The east coast of Australia has had its wettest start to a year since records began. The resulting deadly floods have led to anger as Australia struggles to deal with the fallout and to come to terms with the effects of climate change.
Tuesday 8 March saw parts of coastal and inland New South Wales suffer from torrential rain and massive flooding, affecting thousands. The floods have also led to a reported 22 deaths.
One of the hardest hit areas has been the town of Ballina, a coastal town two hours drive from Brisbane. According to Tamara Smith, Green party member for Ballina in the New South Wales legislative assembly, some 3000 homes, and 15,000 people have been affected in her electorate alone. However, Smith adds that these numbers may not even be accurate totals.
“We don’t even have the accurate numbers yet. And that has really been part of the problem. There have been a lot of errors at the government level,” says Smith.
The neighboring electorates of Tweed and Lismore have also been heavily impacted with an estimated 5000 homes and 20,000 people affected. Sydney resident, Annabelle Paterson, was lucky enough to avoid any damage to her property but mentioned that her family friends were not so lucky, part of the community in Lismore.
“They had water up to benchtops and everything was gone. They had only recently moved there and did not have flood insurance because it’s just too expensive. They are just devastated,” says Paterson.
Clean-up efforts are now underway in these heavily affected areas, but Smith says that the progress is still very slow going, while the community continues to rally around each other anger is growing.
“Initially you have a sense of euphoria of a community coming together. But then you get shock and the impact of the disaster and then comes anger, resentment, and bitterness and we are well into that stage now,” says Smith.
Much of this anger that Smith speaks about is directed at the current conservative government of Australia, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. While disaster management used to be controlled by small local councils, the responsibility has been pushed more to the states. According to Smith, this has led to the massive mishandling of the flood response.
“It really hasn’t worked. We had a situation where people were waiting on their rooves for up to 72 hours before being rescued,” says Smith.
While anger around the immediate response has been shown by some residents, Smith struggles with the lack of climate change response from the current government.
“Our conservative government has really only just recognized that climate change is real…we would argue that the entire town of Lismore should be relocated,” says Smith.
The influence of a warming climate on extreme precipitation events is undeniable. The most recent IPCC report indicates that an estimated 709 million people worldwide live in areas where the maximum one-day rainfall has significantly increased since the 1950s.
Despite this data, it is extremely difficult to attribute a specific extreme weather event directly to climate change. However, Kathryn Bowen, deputy director of Melbourne Climate Futures Law at the University of Melbourne, suggests that the pattern we are seeing is undeniable.
“The specific attribution of an extreme event to climate change requires extra research. But what we can see with these floods and what we will continue to see are examples of a changing climate and also how these events can be catastrophic for communities,” says Bowen.
Bowen adds that an adequate response towards climate change requires a response on a governmental level rather than just individual communities.“We can’t rely on individuals being completely altruistic in these situations. We need to be assured of the role of the government on a local, state, and federal level.”