Floods can help Australia rise toward adaptation to climate change

The Queensland floods and other recent record-breaking weather events can help push Australia further toward becoming a world leader in adapting to the predicted effects of global warming.

Australians have long talked of their continent as “a land of droughts and flooding rains,” a geographic fact that also accounts for their high resiliency during a weather crisis.

But record rainfalls in the northeast, coming after a long drought in the south, are pushing this nation to do more than talk about the weather.

Out of a new sense of vulnerability, Australia is fast becoming a leader in planning for adaptation to rapid climate change predicted for the 21st century.

The devastating floods in the state of Queensland have left an inland sea the size of Germany and France. The 30-foot rise of three rivers has affected 200,000 people, 40 cities and towns, and vital coal exports. Officials have even put an Army general, Mick Slater, in charge of recovery from this disaster.

These latest floods will no doubt push along a new national strategy to adapt to global warming – even though the weather woes in Queensland are attributed more to the wet and dry cycles of the La Niña and El Niño changes in the Pacific.

A year ago, a government paper set out an adaptation strategy with this stunning declaration: “Already Australia faces a stark fact – the opportunity to avoid climate change altogether has passed.”

The statement reflects a political reality that the world’s major polluters – Australia being one of them – are not moving fast enough to reduce greenhouse gases in order to slow down an expected rise in atmospheric temperatures.

In many nations, adaptation to more frequent and severe climate shocks has been played down for years in hopes of focusing the public on cutting carbon emissions. But a few years ago, after a decade-long drought and record heat waves, Australia moved toward a policy of learning how to withstand and recover from climate change.

Already the driest inhabited continent on Earth, it now has many new converts to the adaptation cause. One 2008 study said flatly that maintaining current lifestyles “is not a realistic expectation.”

In agriculture, the government has laid out various plans to help farmers adjust to the official prediction that climate change will cut food production by more than 15 percent – and perhaps turn Australia into a net food importer.

The largest spending on adaptation is a 10-year, $12.9 billion program called “Water for the Future.” It includes setting up a robust market for water resources so that “as water becomes more scarce there are incentives to deliver it to the areas of highest priority.”

The government also plans to issue a “climate futures report” every five years, starting this year. Last year, it sponsored the world’s first official conference on climate-change adaptation and has set up a research facility dedicated solely to the topic. (One study hopes to create a “model for resilience” by looking at four communities that bounced back from natural disasters.)

Human history is, in large part, about adjusting to nature. But with rapid changes in Australia’s already-variable weather, the country is being forced to adapt more quickly. The Queensland floods are just another reminder to act now in order to help future generations.

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