In the last two years the greatest nation on earth, with the most resources to use on disaster prevention, amelioration and clean-up, has experienced national disasters that demonstrate the seriousness of climate change. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina virtually wiped out New Orleans while recently fire was raging uncontrolled through Southern California.
No one can say whether these events were directly caused by global warming, but there are two important ramifications. First, they may well have been, since they were just what we would expect from climate change; and second, even if they were not, they were examples of what is likely to come.
A number of issues arise out of the disasters. One is the slow Federal Government response to Katrina and the quick response to the California fires. The Bush Administration claims that it just learned fast, but others cite the difference between black and poor New Orleans and rich and white southern California. The way the Federal Government is dragging its heals in rebuilding poor black neighbourhoods in New Orleans has some people claiming discrimination.
This situation mirrors the wider concerns that global warming will hit the poor hardest and help for them will not be forthcoming. A rich world used to natural disasters that kill multitudes of Third World people may be slow to respond to even worse, constant disasters caused by climate change.
Another issue is the utter impotence of technology in the face of such disasters. Katrina was made much worse by the failure of anti-flood measures and the California fires involve questions about the best fire avoidance policies, but in the end, if the climate gets bad enough, such natural disasters will overwhelm our puny efforts to deal with them through technology. Watching jetliners dump retardant and helicopters flitting about futilely as the fires raged through Californian suburbs was a sobering reminder that our technological powers are still limited. We can blow up whole cities, but we can’t protect them from natural disasters.
The ramifications of these disasters for Australia are profound. The great majority of Australians live on the coast and thus are vulnerable to storms, cyclones and flooding. We have already experienced what can happen when the relatively small Cyclone Tracey wiped out Darwin in 1974. If nothing else the costs of ameliorating damage and the downturn in real estate prices once the vulnerability of coastal properties is recognised, will be serious economic issues.
Further, many country towns and much of our suburban housing are exposed to bushfires. As Canberra showed in 2003, these fires can encroach into suburbs and if conditions are bad enough, there is almost nothing that can be done.
Again, the economic costs may be felt before any real physical threat as insurance companies refuse to insure vulnerable property. The insurance industry has already warned that it cannot accept too much of the costs, and the reality is that it is the wealthier who like to live along the coast, rivers, or leafy suburbs, so costs will be high.
The coming Federal Election will be the last in which the overwhelming issue is not the environmental crisis. Although we are past the denial stage, we are still denying that it is serious. So the core election issue in 2007 is still the economy.
But as the science becomes clearer, as the natural disasters occur more often, and as the economy itself is increasingly affected, the people and their political representatives will more and more shift towards seeing the crisis as the critical issue of the century.
We have seen such a shift before when the peoples and governments of the world confronted the spectre of industrial global war. Suddenly everything changed, and the basic fundamentals of life altered to fit the new conditions because it was survival itself that was at stake.
In those countries that did best, governments took charge, subordinated the economy to national needs, and mobilised all resources to the aim of survival. These emergency measures were only in place for several years, but they were so comprehensive they changed everything afterwards. Dealing with global warming will take many decades, perhaps centuries, and it will fundamentally change the character of civilisation.
One of the strange things about wartime life was that people often saw it as a good time. Despite being faced with imminent death and mutilation, with privation and terror, they had a sense of meaning that made it all bearable. But this only occurred once they gave up on peacetime hopes and accepted the need to face new realities.
We also need to face realities. We have wasted much time; the greenhouse gases are already in the air and will continue to affect the climate for decades to come no matter what we do now. Flood and fire are now unavoidable, and their costs in life and property may well outweigh anything we have ever seen before. Bad as they will be, the other longer term threats will be much more dangerous. Breakdowns in water and food supplies, in disease control and provision of shelter, will kill people in unimaginable numbers.