Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott today announced a $320 million drought relief package, but it fails to account for the long-term climate change that is drying out Australia.
Many rural areas of Australia have been in drought for 16-22 months. 70% of Queensland is now in drought; much of northern NSW and southwest WA is experiencing serious rainfall deficiency; and parts of every Australian state have experienced record rainfall lows over the last year. More evaporation is occurring compared to previous droughts, because of the higher temperatures. The present drought comes just years after the end of Australia’s “millennium drought”, which began around 2000 and continued until 2009.
Farmers are going broke because drought has destroyed their source of income, and rural areas have seen an increase in suicides. Several rural towns in Queensland and NSW are now seriously considering the possibility they could soon run out of water.
The present drought is happening in a neutral phase of the Southern Oscillation, and is likely to get worse if we go into an El Niño phase. The Bureau of Meteorology forecasts warming in the Pacific Ocean and a dry autumn for Queensland, with the Southern Oscillation projected to move into or toward El Niño conditions by late this year.
If you look at the records of Australian agriculture going back 150 years, there have always been good times and bad, tough and lush times. This is not a new thing in Australia. As the seasons have changed, climatic variation has been a constant here in Australia.
Fires happen naturally, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be lit by arsonists. Yet again, Abbott is talking up natural climate variability in an attempt to obfuscate a more important point: all the extreme weather we experience today is occurring in the context of a climate system nearly 1°C warmer than it was a century ago. There is an established causal link between global warming and increases in many types of extreme weather events, including droughts.
Global warming is caused by a buildup of heat trapped by greenhouse gases from human activity (mainly CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning). This increase of energy in the climate system causes the water cycle to intensify: more water evaporating from the ground; more water being held in the air; more water falling as rain. This means wet times and places become wetter, while dry times and places become drier – so the fact that Australia has always been a dry continent, far from being a comfort, is an additional reason for alarm.
Although the current drought is within the range of historical experience, in the longer term Australia is drying out. During Abbott’s drought tour, CSIRO reported that observed rainfall changes were occurring faster than they had predicted in 2007, with parts of WA already seeing the rainfall changes projected for 2030. CSIRO’s latest projections say Australia will suffer 7-20% less annual rainfall by 2030, depending on future emissions, with WA to experience the worst decline. Lower rainfall will be accompanied by higher evaporation.
Abbott acknowledges that “one-in-20, 50, 100-year events” are “beyond what a sensible business can be expected to plan for”. But the continued drying trend projected by CSIRO means dry weather that used to be rare will become more frequent in future. A one-in-20-year drought will become a one-in-10-year drought in southwest WA by 2030, and for the eastern states in later decades. Like the present one, future droughts will be exacerbated by rising temperatures (and vice versa).
CSIRO’s Steve Crimp says the drying will cause the number of farms in Australia to decrease, a trend already being observed. The 2008 Garnaut review went further, predicting a nightmarish future for Australian agriculture under a business-as-usual emissions scenario. According to Garnaut, impacts by the year 2100 could include an effective end to irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin (affecting dairy, fruit, vegetables, and grains), a 44% decrease in wine-growing area, a 33% decline in South Australian livestock productivity, and a 25% drop in Victorian wheat production.
Returning to the present, even the announced level of drought assistance was reportedly opposed by hardline neoliberals within the government. It has only come about because of Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, who said on ABC TV’s Q&A:
I am not going to sit idly by and just see [farmers] be driven into the dirt. I have an obligation. My obligation is to look after those people because they are in a position where they have given that duty to me and I shall try and fulfil it to the best of my ability.
Yet Joyce openly denies the reality of human-caused global warming, so presumably doesn’t see a need for long-term policy any more than Abbott does. He is preparing a white paper intended to grow the agriculture sector and make Australia the food bowl of Asia, which seems delusional in a world on track to warm by several degrees.
Not for the first time, the differing responses of the Labor and Greens parties have revealed the latter as a much more effective opposition to the Abbott government. All that Labor leader Bill Shorten had to say on the subject was this vapid nitpick on the 16th: “we had a whole week last week in Parliament where the Abbott Government could have proposed measures to assist farmers.” The fact that Shorten seems to prefer nitpicking to making any substantive criticism of Abbott’s policies betrays that the two major parties are not so different.
In contrast, Greens leader Christine Milne said: “It’s cruel and craven to tell farmers you care about them and the drought when you are doing everything you can to tear down global warming policy that will help them in the long term.” Greens agriculture spokesperson Rachel Siewert added: “The CSIRO has said climate trends will transform agricultural regions, so we need a response that will transform agriculture.” The Greens have proposed a permanent extreme weather resilience program funded by a levy on coal exports.
A long-term plan to adapt to a drier Australia requires a lot more than subsidies; it requires growing different crops. Under the world’s current climate policies we’re headed for >4°C global warming by 2100, a temperature unprecedented for the human species. Agriculture has been invented and flourished over the past 10,000 years because a stable climate sustained us (global temperature varied <1°C). 4°C warming would be an unimaginable catastrophe, probably beyond our capacity to adapt.
Prevention is better than cure. Instead of taking the risk of unadaptable climate change, the Government should be doing everything it can to phase out fossil fuels to halt the warming. And it should acknowledge that <1°C of warming is already causing worsening droughts, floods, bushfires, and heatwaves costing Australian lives. But Abbott and Joyce don’t want to do that, because it would mean standing up to the powerful fossil fuel lobby.
Abbott’s position is a non-policy. Instead of addressing the human cause of increasingly extreme weather, Abbott intends to sit back and wait for disasters to strike, then pontificate that it’s just something that happens, it has no political implications, and all that can be done is to fight the symptoms. His policy on droughts is “I wish it would rain”. His policy on floods is “Don’t go out in the pouring rain”. And his policy on fires is “We didn’t start the fire”.
It says something about the present political situation that it took a comedian on the Q&A panel to point out “there is something happening to the planet”.