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The Business of Green

Money matters in the green world, by Leon Gettler.

The floods and climate change

Flooding

Credit: sxc.hu

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The deadly floods in Queensland have generated even more debate on climate change. Is global warming to blame for the destruction? Or is it the result of bad planning policies that allowed people to build houses in areas that were already flood prone? It’s probably both.

We can’t say for sure that the floods have been caused by climate change – it’s impossible to prove that scientifically at this stage – but the floods do seem to have the thumb print of global warming. Reuters reports that climate scientists say that much of the intensity of the floods comes from climate change, although they cannot say whether climate change creates more intense La Niña events. One of the scientists quoted here, David Jones from the Bureau of Meteorology, told me that while it is difficult to identify climate change behind specific events like a storm or heat wave, the floods in Queensland have the thumb print of climate change. “In the current one, the two real signatures of climate change are the record ocean temperatures around Australia – oceans around Australia are the hottest they have been in history – and also over the last six months, we have had the highest humidity on record. From July to October, we had the highest ocean temperatures on record, the highest rainfall on record and we also had the highest humidity on record.”

In the Niagara Falls Review, Al Oleksuik says climate change has to be the driver behind it. “The difference of several degrees in ocean waters can have far reaching effects. The ongoing flooding in Australia, not a place normally associated with such events, is a direct result of two normally unrelated weather events coming together at the wrong time. As a result of a La Niña in the Pacific Ocean, stronger than normal trade winds are pushing and holding annual monsoons over parts of Australia. The Brisbane area is reeling from historic flooding, a result of these weather patterns.”

But then, climate change sceptics are in full swing. Ralph Hillman, director of the Australian Coal Association, says coal has only made a tiny contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, contradicting the scientific evidence about the extreme weather events we are now seeing.

Steve Connor, science editor of The Independent in Britain, says the real culprit behind the disasters in Australia and Brazil is bad urban planning. “Urban planning has also played a pivotal role in making Brisbane vulnerable. After 1974, authorities said the newly built Wivenhoe Dam would save Brisbane from severe flooding but what they didn't take into account was that the city and its surroundings would change dramatically over the next 35 years. Rapid urban development, a growth in the population and the dubious practice of building on flood plains have all raised the flooding risk in areas once considered flood-free. The building of houses, roads, drains and other infrastructure has changed the way water flows through river catchments, said Professor Chris Eves of the Queensland University of Technology. Bad urban planning even in a nation such as Australia can increase the risk of flooding by taking away natural defences that let rainwater seep away safely. ‘It's created the potential to flood areas that were safe in 1974, and we're seeing that now,’ Professor Eves said.”

But then, it’s not an "either/or" proposition. Bad urban planning has crowded more people together in unstable places. But at the same time, we are seeing more volatility in the weather. Climate change just exaggerates that volatility, and makes it more unpredictable. Putting that together with bad urban planning makes it a deadly combination.