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Fire, floods and disaster – the call to be good stewards needed more than ever

Weather woes: Trees being battered by high winds and rain at Airlie Beach as Cyclone Debbie passes.

IN the wake of Townsville’s “once in a century” monsoonal deluge, a leading ecologist warns extreme weather linked to climate change has the potential to dramatically shift the way Australians live and work, and force governments to ramp up resources to combat emergencies.

“We’re seeing things we haven’t experienced before,” Macquarie University distinguished professor of biology Lesley Hughes said.

Prof Hughes (pictured) was commenting on Weather Gone Wild – the Climate Council’s latest report, documenting heat, rainfall, droughts, cyclones and bushfires all on the rise.

“It’s been projected for decades that climate change will make severe weather events more frequent and intense,” she said.

“It’s certainly in everybody’s faces at the moment because we are getting a confluence of events happening in different parts of the country.”

Unprecedented flooding in north Queensland and out-of-control bushfires in Tasmania are only the latest severe weather events.

Fires along the Queensland coast late last year devastated communities and even ravaged rainforests that had never burnt before.

Even though dams in much of western Queensland are now full, the Climate Council report noted that parts of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and eastern South Australia were affected by drought and annual rainfall was 11 per cent below average. 

Australia had its third-warmest year on record in 2018 and the mean temperature was up by 1.14C, the Climate Council report said.

Globally, the past four years have been the four hottest years on record for surface temperature, and 2018 is the 42nd consecutive year with an above-average global temperature.

Prof Hughes said higher temperatures were already impacting Australia’s lifestyle and economy.

“Outdoor workers’ productivity is very much affected by temperature. People just can’t work safely when the temperature gets very high,” she said.

“People like mine workers, agricultural workers, trades people working outside have to be affected by that.

“Sport is very important to Australians. 

“We’ve already seen controversy at the Australian Open, particularly last summer where the roof had to be closed because it was simply unbearably hot to play tennis safely.

“In the last drought, the millennium drought, we had a whole lot of sporting events cancelled in local communities simply because there wasn’t enough water available on the ovals to make the grass grow. They (the ovals) were hard and unsafe.”

Meanwhile, the Climate Council report found insurance companies paid out more than $1.2 billion in claims arising from extreme weather events last year.

Prof Hughes said politicians needed to wake up. 

“It’s a question of facing the facts, accepting the science and actually forming a climate policy,” she said.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins has weighed in with a call to the Federal Government to do more about climate change which was creating fire seasons that are longer and more severe. 

“The world’s getting hotter, more dangerous, so we need action,” Mr Mullins said, acknowledging the pressure on Australian politicians to show action on climate change, particularly in an election year.

“All we have to do is look at … December in Queensland – bushfires, cyclones, record-breaking temperatures – we’ve got problems.

“All sides of politics need to step up. They need to say to the public here’s what we believe and here’s what we are going to do about it.”

Climate Council chief executive Amanda McKenzie said the Coalition Government, which has been in power for five years, had obstructed action on climate change while extreme weather worsened.

“It’s unconscionable. We are experiencing climate change right now across Australia, from flooding in Townsville to bushfires in Victoria and Tasmania,” Ms McKenzie said.

With climate change sure to be a key political agenda item during the coming national election due before May, Liberal Party president Nick Greiner has hinted at the need for further policy.

“I accept the fact that having no sustainability policy would not be an appropriate way to go to an election,” he told ABC News on February 6.

“We do need a robust climate change policy, of course we do, and I believe there will be one, yes, before the election.”

Labor energy spokesman Mark Butler said his party would unveil a “comprehensive” climate change policy ahead of the federal election, building on the opposition’s 45 per cent emissions reduction target and 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030.

On the issue of bushfires, Mr Butler said the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO had warned for years that the risk of wildfires had increased due to climate change.

“There will be more fires, they will be more intense,” he told ABC radio.

“The fire season will be longer and it’s time we had governments willing to take action to start to deal with the threat of climate change.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has taken aim at “reckless” climate change targets that could shut down the economy and cost Australians jobs.

Addressing the National Press Club on February 11, Mr Morrison was asked whether he believed climate change was a factor in more frequent extreme weather events, and how his government would take aqction.

“I acknowledge it’s a factor. Of course it is. Australians do. The vast majority of Australians,” the Prime Minister said.

“We believe you need sensible, achievable targets to address climate change.. we have a clear commitment to reduce emissions to 26 per cent by 2030.

“What we disagree with is having reckless target that is shut down your economy and take people’s jobs, which is what Labor propose.”

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