While I was away... again
For the last two weeks I have been comparing sand quality from Sunshine Beach near Noosa in Queensland, to Wategos at Byron and Broken Head in New South Wales, to Torquay Surf Beach and Apollo Bay on Victoria's Great Ocean Road (top). Wategos was the winner. Temperatures varied from 32C in Brisbane to 8 (at night) on the Surf Coast by the Southern Ocean.
My adventures already seem a long time ago. It's been raining in Brisbane for the last 19 hours. But we need it, don't we? My enthusiasm for constant rain, however, wanes in direct proportion to my sunshine deprivation.
The rented house in Torquay had neither adequate heating for the cold nights nor an internet connection. I must confess to enjoying an enforced break from Australian politics. No one could escape news of Hurricane Sandy battering New York, however. Images – real or doctored – of monstrous clouds threatening the Statue of Liberty and torrents issuing from subway lift shafts were redolent of The Day after Tomorrow.
Inevitably there followed great debate about the superstorm in the context of climate change. The Australian Climate Commission even published a statement. Sandy was the most intense tropical storm (in terms of pressure) ever to hit the east coast of America north of North Carolina. The surface waters of the Atlantic Ocean that fed the storm were 3.5C warmer than usual. (Source of information: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Source of image, right: NASA). The storm surge – a wall of water pushed on to land by a storm at sea – was enhanced by a high tide but also the fact that the base sea level has risen by 20cm over the last century, and at a greater rate during the last two decades. This may not sound like much but it significantly increases the risk of damaging floods.
The Climate Commission concluded:
'The costs of Hurricane Sandy are and will be massive. Hurricane Sandy highlights the costs of extreme weather events. Australia has also been hit by recent extreme weather events, including Cyclone Yasi and the 2010-11 Queensland floods, which highlight the risks to Australia of very costly extreme weather events. In the future, devastating storms such as Hurricane Sandy and Cyclone Yasi will become much more common unless carbon dioxide levels are stabilised in the atmosphere at safe levels. This requires urgent action on carbon dioxide emissions.'
The Economist has also counted the cost of Sandy. In contrast, they talk about the 'relatively tolerable price tag of the storm', and, like many scientists and journos, are reluctant to directly attribute this particular weather event to a climate that is indisputably changing. But they sum up America's choices in a carbon-challenged world as follows:
'Americans may... decide that the smart choice continues to be a course of inaction. They may decide that the storms – and droughts and heat waves and blizzards and floods – to come will be manageable because they'll be richer and well-equipped to adapt. Hopefully, there will at least be a better sense of what that is likely to mean and the trade-offs it will involve. Adaptation will be an ongoing, costly slog, with a side order of substantial human suffering. It will be one American icon after another threatened. Adaptation is not going to be easy. Hopefully Americans will ask themselves whether it's so much worse than the alternatives – high carbon taxes or large public investments or both – after all.'
The other big big news was also from the States: the re-election of Barack Obama. I must confess, when the result was beyond doubt, to jumping for joy and shedding a tear or two. The alternative, you see, would have been truly appalling for the very same carbon-challenged world. An outpouring of relief – that the world had been spared Mormon-Mitt – was palpable across social media, which also gave us this image, tweeted by the man himself. The Obamas much surely be the coolest First Family in American history.
BUT – and it is a big but – Obama has failed miserably when it comes to action on climate change. In 2008 he promised that his presidency would 'mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change', and include 'strong annual targets'. His Federal cap and trade system (of carbon) was downed in the Senate in 2010. In April of this year, he announced that how to deal with global warming would be part of his election campaign, but then he went very quiet. According to George Monbiot in The Guardian, his strategy team decided the subject was far too difficult. For the first time since 1984, climate change didn't get a mention in any of the presidential debates.
This is a shocking and terrible indictment of America's ongoing contempt for its responsibility as a world leader. But there is hope – in the form of five new 'climate hawks' just elected to office* – that during President Obama's four more years he might be held to greater account on his promise the first time.
* Democrat Jay Inslee, Washington state's new governor; Democrat Martin Heinrich, New Mexico senator; Independent Angus King, senator for Maine; Democrat Pete Gallego, Texas Congressman; and Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, New Hampshire Congresswoman
This post was last edited on 11 November 2012