With an unprecedented storm flooding large population centres on Australia’s east coast over the weekend, you would be forgiven for thinking politicians on the campaign trail might pause to reflect on climate change.
On the other side of the world, France and much of west and northern Europe are also experiencing extensive floods. They are unprecedented in the speed at which they have deluged cities and communities.
Climate change did not overdetermine these floods in Australia and Europe. But, it has super-charged their intensity and speed in a way that would make them rare in the past.
The weather patterns are complex, but the climate change part of the science is less so. Every 1°C increase in global average temperature means the atmosphere can hold 7% more water vapour. This means that when moist air condenses into rainfall, it is capable of coming down for much longer and in much greater volume than it did in pre-industrial times.
Climate change is not about some kind of linear increase in temperature. It is about an increase in energy in the climate system that produces extremes – in drought, storms, wind, heatwaves and floods. Floods are just one of the expressions of the violence of the excess energy.
Analysis from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, published last year and reported in the New York Times, showed record-breaking rainfall has increased 12% from 1980 to 2010 compared to the previous 80 years. In Europe, the increase was 31%. This is because the northern hemisphere temperature anomalies are so much greater than the south.
In France, the floods are getting attention as they are affecting globally recognised public treasures such as artwork at the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. Paris hasn’t experienced a flood of this magnitude in more than 30 years, and certainly not one that has accumulated at the speed of this one.
This has moved French President Francois Hollande to link the flood to climate change, only six months after the climate summit held in Paris last December.
But, in Australia, at the midway point of an election campaign, the leaders of the major parties failed to mention our floods. Malcolm Turnbull aired the hang-up he shares with Bill Shorten about avoiding a hung parliament to shore up their own political power.
Ironically, a hung parliament might lead to power-sharing with the one party likely to drive effective action on climate – the Greens.
The Great Barrier Reef visits Australian voters
At a time when some are “reef-stricken” about the pending loss of coral at one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, many are oblivious to the seriousness of the bleaching process. While Environment Minister Greg Hunt would like to take credit for management of the Great Barrier Reef, the greatest palpable threat to the reef is warming sea-surface temperatures.
Just days after it was revealed the Australian government had lobbied for the removal of an entire chapter on the reef from a UN report, Hunt applauded his own management of the reef.
With the current floods, we are now seeing the hangover from the record sea surface temperatures that emerged in the last six months. This has led to bleaching on 93% of individual reefs*.
But the leaders appear to be afraid of any kind of contest, let alone one on climate change. Last week’s highly scripted leaders’ debate largely dodged climate change, despite persistent questioning from Financial Review journalist Laura Tingle.
There is a growing indication that voters are taking extreme weather into their deliberations around climate policy. Even though mainstream media is notoriously bad at linking extreme weather to climate change, which is taboo for many Coalition MP’s, voters make this link themselves simply by experiencing it on an ever-more regular basis.
Even Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, one of the eight-member kill-the-carbon-tax group that met every week in Cory Bernardi’s office, is having second thoughts. A feature article in the Sydney Morning Herald had him questioning his faith in Coalition groupthink.
After visiting his parents parched landholding in Rutherglen, Joyce declared:
I start to wonder whether climate change might really be happening.
This phenomena is an example of what 350.org founder Bill McKibben said at the end of what he regarded as a failed climate summit in Paris. Without an effective agreement, there is only one negotiation that remains: with physics itself. And physics actually holds all the cards.
As voters confront the physics or – put another way – extreme weather visits upon us, climate change becomes depoliticised.
But, in ignoring the physics, the cowardly climate stance that the major party leaders have taken is likely to backfire. Both leaders set out from the position that climate change has become so politicised that swinging voters are more likely to change their voter intention on other issues such as “jobs and growth”, education and hospitals.
A telling statistic here comes from three weeks of data collected by the ABC’s Vote Compass. 63% of the 250,000 respondents now want to see a price on carbon in Australia, compared to 50% in 2013.
But, more significantly, the shift was most marked in Coalition voters. There is a 13% increase in those wanting a price on carbon (41% agree, 22% are neutral).
These figures have prompted former Liberal leader John Hewson to challenge the idea that the Coalition’s 2013 campaign to “axe the tax” won it the last election.
As the Mona Lisa makes its way to higher ground, and Australians are asked to stay indoors across four states, the reality of climate change continues to assert itself. While they may be in denial, politicians cannot dismiss climate change as an issue that comes and goes. It is here to stay for today’s voters and for every election to come.
*This sentence has been clarified to note that 93% of individual reefs have experienced bleaching.