Australia’s vulnerability to climate change effects has been more than obvious in the past weeks. The State of Queensland is currently 62 per cent under water, according to Prime Minister Rudd, since cyclone Ellis crossed the North-West coast of the country earlier this week. Road and rail links, and many towns, have been cut off by the floods as the AU$ 100 million damage bill continues to rise.
Australia is undoubtedly worthy of its reputation of country of extremes. While Queensland is flooded, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania are experiencing their highest temperatures on record. ‘The worst heat wave to strike Australia in a century is due to climate change’ was the blunt message from the Government in the past days, as the country struggles to cope with the heat-related chaos, including buckling rail lines, numerous heat related deaths and sweeping power blackouts. (SMH 6/02/09). It seems that the country’s infrastructures and services struggle to deal with the situation. It is clear that the current public transport system water supply system and the health services are stretched to their limits. Weather watchers warn that Australians will have to get used to more heat waves after the record-setting temperatures that have scorched the country’s south-east so far this year. Professor David Karoly of the University of Melbourne claims that “the system can’t cope now, and it is just going to get much worse.”
The hot, dry and windy conditions (in addition to the stupidity of a few arsonists) are the explosive ingredients currently causing massive and deadly fires in the South-east of the country (ABC 07/02/09). To many people, Australia is sitting on a time bomb when it comes to bushfires. Indeed, researchers say bushfires can release as much carbon pollution as the whole of industry combined, while they are not officially counted towards Australia’s emissions. The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (established by the Government and currently investigating the issue) says the problem will snowball because climate change will cause more bushfires, which will release more carbon pollution, which makes climate change worse. According to Mark Adams, a University of Sydney researcher, a bad fire could release 30 million tones of carbon into the atmosphere. In a bad fire year the scale of emissions from forest fires in southern Australia was of the same order as industrial emissions. Wildfires can then produce ‘step’ increases in global atmospheric CO2, undermining international efforts to tackle climate change. There is no doubt that the international community should include emissions from forests in a post-Kyoto climate pact. In addition, serious effort needs to be done in terms of forest management and burn-offs strategies in order to minimise the risk of bushfires.