No-one is screaming “climate change”… they don’t have to

24 February 2011 – Welcome to the first issue of our newsletter for 2011. So much for the traditional round-up to find out what’s on the cards for the year ahead. It’s pretty clear that for the next 12 months most of us will be dealing in one way or another with the impacts of the devastating floods in Queensland, and now Victoria.

Rising food prices, loss of agriculture and other products, rising construction costs, and skills shortages will be just the start.

So far the tally looks like 75 per cent of Queensland flooded, a bill of $20 billion, a declaration that it is Australia’s worst natural disaster, and fears that unstable wild weather could continue for months.

But it’s not climate change. Not at all.

Scientists say we’ve had the highest ocean temperatures on record, the highest rainfall on record and the highest humidity on record – key signature events for climate change.

David Karoly from Melbourne University’s school of earth sciences and lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, told newspapers on 12 January that the disaster could not be directly attributed to climate change but that the events were in keeping with the forecasts. Other climate and weather experts had similar views.

This past week Karoly told Leon Gettler, writing for us in a special report, that climate change had contributed to the floods, but stressed that no one could quantify by how much.

“It’s more than likely making a contribution, and we can assess that by looking at the ocean temperatures around Australia which would cause more evaporation of moisture in the atmosphere,’’ Professor Karoly said.

Confused? One view is that the scientists are holding fire simply to avoid useless noise from the sceptics, who still seem to rule much of the known world even though their credibility has been shot to pieces.

But it’s also true that Queensland has flooded in similar places and in similar ways several times. And we know that bushfires and floods are Australia’s twin scourges.

But what Gettler found is that this could well be the “new normal”, and that if this isn’t climate change, it soon will be. Does it really matter what its name is, anyway? Who is prepared to rebuild in the areas hit by an inland tsunami? Who wants to risk $6 million on a Brisbane riverside mansion again? And what will happen to Brisbane’s huge turnaround to face the river?

The biggest immediate questions are how to rebuild, and where, and what lessons we learn. Expect huge controversy as the science lines up against the differing strands of planning, local councils, developers, designers, a disrupted property market, financiers, insurers, and short memories.

Already we’ve got big questions on styles of  housing (traditional Queenslander on stilts or concrete slab?), land use (build in flood plains or not?), roads (bitumen or concrete?),  dams (a help or a hindrance?). On this score see Hedley Thomas’s revelations about the poor Wivenhoe dam operators who may have made disastrous decisions because they were trying to follow the manual.

We need to rethink the entire national urban planning agenda on the basis of how to protect ourselves from severe climate events, Property Council of Australia’s chief executive officer Peter Verwer said on Friday.

“We need new strategies for all our cities and regions. We need to test them for resilience  and develop plans for mitigation and adaptation to deal with climate change and climate cycles,” he told The Fifth Estate.

The Europeans and Canadians are well down that path, he said. Time for Australia to catch up.

Gold Coast
Some Australian local councils are already taking climate very seriously. Picture the Gold Coast, wedged on its thin strip of land between the ocean on one side and the brooding hinterland with all its potential torrential rain on the other.

In the dying days of what now seems like the Golden Era, just before Christmas, we learnt the Gold Coast City Council has 35 people in its environment and climate change team. And that’s just in policy. We found this out because they were looking to bolster their team a little further . (See our Jobs section).

At about the same time, the federal government had just released a set of flood maps for the whole country. By accident we also learnt that technical people on the ground were furious with the Fed’s maps. They were wildly inaccurate;  “bucket science”, they said.

The maps (see our report ) contained margins for error of plus or minus about 1.5 metres.

As it turns out council was also about to release a set of inundation maps for its area (see the council website) based on a highly sophisticated laser-based technology known as LIDAR, or light detection and ranging,  which the council claims is so sensitive to the undersea topography it can achieve a margin of error of 15 centimetres.

Last week GCCC released a statement on potential flooding based on its maps, and said media reports that up to 20,000 homes could be hit by flooding were wildly exaggerated. (See our report.)

It didn’t take long for insurers to declare that the Brisbane floods were nothing to do with them because they were not caused by a storm and so they would not pay out.

And not long before Prime Minister Julia Gillard said there could be a flood levy to pick up some of the $20 billion bill. So as the insurers duck their obligations and cling to semantics, it’s clear the taxpayer will pick up the bulk of the bill this time and probably in future catastrophic events.

But you do wonder what the alternative could be. As the weather events become more extreme and erratic, the insurers will simply refuse cover. After all, they are running a business.

Don’t think for a moment they don’t take climate change seriously. After all, it’s their job to protect their investment by accurate risk assessment. Insurers were the first business group in Australia to take climate change seriously. In the mid-90s they started hiring science and weather experts, holding conferences on the issue, desperate to get the attention of media to sound the alarm – their alarm. After all, if you are running a business there is no point hiding your heads under an ideological boulder.

So yes, expect a “great big new tax”, or more than one, as we become the insurers of last resort. Or “self-insurers”.

But under the weird and surreal underbelly of the disaster lurks light. It also didn’t take long for someone to liken the reconstruction of Queensland to the economic stimulus package Mark II.

A disaster economy?
Amidst the gloom of potential food shortages and inflation came the obvious connection that the economy would benefit.

First to broadcast the upside was IBISWorld with its report (see our coverage ) of all the economic sectors that will benefit from new flood-related demand.  And just as the property sector was starting to worry at the end of last year that the work from the GFC stimulus package had started to dry up, here is something that will keep it very busy indeed. For a long time.

Hopefully we have learnt a tough lesson and will now make sure that what we do in the built environment space has an eye first and foremost on sustainability – and resilience.

The Fifth Estatate – sustainable property news and forum

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