Doomed Planet

Disasters happen

And the appropriate response is to prepare for and adapt to them.

Natural disasters are in the news in both Australia and New Zealand. Leaving aside the September 4th Christchurch earthquake as being in a different hazard category, the recent summer outburst of cyclones, storms and floods in both countries is well understood by scientists to be linked to the La Nina part of the Pacific Ocean’s El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climatic cycle.

Despite strident claims by global warming pressure groups, no scientific evidence exists that human carbon dioxide emissions have anything to do with our current climatic woes. Rather, the weather events that are causing us so much present grief represent instabilities related to both short term (ENSO) and longer term (Pacific Decadal Oscillation – PDO) climatic oscillations. That such events would occur is not only predictable in principle, but (in the Australian case) was actually predicted in February 2009 by Dr. Stewart Franks from Newcastle University, who wrote:

The historical record of climate variability suggests that we should expect a return to a 20-40 year period where La Nina dominates the climate of at least eastern Australia once more. The observation that many regions of Australia routinely experience multi-decadal variability of flood and drought, suggest that we should expect a return to major widespread flooding on a regular inter-annual basis, and for entirely natural reasons.

In the light of subsequent events, it is astonishing that Dr Franks’ accurate caution, including earlier comments that he made in widely read international peer-reviewed research journals, was ignored by Australian planning authorities and by their IPCC-linked advisory scientists.

The problem, then, is one of dealing better with natural climatic vagary, and the fashionable idea that reducing human carbon dioxide emissions will reduce either the number or magnitude of climatic disasters in the future is both silly and irresponsible; and especially so given the huge cost and great disbenefits to poorer people and countries that are associated with such policies.

That human carbon dioxide emissions are to blame for recent climatic disasters is completely without scientific foundation. As noted in a Feb. 10th article in the Wall Street Journal –

researchers have yet to find evidence of more-extreme weather patterns over the period [since 1871], contrary to what the models predict”, and “it’s possible that even if we spend trillions of dollars, and forgo trillions more in future economic growth, to cut carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels, the climate will continue to change—as it always has.

These statements are true, though the caveat should be made that “certain” would have been a more accurate choice of word than “possible” with respect to the continuation of climate change. The public understands this well but the politicians do not, as exemplified by two polls published yesterday.

The first poll, in The Age, garnered an 89% “no” answer to the question: “Would you support a climate tax?”.

The second poll, in The Australian, delivered an 85% “no” to the question: “Is Tim Flannery the right person to be Australia’s climate commissioner?”.

Clearly, a chasm has opened up between Australian public opinion and current government thinking on carbon dioxide taxation and climate policy, and a Climate Commission, especially one headed by Tim Flannery, is unlikely to rectify this situation.

Nonetheless, an announcement made yesterday is perhaps a sign of new, and more realistic, thinking. When Prime Ministers John Key and Julia Gillard meet in Wellington next week, they are expected to announce the creation of a joint crisis management team to develop and exercise plans for a common response to natural disasters in the region. The team will be made up of officers from the defence forces of both countries, and initial planning will centre around the use of the multi-role supply ship HMNZS Canterbury as a central part of response operations. This welcome development is precisely the sort of imaginative and cost-effective planning that is needed to deal with natural disasters in the Australasian area.

In similar fashion, the way we should respond to climatic hazard is by preparation for, and adaptation to, all dangerous climatic events as and when they develop.

New Zealand’s world-best-practice GeoNet hazard system has most recently proved its worth in assisting public understanding and management of the Christchurch earthquake.

The time has come for GeoNet to add to its list of responsibilities the provision of independent and impartial advice on long term climate hazard. And Australian politicians need to give urgent consideration to setting up a similarly excellent national hazard management system here too.

As a January 17th editorial in The Australian noted:

There is nothing people can do to stop rains, generated by the La Nina weather pattern on the east coast [of Australia], which are part of a natural cycle we are only beginning to understand. But nature need not dictate the way we respond.

IPA Fellow Professor Bob Carter is author of Climate: the Counter Consensus, chapter 11 within which discusses in more detail the need for a policy of adaptation to climate change.

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