As Australia prepares for new weather extremes, political opposition mounts

Australia is no stranger to extremes. The country has long experienced extreme heat, prolonged drought and severe wildfires.

It's about to get worse. In the coming decade and beyond, the nation should gird itself for even more extremes caused by climate change, say the authors of a new report from the country's Climate Commission, an independent body of experts appointed to report on what climate change will mean for the nation.

"The climate system has shifted, and is continuing to shift," the report authors wrote in strongly worded language meant to alert the public and Australia's politicians and emergency managers.

Such a shift "has already led to significant increases in heat waves and increases in extreme wildfire conditions, particularly in southeast Australia," said David Karoly, a professor in the school of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne, member of the Climate Commission and one of the report authors.

The report, titled "The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather," goes through five sets of extreme weather events: heat, rainfall and drought, bush fires (wildfires), sea level rise and coastal flooding, and tropical cyclones and storms. For each of these episodes, the outlook is grim.

Take drought. The last one, called the Big Dry, lasted nine years, devastated farming families and led to catastrophic bush fires. In 2009, bush fires in the state of Victoria killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 houses.

When droughts kill crops, it hurts more than just Australians, said Johan Schaar, co-director of the Vulnerability and Adaptation Initiative at the World Resources Institute.


"Australia is also a very significant producer of wheat for the world market," and when Australian wheat fails to produce, it can lead to a global food crisis, which happened in 2008, Schaar said.

A package of legal steps

According to the report, "A return to the earlier, wetter climate is unlikely, and such dry conditions and droughts are likely in the southwest and southeast to become more common and intense."

The nation passed a package of legislation to reduce its emissions in 2011. This included a tax on carbon that leads into an emissions trading system in 2015, a "multipronged, fairly comprehensive approach," said Taryn Fransen, project director of the Open Climate Network at the World Resources Institute.

The government has also tried to adapt to the possibility of more disasters.

In response to increased flood risk and high insurance premiums in flood-prone areas, this February it announced the establishment of a National Insurance Affordability Council to manage the national coordination of flood and other disaster risk management.

It's also considering a package of bills that will reformulate its support of farmers who might face the challenges of drought, said a spokesman from the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

Yet amid such stern warnings of increased threats of floods and fire, a rising political figure, Tony Abbott, who heads Australia's conservative coalition, has said if he gains power he'll abolish the Climate Commission and repeal the country's system to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

Bureaucratic shifts as opposition heats up

There have already been changes that worry those concerned about the country's commitment to emissions reductions.

In 2012, the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency laid off a third of its workforce.

Then, in late March this year, the department itself was divided up and merged into other Cabinet-level departments. Now that it is folded into such a wide-ranging agency, some environmentalists fear that may not bode well for the future of climate change regulation and adaptation in the country.

Government officials say the department is no longer needed now that Australia's carbon pricing legislation has passed.

But Abbott, who leads the opposition to the current ruling party and, according to polls, is set to win the prime minister seat in the country's Sept. 14 election, wants to repeal that legislation.

Abbott has not spared words disparaging the climate tax and "the bureaucracy associated with it," as he told one Australian radio program.

Karoly, the Climate Commission scientist, said the opposition to taking strong action on climate change was not limited to the political sphere.

"There is a strong media campaign and business campaign to stop emission reductions in Australia, to maintain the use of fossil fuels for electricity production, and to increase exports of coal and natural gas, as well as to block increases in the use of wind power and solar power in Australia," he said.

While Abbott's party is on the upswing, a February estimate by Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds there is only a 32 percent chance the carbon price will be repealed after the election, even if Abbott wins. His party would have to gain power in the Australian Senate, which does not hold its elections until July 2014, to do that.

Abbott does, however, have the power to ax the Climate Commission. If he wins the election, this most recent warning could be its last.