Within a few weeks of the global climate summit at Cancun--where governments refused to commit to the deep reductions in emissions required to stop climate change--floods “of biblical proportions” in Australia have revealed the costs of continuing the status quo. Far from being a "natural disaster", the floods are a result of climate change driven by an economy addicted to oil and coal, and highlight the urgent need to shift to a green economy.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
Massive floods the size of France and Germany have submerged the Queensland area of Australia affecting 200,000 people, and raising concerns of water-born disease and encounters with rodents and poisonous snakes looking for shelter. By immersing a major portion of Australia’s production, the floods will also ripple through the world economy. According to the Financial Times:
“Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coking coal used for steel-making and accounts for about two-thirds of global trade. It is also the second-biggest exporter of thermal coal used for power generation. Queensland also accounts for nearly all of the country’s sugar production and export… Australia is also the world’s fourth-largest wheat exporter. Although Queensland provides only a small fraction of the total harvest, floods could cause as much as half the crop – 10m tonnes – to be downgraded to less than milling quality.”
The floods are being called a “natural disaster”, blamed on cyclones intensified by La Nina. But while these are weather phenomenon that occur periodically, what is happening now in Australia is unprecedented. According to state premier Anna Bligh ,
“This is a disaster on an unprecedented scale and it is going to take an unprecedented, sustained effort to rebuild regional Queensland…we’ve had big floods before. We’re a tropical state. But we’ve never had them over so many towns, so many cities and had so much public infrastructure at risk because of the size of the area.”
These floods come just a year after historic bushfires near Melbourne, and are the last act of the devastating climate-related disasters of 2010 , the hottest year on record, which produced historic floods in Nashville and Pakistan, fires in Russia, and drought in the Amazon.
While Australia, Canada, the US and others recently refused to tackle climate change at Cancun, they did agree to continue the oil-driven occupation of Afghanistan, which Autralian Prime Minister Julia Gillard promised would continue “through this decade at least ”. Meanwhile Australia continues unsustainable coal production that contributes to global warming, while Canada is killing the planet with tar sands. The oil and coal addicted economy is producing escalating unnatural disasters, with the floods in Australia just a taste of what’s to come unless global warming can be stopped.
Neither the floods nor their impact are purely natural. While Australia and other major powers have done the most to produce global warming, their economic development shields them somewhat from the human costs. Despite the volume of water, there has been relatively few casualties compared to the floods in Pakistan—where poverty, continual US drone attacks, and governmental allegiance to the “war on terror” including intentional flooding of civilian areas to save a US military base —combined to magnify disaster.
Similarly Western-backed militarism, poverty and deforestation in Haiti created a context for a 7.0 earthquake to kill 250,000 people, when the same or greater intensity quakes in New Zealand and Chile produced a fraction of the death toll. But this economic advantage is like having a better seat on the Titanic.
States and corporations are locked in competition for profit at any cost, that prevents them from collaborating to combat climate change. The inundation of a part of Australia, while threatening to cause a food crisis, has been celebrated in other quarters, from Alberta wheat producers to American coal companies. According to the Globe and Mail
“Rising coal prices are set to spike at least 20 per cent higher because of supply shortages due to severe flooding in Australia...The severe supply disruption has been a boon for Canadian producers. Shares of three major Canadian coal companies hit all-time highs on Tuesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.”
Reconstruction of Queensland should include an unprecedented and sustained investment in green jobs, shifting from coal to solar and wind power, and diverting military spending into paying the climate debt owned to the Global South that is threatened with worse disasters. This could provide an alternative green and peaceful wave of the future, to save us all from the rising waters of climate change.