Australia’s Cyclone: Climate Change, or Just Really Bad Weather?

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A man poses outside his cyclone-battered house on Feb. 4. (Getty)

The cyclone that thrashed a still-soggy Queensland yesterday has re-energized an ongoing debate Down Under over what Australia can expect from a warmer planet and what the nation – the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita – should do about it.

Front and center in the fray is Ross Garnaut, the government’s climate change adviser who released the first of several updates to his 2008 report on fighting global warming yesterday.

“If we are seeing an intensification of extreme weather events now, you ain’t see nothing yet,” he said in a speech the day after the category 5 storm landed in northeast Queensland, killing one man and doing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the region’s buildings and the agricultural sector.

Garnaut says he does not expect that Australia will get battered with more storms, but could get battered with more frequent extreme storms. “The greater energy in the atmosphere and the seas can intensify extreme events and I’m afraid that we’re feeling some of that today, and we’re feeling that at a time when global warming is in its early stages,” he said. (See pictures of Australia’s floods.)

Garnaut’s sentiment echoes the findings of the 2007 IPCC report on global warming, which says in a passage on the impact of climate change:

“Based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical SSTs (sea surface temperatures). There is less confidence in projections of a global decrease in numbers of tropical cyclones. The apparent increase in the proportion of very intense storms since 1970 in some regions is much larger than simulated by current models for that period.”

Very intense is certainly one way to describe Cyclone Yasi. I was nervous watching its white vortex approach Australia all the way up here in Hong Kong. The storm itself was larger than the entire landmass of Italy, and hit the coast with winds of nearly 200 mph. Though the state’s well-resourced and well-organized emergency warning systems spared all but one life, Yasi racked up quite a bill while she was in town.

PM Julia Gillard announced the government would divert nearly $4 billion out of Australia’s climate change budgets to pay for the damage caused. The increasingly influential Green Party, which won a record number of votes in this summer’s national elections, was none too pleased with that solution. It is a bit counter-intuitive, but then again, the money’s got to come from somewhere. Gillard already tabled a hugely debated $1.8 billion tax last month to cover the costs of the Queensland floods, and has pledged she wouldn’t raise it any further.

Garnaut also used the podium today to slap Australia on the wrist for its general lack of initiative on climate change. In a country that still gets 80% of its power from coal and is the world’s largest exporter of coking coal (used to make steel), Australia has been slow to reach a consensus on how to slow its emissions. “For that world champion of high per capita emissions not to do its proportionate part, not to do its share in an international effort, would be deeply subversive to that international effort,” Garnaut said.

He has been a long-time advocate of enacting carbon tax in Australia, a political hot potato that Gillard will try to push through this year. A carbon pricing scheme is vehemently opposed by the opposition parties, which say that, in its current proposed incarnation, Australian families will end up paying an unreasonably high a price via an increase in their power bills. Critics of the initiative — and any Australian climate change initiative, for that matter — also point out that while Australia may have a high per capita emissions contribution, in the grand scheme of things, they only amount to under 2% of the the world total.

Climate skeptics are not likely to think much of the notion that Yasi is more than a freak event spurred on by La Nina, the same weather system that contributed to the relentless rains and flooding in January. And it’s not just skeptics who are of this mind. In a freaky-world-weather roundup from the AP earlier this week, Louis Uccellini of the National Centers for Enviornmental Prediction (NCEP) said he doesn’t think that global warming can be blamed for Yasi or the endless snows hitting the east coast of the U.S. “You can’t relate climate change to individual storm systems,” Uccellini told the AP.

Missing from the coverage I read in the big Australian dailies, however, is what people in Queensland have to say about the matter. Personally, if I lived in an area hit by the worst floods in half a century and the worst cyclone in a nation’s history in the space of a month, I might be convinced that a slightly more pro-active spirit was in order. I might even move.