Sunday Age,  January 16, 2011
We respond well to an emergency, but global warming is an emergency too.
LAST week, two leading US agencies, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reported that 2010 was the wettest year on record. It was also a hot year, tying with 2005 as the hottest since data collection began in 1880.
The Queensland floods are the latest in a list of remarkable weather events over the past year. Victorian towns are also going through less dramatic, but still serious, flooding. There have also been snowstorms in the US and Europe, heatwaves and fires in Russia, and catastrophic floods in Pakistan, China and Brazil.
Calls have begun for the Queensland government to conduct a royal commission into the floods, similar in scope to Victoria's Bushfires Royal Commission. The Victorian inquiry examined the circumstances of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, including the impact of climate change. Climate scientists were disappointed its report did not sufficiently emphasise the unique weather contributing to the disaster. Victoria had never had three consecutive days above 42 degrees until January 2009, when there were three above 43 degrees. The heatwave is believed to be responsible for 500 deaths in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, but was largely forgotten after the tragic fires.
Australian weather is believed to be particularly sensitive to climate change. Like Victoria's fires, floods are part of a natural cycle. La Nina, the periodic oceanic cooling phenomenon, is far more directly to blame for the weather Australia is now experiencing. But it would be shortsighted not to take into account the role of global warming in these catastrophes.
Professor David Karoly, from Melbourne University's School of Earth Sciences, says while individual events cannot be attributed to climate change, the extreme weather patterns are in line with scientific predictions that a warmer world will mean more severe droughts, more fires and flooding rains.
The loss of life and property in Queensland and the resilience of those affected have gripped Australians. Victorians, too, pulled together during the bushfires, and will again during the current floods. We are good at emergencies, revealing ourselves a compassionate and resolute people. Yet dealing with longer-term threats is just as hard, and calls for different skills - political courage, patient explanation, refusing to be thrown by denialists and the self-interested. The time has come to devise a policy framework that will reduce our carbon footprint at a national and individual level.
So far, our political leaders have postponed making difficult decisions about the need to tackle climate change - such as setting a carbon price - because of fears they will be punished by a sceptical electorate. A great effort is required, with no immediate return guaranteed. More investment and better planning are necessary (in public transport, in alternative forms of energy and to compensate low-income earners when energy prices rise) to take into account the effects of drought, floods and rising sea levels.
The band of environmentally aware voters is growing; the major parties can make gains by tackling their legitimate concerns. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has promised that 2011 will be a year of action - it is to be hoped this is not mere rhetoric. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has advanced his party's fortunes by opposing any carbon mitigation measures proposed so far. In the immediate future it is likely he will continue with this course. But it is difficult to see how such an approach will be sustainable over the longer term as more Australians feel the impact of extreme weather and ask what they can do to turn the tide.