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Floods wash away carbon tax support

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Friday, 27 April 2012

In August 2009, after three years of computer modelling, a joint team of scientists from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology announced that they had linked greenhouse gases to the drought then reigning over south-eastern Australia. They also declared that the decline in rainfall was likely to be permanent as more of those gases accumulated in the atmosphere and the world warmed.

The results of the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative were one of many warnings issued at the time, with the drought still in full swing, that rainfall patterns had changed and that dams had been built in the wrong spots. They would never be full again.

Warnings such as this, playing on understandable fears over what had proved to be a very long, dry period, prompted the building of desalination plants in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane. More importantly, these warnings were repeated by a parade of activists and scientists (the distinction was often blurred) who found their way into the media both before and after the initiative announced its results. In early 2008, the Bureau of Meteorology's head of climate analysis, David Jones, was reported as declaring that the extreme dry climate of the time was permanent. In 2007, Tim Flannery who is now the Federal Govenrment's climate commissioner, declared that there had been a decline in the winter rainfall zone across Australia.


But in the end the warnings did little more than illustrate the problems of forecasting, any forecasting. For no sooner had the CSIRO-BoM scientists declared that the drought would continue than it started to rain and, it seems, has not stopped raining in South Eastern Australia. One result of all that rain, including two years of flooding due to back to back La Ninas, and now quite full dams, has been to wash away a great deal of public support for previous assertions about global warming.

Most of those who listened to or read the various gloomy forecasts made at the height of the drought would have little idea of any of the scientific basis for them, and would have barely heard any of the counter arguments. They have better things to do than get to the bottom of a technical issue. But they do know a lot of water when they see it, and would remember that the experts had told them their patch of Australia was drying up.

In the grand tradition of forecasters caught out by reality, the experts have broadly reinterpreted what was originally said. Media consumers are now told that the original forecasts emphasised that both droughts and flooding would increase as the world warmed (to be fair, some of the forecasts also mentioned floods).

The federal government's Climate Commission has also issued a statement that people should look beyond the past two years of rain, floods and dams full to overflowing, and instead consider the 10 average which is still pretty dry compared to previous periods.

The trouble with these hurried reinterpretations is that those living in rural areas know perfectly well the level of the last severe flooding, perhaps back in the 1970s, as it is usually marked on a handy feature. The last set of floods came up to those marks. They and their city cousins may also have heard somewhere that rainfall is subject to cycles, and that the climate of Australia's eastern seaboard has returned to the notably wetter conditions that prevailed from the late 1940s through to the mid-1970s. They may put those bits of information together to conclude that the experts were quite wrong in their assessments of the reasons for the drought.

Staunch defenders of global warming theory may brush aside such quibbles by pointing out that temperature and rainfall forecasts are quite separate matters, and they would be correct. It is possible to have both high temperatures and high rainfall, as anyone who visits a rain forest would know. The trouble is that scientists in 2009 were confidently linking increasing greenhouse gases to the drought, and telling everyone the dams would never be full, and promptly got more than two years of rain and full dams. It does them little good now to point to averages. In addition, the state governments built desalinisation plants with political fumbling making them difficult to switch off or dismantle in some states. They have become monuments to the folly of believing in forecasts.


This creates a problem for the Gillard government, even bigger than the self-generated political mess into which it has fallen. It is committed to the carbon tax, which will come into effect in July, but even the least media-savvy voters are becoming suspicious of the warnings about climate change that inspired the tax. Voters in marginal electorates don't follow politics much (who can blame them), but may well have heard about the problems with the desalination plants. If the experts were so wrong about rainfall, why can't they be wrong about temperatures and so why do we need this tax? Or so the reasoning will go.

The Climate Commissions' assurances, plus another climate report put out by the CSIRO earlier this year, and yet another by the IPCC, reiterating warnings that greenhouse gases will lead to substantial additional warming, will do little to offset this massive increase in scepticism.

On top of this is the general angst over increases in electricity prices, which on average have risen almost 40 per cent more than inflation since the election of the Rudd government in 2007. The Rudd and Gillard governments are only partially to blame for this increase, through legislation requiring a massive increase in green electricity. Most of the increase is due to changes in networks which will not be discussed here.

As noted earlier the carbon tax has yet to start, but once it is up and running it will be a handy scape goat. Voters can relieve their feelings over the high bills they have to pay by demanding it be abolished, and abolition will at least prevent a part of future price increases. All of this means that voters already suspicious of the carbon tax will soon consider it to be in the same category as the desalination plants in each state – as an expensive white elephant that should not have to pay for.

Labor may commit political suicide for a host of reasons unconnected with the tax, but it's certainly not going to help them at the polls.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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