Climate extremes — time to phase out coal and gas

The latest weekly "Our Common Cause" column of the Socialist Alliance argues the time is well-over due to phase out fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy.

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It's been another summer of record-breaking extreme weather in Australia.

The Bureau of Meteorology reported on February 1 that January was the hottest month ever recorded. “The heatwave in the first half of January was exceptional in its extent and duration… Late January saw extreme rainfall and flooding for coastal areas of Queensland and New South Wales.”

This extreme weather, switching between devastating fires and then terrible floods, shows the impact climate change is already having on the lives of ordinary people.

When southern Tasmania had its hottest day on record — 41.8°C — a firestorm devastated the coastal town of Dunalley. Had the town been further from the refuge of the water, it's likely there would have been deaths.

An intense heatwave was the catalyst for extreme fires that burned across south-eastern Australia, destroying hundreds of homes.

Then the rain came. The Queensland town of Bundaberg was cut off by floodwaters. Two-thousand people in the NSW town of Grafton had to be evacuated as the waters moved south.

Thankfully the floods and fires have resulted in few deaths, unlike the 2009 Black Saturday fire in Victoria and the 2011 floods in Queensland.

But the pattern is obvious to anyone without an axe to grind. As Jim McGowan wrote in The Conversation: “Many believed the 2010-11 floods and cyclones in Queensland were an aberration. The term, a ‘one in 100 year event’ provides people — including those responsible for disaster management — with a false sense of security. How can a one in 100 year event occur twice in two years?”

Globally there have been over 333 months — nearly 28 years — in a row of above-average temperatures, statistically near impossible without climate change's effects.

Warm weather brings more heatwaves and droughts, and also more evaporation — leading to heavier rainfalls in some areas. That appears to be what we are seeing as an emerging pattern in Australia.

These disasters are not just some kind of statistic in an argument about climate change. People have lost their homes and everything they own — in some cases, for the second time in as many years.

The Insurance Australia Group has fielded claims for flood damage of over $200 million, and that's not counting the costs of fires in southern states.

In 2011, Matthew Wright of Beyond Zero Emissions suggested that the coal industry ought to be at the forefront of compensating victims of that year's floods.

“As flood victims come to terms with their losses and get on with rebuilding their lives with savings, government assistance and charity, I'd like to know how much money the Australian coal industry will chip in?” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph on January 17, 2011.

“Given that they are a major driver of climate change, they should be the ones forking out money to help affected Australians recover. Will they pay the increased premiums and cover rises in excesses as everyone's insurance costs rise?”

The coal companies are mining a resource that belongs to all Australians. They are selling it on the international markets to make record profits.

And yet these companies have been at the forefront of denying climate change — witness coal-billionaire Gina Rinehart's promotion of hacks and cranks like Andrew Bolt and Christopher Monckton to undermine climate change science.

These companies, including global mining giants BHP, Rio Tinto and Xstrata, have gone out on a limb to resist any measures that would impose on their burgeoning profits. The current opposition to the carbon price is one example.

They poured $22 million into the campaign against the Resource Super Profits Tax and kicked out a democratically elected prime minister.

This is for companies making record profits off a resource that belongs to all Australians — and a resource that is driving the dangerous global warming that fuels disasters such as we are now seeing.

Making the giant mining companies give up some of their super-profits to compensate flood and fire victims is the least we should demand. It's not because we have calculated the precise proportion of the flood due to global warming, and the precise proportion of global warming for which these companies are responsible.

It's because the resources are ours and they are using them against our interests. Australia needs to assert its democratic right to take back the mining revenue and use it to fix the urgent problems that have been caused.

Rebuilding homes with fire and flood-proofing or resettling towns would be only a small part of what could be achieved by re-appropriating the miners’ wealth.

This “resource nationalism”, as the mining bosses call it, is not the kind of politics that Australia has been used to — but radical problems require radical solutions. That's why the Socialist Alliance’s policy is to put the mining industry under public ownership, to phase out the disastrous coal and gas industries, and use the revenues for social needs not private wealth.

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