flood damage.
I’m not suggesting that changing these cultural and political practices will be easy. But our real climate policy should not the fantasy about ‘combatting climate change’, where our efforts make no discernible change whatever in the level of green house gases in the atmosphere. It should be that at long last we recognise that we can do something sensible to deal with natural hazards.
And along the way we will develop better tools, better data, better forecasting — and learn something about the natural variability of climate. That would be an improvement, one that might tell us more about why it is the the signal of carbon dioxide in our climate is so weak!