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Australia's Flood Pain

Author: Toni Johnson
January 19, 2011

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The flooding in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia that began in early January has been called one of the country's worst natural disasters and is expected to continue into next week. The flood may wash away any hopes the country had for achieving a budget surplus in 2012-2013. Clean-up is so far estimated at more than $20 billion, with the government footing as much as 75 percent of reconstruction costs (Telegraph). Rebuilding also could test the country's already tight labor market (WSJ). "Before the global financial crisis, there was almost daily news about projects having to be deferred due to lack of staff," said Peter Taylor with the industry group Engineers Australia. "You can expect some of that again."

According to Australian economist Saul Eslake, the country is likely to see other economic consequences (SydneyMorningHerald), including the loss of an estimated $6 billion production income, mostly from the agriculture and mining sectors. The region exports nearly two-thirds of the world's coking coal, but about 60 percent of coal mines have closed due to flooding. Global coking coal prices rose 55 percent in past week (FT).

The flooding comes on the heels of a nearly decade-long drought in Queensland. Much of the first non-drought-affected crops are destroyed, which could lead to higher food prices (Bloomberg). The state produces roughly a third of the country's fruits and vegetables, about 40 percent of its cotton, and more than 90 percent of the country's sugar.

"The floods that have led to most of Queensland being declared a disaster zone are a disturbing reminder that living in one of the richest countries in the world does not shield us from the devastation of natural disasters" (SydneyMorning Herald), says Ellen Sandell, national director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. "When we talk about climate change, we mostly talk about complicated economic policy, markets, and reports. But we need to start talking about what climate change actually looks like--and we don't need to look much further than Queensland."

Scientists say much of the devastating weather is not caused by climate change but by La Nina (TIME), during which the Pacific cools, causing more clouds over Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. From Sri Lanka to the Philippines and South Africa, the first month of 2011 has brought heavy rains and deadly flooding. But even though climate change is unlikely the culprit this time, some scientists say the scale and the breadth of 2011 flooding--along with the past year's large-scale flooding and drought in major countries like Pakistan and Russia--mirror predictions on the effects of climate change in coming years.

"Climate scientists have been insisting that the seesaw between mega-droughts and mega-floods will become increasingly common as human emissions intensify the hydrological cycle," writes Subir Ghosh in DigitalJournal.com on the massive mudslides and flooding that killed as many as seven hundred people in Brazil. "This is a far cry from the once-in-a-century-drought and the once-in-a-century-flood that humanity had known earlier."

Analysis

In the Independent, Science Editor Steve Connor writes that though the Australian floods aren't about climate change, they could present the future, and "bad urban planning even in a nation such as Australia can increase the risk of flooding."

Tom Switzer, a researcher at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, writes that though "Australians are in no mood to play politics," that has not stopped "a few climate enthusiasts from blaming the floods on man-made global warming" and calling on coal companies to foot the bill for the flood recovery (FOXNews).

Reuters examines how insurers are struggling to assess the effects of climate change at a time when the industry says the number of weather-related disasters has already soared over the past several decades.

Background

This CFR Crisis Guide examines the causes and consequences of climate change.

 

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