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Climate Emergency Network, La Niña, Climate Change & Queensland flood disaster - stop burning coal & gas

by : Dr Gideon Polya
Saturday January 15, 2011 - 01:36

Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria in Australia are currently ravaged by floods associated with the latest La Niña climate event. However man-made global warming from greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution has increased sea temperatures and increased the likelihood and severity of such flood disasters. The Climate Emergency Network has issued a statement urging Australia, a world-leading per capita GHG polluter, to stop burning coal and gas.

Queensland, Australia, continues to be ravaged by huge floods that have so far killed 16 (50 missing), forced thousands from their homes, flooded a key major part of the capital city Brisbane, adversely affected 70 towns and 200,000 people and cost circa $13 billion (see 2010-2011 Queensland floods, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010%E... ). Now La Niña-spawned storms fuelled by tropical moisture have devastated North East New South Wales to the south of devastated South East Queensland and caused huge floods in Western Victoria in Southern Australia.

Paradoxically these Australian areas had just emerged from about 10 years of drought that was exacerbated by the El Niño obverse of the La Nino system. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has provided the following succinct explanation of the El Niño and La Niña systems: “The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the oscillation between El Niño and La Niña conditions. The term El Niño refers to the extensive warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean which leads to a major shift in weather patterns across the Pacific. This occurs every three to eight years and is associated with a weaker Walker Circulation (see diagram provided) and drier conditions in eastern Australia. El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the term used to describe the oscillation between the El Niño phase and the La Niña, or opposite, phase. In the eastern Pacific, the northward flowing Humbolt current brings cooler water from the Southern Ocean to the tropics. Furthermore, along the equator, strong east to southeasterly Trade winds cause the ocean currents in the eastern Pacific to draw water from the deeper ocean towards the surface, helping to keep the surface cool. However in the far western Pacific there is no cool current, and weaker Trades mean that this "upwelling" effect is reduced. Hence waters in the western equatorial Pacific are able to warm more effectively under the influence of the tropical sun. This means that under "normal" conditions the western tropical Pacific is 8 to 10°C warmer than the eastern tropical Pacific. While the ocean surface north and northeast of Australia is typically 28 to 30°C or warmer, near South America the Pacific Ocean is close to 20°C. This warmer area of ocean is a source for convection and is associated with cloudiness and rainfall [in La Niña]. However, during El Niño years, the trade winds weaken and the central and eastern tropical Pacific warms up. This change in ocean temperature sees a shift in cloudiness and rainfall from the western to the central tropical Pacific Ocean” (see Australian Bureau of Meteorology:: http://www.bom.gov.au/watl/about-we... ).

The Australian floods have been caused by the current La Niña phenomenon but have occurred in the context of an increase in sea surface temperature due to man-made global warming. Thus the Australian CSIRO-Bureau of Meteorology report “The State of the Climate” (2010) states that “Sea surface temperatures around Australia have increased by about 4oC in the past 50 years… Australian average temperatures are projected t rise buy 0.6oC to 1.5oC by 2030. If global greenhouse emissions continue to grow at rates consistent with past trends, warming is projected to be in the range of 2.2oC to 5.0oC by 2070… there is a greater than 90% certainty that increase in greenhouse gas emissions have caused most of the global warming since the mid-20th century. International research shows that it is extremely unlikely that the observed warming could be explained by natural causes alone. Evidence of human influence has been detected in ocean warming, sea level rise, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns. CSIRO research has found that higher greenhouse gas levels are likely to have caused about half of the winter rainfall reduction in south-west Western Australia” (see CSIRO-Bureau of Meteorology , “The State of the Climate”, 2010: http://www.csiro.au/files/files/pvfo.pdf).

Because the day to day weather is highly variable one cannot attribute any specific weather event (such as the current Queensland and Eastern Australian floods) to man-made global warming. However increased precipitation derives from increased sea temperature and increased evaporation and accordingly one cannot exclude the likelihood of a contribution of man-made global warming to such extreme precipitation events.

Thus Professor David Karoly (Professor of Meteorology and an ARC Federation Fellow in the School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne, and a lead author of the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC) on Queensland floods, climate change and extreme precipitation: “What gives very heavy rainfall is high Indian Ocean temperatures and La Niña in the Pacific. This year we have both of those, and both are at record highs… (presented data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology shows a marked increase in Australian region December sea temperature: http://www.bom.gov.au/cgi-bin/clima... ) …This (pronounced long-term warming trend in the waters near Australia) isn’t just climate variability. This is man-made climate change… we can’t say this individual event [in Queensland] is due to long term climate change, but we can say the overall global sea surface temperature increases are due to anthropogenic [man-made] forcings” (see David Karoly quoted in Alyson Kenward, “Ocean temperatures show possible climate change connection to Australian flooding”, Global Climate Change (GCC) News Brief, 13 January 2011: http://hendrawanm.wordpress.com/201... ).

Put simply, we currently have the successive events of burning fossil fuels, increased atmospheric greenhouse gases, increased sea temperature, increased evaporation, increased precipitation and floods. Ergo, stop burning fossil fuels ASAP.

