Get With The Strength – It’s the Ecological Age

Hurricane Katrina: human costs well beyond the physical impact

by Tina Perinotto…

18 June…There’s a nasty underbelly to natural disasters that go way beyond the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure. It’s the human cost and, as in war, it can take many years to play out.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin whose city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, made this point at the United Studies Centre Summit on sustainability and globalisation in Sydney last week.

It was an armchair style conversation with ABC broadcaster Phillip Adams during the closing dinner for what had been two days of high level sessions with speakers such as Environment Minister Peter Garrett, economist and author of the Garnaut Report Ross Garnaut, Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and scientist Tim Flannery. (Even the sponsors were impressive – among them Harvard University and The Economist).

What Nagin pointed out was that while the city’s levees could be rebuilt, while housing could be moved to higher ground and the entire population of New Orleans could be evacuated quickly and smoothly in a similar event what cannot repaired so quickly is the human cost of trauma.

In New Orleans the sad legacy includes a rate of suicide up by three time, higher attempted suicides and a serious rise in violence among young men in particular.

In Victoria which experienced catastrophic bushfires in February this year the houses can be rebuilt, but not so easily the lives of older people – especially men, whose energies and often whole identities are invested in the spaces they call their land and their homes. Outsiders can only imagine what it feels like to be living in rented accommodation, to accept charity for the first time or to watch their family suffering.

These human costs of climate disruptions can be multiplied many times over for developing countries often located in marginal environments.

Australia might be wealthy but environmentally we as as marginal as any of the most vulnerable countries. Tim Flannery told delegates at the Summit there was really only five years left for serious action.

Residents of Byron Bay and other coastal areas watching parts of their properties being washed away by increasingly dangerous storms might think action should be sooner.

Appearing in The Age earlier this month former chairman of the Coal Mining Council Ian Dunlop also thinks action should be sooner.

“We are witnessing the greatest failure of leadership Australia has seen,” he said.

“Political and corporate leaders claim to accept that human-induced climate change is a serious risk, and requires urgent action…Yet the scientific and policy debates are like two ships passing in the night”

Even the science is wrong, he says. Six years out of date.

Instead of worrying about getting to 450-550 per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Instead it should be 387 parts per million, Dunlop said. See our post on his article.

Australia’s chief scientist backed by thousands of her peers urges action now.

Yet Senator Steve Fielding, Leader of Family First, who holds so much power in the senate, trots off to a climate sceptic conference in the US to find more reason to delay.

And climate denier Ian Plimer’s book, Heaven and Earth, derided by so many eminent scientists goes into reprint time and time again spurred by a dream run of publicity.

Closer to home The Fifth Estate editor Lynne Blundell was surprised to find even local council The City of Ryde had been forced to back down on its plan to mandate a minimum of five green stars for commercial buildings in its new local environment plan by a powerful bevy of lobbyists.

But why? What are the so called deniers or delayers so frightened of?  Economic loss? You would think after the global financial crisis, we could handle anything in the monetary department.

Instead of loss there is an economic renaissance on offer.

People like leading environmental scientist Peter Newman point to the role of new technology (this time green) that always pulls economies out of their recessionary holes (at least when this most constructive and balanced of thinkers isn’t being vilified as a federal government-slamming radical. See this and here ).

Another man who reckons there is an Eldorado waiting just beyond the Hijab of climate denial is Arup’s director and leader of global planning business Peter Head who calls this next period, the Ecological Age. (Hear him speak on this at the first of the 2009 Sydney Forums on 25 June.)

And Professor Ralph Horne says 7 star housing is cheaper than 6 star housing and will make you extra money on re-sale. (see Spinifex)

But no matter how influential these scientists and commentators are they don’t wield direct power.

Which is why it’s so encouraging to see one of Australia’s premiers striding out from the crowd, leading and wanting to lead even more, on climate change initiatives.

And not afraid to reveal that as a Greenpeace activist in the early 70s he’s no newby to the  cause.

See our profile on South Australia’s Mike Rann for nice dollop of our regular optimism.

tperinotto@thefithestate.com.au

The Fifth Estate attended the Summit as a guest of sponsor MWH.