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Floods fuel climate imagination

January 13th, 2011

The Queensland floods, reinforced by memories of other extreme weather events in recent memory, have started people chattering about climate change. We are clearly at a point where the looming challenging it presents exists as a sort of background radiation to people’s thoughts, and something like this easily brings it to mind.

It’s also true that the majority of the country supports taking some sort of action, including putting a price on carbon. Although support has reportedly softened, surveys show it is still there. For those of us particularly concerned about climate change, this is promising – isn’t it?

I wonder. If the Australian people really took the issue as seriously as an existential threat to our civilisation really warranted, we would not still be having conversations about how and why to proceed with carbon pricing, the NBN would not be the main topic of political debate, and we would not talk about the “balancing act” between protecting our coal exports and tackling climate issues. Either we would have strong bipartisan support for urgent action, or greenhouse issues would be the number one voter concern, dwarfing refugees and interest rates.

The reality is that while climate change now forms a part of the nation’s mental background, it spends too little time in the foreground where it belongs.

Could Queensland floods help change that, or will concern over climate recede along with the floodwaters? Everybody knows that climate change is not solely responsible for Queensland’s rains, but appreciates the contribution that will make events like this more frequent. Are the images shocking enough in their devastation but familiar enough in their setting (an Australian capital!) to really drive the connection between climate and personal tragedy home?

Humour me: Close your eyes and imagine the following scenario. You are at home, but the approaching disaster means its unsafe to stay. The roads are blocked or unsafe, and you’re not sure how to get away. You only have a few days’ supplies, but local supermarket is, empty, looted; the tap water is contaminated. The electricity went off yesterday. What are you going to do?

Is this frightening? If not, you are not trying hard enough to imagine yourself, and your neighbourhood, in this sort of peril.

Scenes not unlike this have unfolded in Queensland in recent days and weeks. But in the end, we know that the authorities will be there to assist, that insurance companies will make good on claims, and that the government will help pick up the pieces. When you call the emergency services, help will be on its way. We can rest assured that the nation will swing into action, and while the damage will take years to undo, recovery will begin immediately and a return to normalcy will occur, sooner or later.

But what if it didn’t? What if a string of emergencies left the authorities unable to cope? What if you called and nobody answered? Can you picture your family, rendered homeless, lives perhaps in danger, and only your wits to protect you? With help so far away, who is going to get a hold of the bottled water in the supermarket – those with the e-cash on their contactless payment cards, or somebody else? Where does food even come from, if not the supermarket?

People around the world find themselves in situations like this all the time. They know what it’s like when the rule of law is weak, and sinister gangs patrol the street outside their doors.

But we live in a country that is wealthy, stable and has a democratic history we can be very proud of. In times of adversity, we pull together. Surely, this scenario could never occur in Australia.

Only, sometimes I think to myself: What if it could? Unchecked climate change can wreak havoc on this country – changed cities, economic chaos, floods of refugees pouring in from around the world, and of course a violent and unpredictable climate. It doesn’t seem far fetched that the system could be stretched to breaking point, leaving us on our own in a time of crisis for hours, days – even longer.

With people tragically losing their lives even today, are we really prepared to take any chance of things getting dramatically worse? If, like me, you can imagine just how terrible that would be, then you understand why climate action should be at the top of the nation’s agenda.

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