Unfortunately Australia is one of the world’s worst per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) polluters, is the world’s biggest coal exporter, ranks fourth in Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) exports and is resolutely committed to Business As Usual under successive pro-coal, pro-gas neoconservative governments.

Thus, while scientists say that Australians must achieve zero CO2 pollution and 100% renewable energy by 2020 (see “Beyond Zero Emissions’ 100% renewable energy by 2020 plan for Australia, ZCA2020: http://www.beyondzeroemissions.org/... ), there is bipartisan support from both the Liberal-National Party Opposition and the Labor Government (aka the Lib-Labs) for a derisory 5% off Domestic 2000 GHG pollution by 2020, a derisory offer that amounts to a predicted Domestic plus Exported GHG pollution by 2020 that will be 149% of that in 2000 (see “Australia’s “5% off 2000 GHG pollution by 2020” endangers Australia, Humanity and the Biosphere”, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group: https://sites.google.com/site/yarra... ) .

Australia’s disproportionate greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution is shown by the following data: “annual per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution” in units of “tonnes CO2-equivalent per person per year” (2005-2008 data) is 0.9 (Bangladesh), 0.9 (Pakistan), 2.2 (India), less than 3 (many African and Island countries), 3.2 (the Developing World), 5.5 (China), 6.7 (the World), 11 (Europe), 16 (the Developed World), 27 (the US) and 30 (Australia; or 54 if Australia’s huge Exported CO2 pollution is included) and unaddressed man-made climate change is predicted to kill 10 billion people this century (see “Climate Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/clima... ).

Queensland is a major player in coal and natural gas exploitation and export that makes Australia a major culprit in man0made global warming. Indeed throughout the disaster economic commentators have looked forward to the resumption of coal exports that had been interrupted by the floods. Indeed at the height of the Brisbane floods (13 January 2011) Santos announced plans for a $13 billion LNG plant in Gladstone for 7.8 million tonnes of LNG per year with exports due to start in 2015 i.e. 21.5 million tonnes CO2 to be added the atmosphere each year as well as leaked methane (72 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas on a 20 year time scale) (see “Santos unveils plans for $16 bn LNG plant”, ABC News, 13 Jnaurary 2011: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/... ).

It must be noted that because methane (CH4, the major component of natural gas) is far worse as a GHG than CO2 and because methane leaks, burning natural gas for energy can be worse than burning coal GHG-wise (see “Huge US natural gas leakage means STOP gas rush, gas boom, gas-fired power plants & global Gasland”, Bellaciao, 5 January 2011: http://bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?ar...).

In response to the Queensland floods the Melbourne-based Climate Emergency Network (CEN) has sent out the following important Media Release on 14 January 2011:

“The Climate Emergency Network is calling on the Australian Federal and State governments to heed the message of the current disastrous Queensland floods and commit to urgent and effective action to end the plunge into catastrophic climate change and to restore a safe climate. Failure to do so will lead to a future of even more extreme floods, droughts and bushfires, occurring more often, says the CEN.

“Australia’s weather has always been highly variable,” said CEN’s convenor, Philip Sutton, “but climate change is exaggerating the extremes. Hot weather is becoming hotter and dry weather is becoming drier. More water is taken from the land and sea into the atmosphere, so that when it does rain, it rains harder.”

“It’s time for Australian politicians, and the public, to stop ignoring the undeniable evidence and to join the dots. Climate change is not the sole cause of these events but it is certainly increasing their devastating effects.

“For several decades extreme weather events have become more common and more intense. – exactly as climate scientists predicted. And now across the world communities are suffering not just extreme but catastrophic weather-driven disasters. And what is really scary is that this is all happening with a global temperature increase of less than 1°C.

“World leaders have agreed to limit climate change to an increase of 2 degrees but have failed to take action that can achieve even that. It is generally acknowledged that the world is currently on track to an increase of at least 4 degrees, unless strong action is taken.

“We are facing a climate emergency now with a warming of less than 1°C and emergency action needs to be taken without further delay to cool the earth.”

“To cool the earth we need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the air and we need to take the excess carbon dioxide out of the air.

“Such action will have to be taken urgently, on a national and global scale. The Climate Emergency Network helped to fund the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 report, released last July, which showed that Australia could supply all its electricity needs from renewable resources by 2020. The federal government must fund and implement such a plan immediately. Other research has shown that Australian forests lock up more carbon per hectare than others. Stopping native forest logging and allowing regrowth of native vegetation would reduce national greenhouse emissions significantly.

“The Queensland floods are another wake up call to all of us,” said Sutton. “We need to end our fatal addiction to fossil-fuels. [Australian Labor PM] Julia Gillard has warned of broader budget cuts following spending on flood relief, she should cut the $9 billion in annual government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry instead. We must stop building new coal and fossil gas-fired power stations. If [Labor] premier Anna Bligh allows these to proceed she is inviting future disaster for both Queensland and the world. We know what needs to be done. Now politicians must commit to doing it!”



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