Natural disasters have always been a fact of life in human history. Flood, famine and untamed fire are a feature of almost all creation myths and foundation stories, including, of course, the Bible. Here in Australia, the land of drought and flooding rains, our national stories and history are full of suffering and loss and heroism and solidarity in the face of these natural disasters. We remind ourselves that we are a tough and generous people who, while struggling against what this country throws at us, will always lend a hand to a mate. We comfort each other in the face of enormous tragedy and loss of life. We celebrate the actions of the emergency services and ordinary people, which are testament to an enormous capacity for individual and collective heroism that is stupendous in its everydayness. And this is what we do again today.
Today we acknowledge the terrible toll of these natural disasters and express our condolences to the families and friends who have lost their loved ones. We cannot share their feelings of grief but we can give them our thoughts in the hope that, with time, healing can begin. And we parliamentarians can do them the courtesy and respect of taking the responsibility of doing whatever we can to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. I, like all Australians, have been horrified and amazed by the experiences of flooding in Queensland, in my own state of Victoria and in the rest of the country. I, like all Australians, have been terrified by the looming threat of Cyclone Yasi and simultaneously relieved that it was not worse.
Nonetheless, I have been shocked by the devastation to the communities of Far North Queensland. I, like all Australians, have been encouraged and moved by the way people pull together in times of crisis, and felt proud of the work of our emergency and social services. And I, like many Australians, feel we have been given a glimpse into the future we face if we do not act to cut pollution and prevent further climate change.
While scientists are not yet able to know for certain that any individual extreme weather event is triggered by climate change, we do know that the earth is warming and the climate is changing. In fact, it may be that, in the near future, the term ‘natural disaster’ can no longer describe what we are experiencing. It may be that we are experiencing, and most definitely will soon be facing, what are in fact ‘unnatural disasters’. Some loud and partisan voices in recent weeks have tried to shout down any discussion about climate change and the floods. Some have tried to argue that to talk about climate change, unlike discussing the usefulness or otherwise of dams, is to politicise the issue or is somehow unseemly given the proximity to the disaster. Others have been angered or driven to abuse by the suggestion that responsibility for global warming might need to be discussed. It is as if discussing the causes of climate change is somehow outside the boundaries of acceptable national conversation. Well, as John Ruskin said, no individual raindrop ever considers itself responsible for the flood.
It is my view and the Greens’ view that it is our responsibility to listen to what scientists are telling us about extreme weather and climate change. Now is not the time to give in to some political correctness or orthodoxy that wants to avoid reality. Now is not the time to focus only on the symptoms and avoid the warnings we have been given. Now is the time to help communities recover and rebuild. But it is also the time to discuss what we can do to prevent far greater calamities in the future—because unfortunately, as the government’s adviser and my colleague on the multi-party climate change committee, Professor Ross Garnaut, said recently, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
The basic physics are fairly straightforward. A warmer atmosphere means more moisture in the air and warmer oceans. This in turn means more precipitation and more energy in storm systems, exacerbating natural cycles like La Nina. In other areas and in other seasons these hotter temperatures mean superdry conditions and heatwaves like we saw on Black Saturday two years ago. As a recent editorial in the Sunday Age stated, we respond well to an emergency but global warming is an emergency too. It is time we faced up to this emergency. To fail to do so would be to compound the tragedy and economic dislocation of this summer, for which we will be rightly condemned by future generations. Australia has always been a land of extremes but, unless we act now, we are on the verge of making these extremes a regular occurrence. We run the risk that we will hear the tragic stories of victims, their families and their communities far more often than we would like.