Features Australia

Countering disasters

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

The near hysterical insistence by green groups that Australia’s undoubtedly very bad bushfire season is the result of man-made climate change and that reducing emissions is the only possible means of preventing more fires has been largely rejected in California, where problems due to fires have been worse.

That green-media narrative has also been affected by other reports showing that deaths due to natural disasters fell to a record low in 2019 and that property damage due to natural disasters was about the 30-year average in 2019 – or at least it would be affected if the report by insurance group Munich Re was given any publicity in Australia.

Another admittedly unofficial report also showed that there have been no discernible trends in the really big disasters  such as hurricanes and major storms that hit coastlines since the 1970s. But again, the mainstream media did not think this event worthy of note.

Of those events and reports the one that should have hit the headlines in Australia but did not is statements by two leading US fire experts about the series of bad wildfire (the US term for bushfire) seasons in a row to 2019 in California. These fires killed 103 people – many times the Australian death toll – including 88 people in one fire in November 2018 and burned out 1.6 million hectares. That is a substantial area in in a state a fraction of the size of Australia but with 50 per cent or so more population. Consumers in some parts of the state have been left without power for weeks.

As in Australia, a parade of public officials, greens and media commentators has been eager to blame this succession of bad seasons on climate change, whatever the term is supposed to mean, but two senior experts have firmly allocated climate a minor role.

Speaking at the National Council for Science and the Environment annual conference in Washington in early January, Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley, estimated that 20-25 per cent of the wildfire damage resulted from climate change, while ‘75 per cent is the way we manage lands and develop our landscape.’

Jennifer Montgomery, director of the California Forest Management Task Force, sitting on the same panel of experts declared that climate change amplified natural systems and natural occurrences. In other words, the warming of the planet in the past few decades contributed to the situation but was not the basic cause.

These points have been made time and again by commentators in the mainstream media in Australia but, with exceptions, largely ignored. Montgomery and Scott even echoed Australian bushfire experts in advocating, at the conference, a reduction of fuel loads in Californian forests through either controlled burns or by manual clearing. Fires need fuel to burn.

Whether anyone in the US media heeds these words remains to be seen but at least the American journalists have to concede there is little point in urging the federal government to reduce emissions, as President Trump at least in part owes his election to votes from coal-mining states, and has been busy taking America out of the much-cherished Paris climate accord.

Another counter to the prevailing narrative that the world is descending into climate hell is a report by giant insurance consultancy Munich Re released after the New Year which notes that 820 natural catastrophes during 2019 caused losses of $US150 billion ($A217 billion) – losses which are broadly in line with the inflation adjusted average of the past 30 years.

The report does not mention another major trend which should affect the figures: the general shift of population towards the coasts, particularly marked in Australia, where they can be affected by major storms. Tropical storms making landfall on highly-developed coastlines certainly caused the most damage, with the big events during the year including two severe tropical cyclones in Japan (Hagibis and Faxai) which hit the Yokohama-Tokyo megapolis. Hagibis in particular brought in a lot of rain with the resulting floods breaching levees on many rivers and damaging countless buildings.

The report does not dismiss climate change but points out that short-term variations due to known climate cycles have to be considered along with any longer- term climate changes. The best known climate cycle in Australia is the El Niño – La Niña oscillation in the Pacific, but there are plenty of others in all the ocean basins.

The bad bushfire season in Australia is mentioned along with the California wildfire season, which was less severe due to better weather conditions, but fires remain small beer compared to hurricanes and typhoons, particularly when it comes to death tolls.

Overall deaths due to natural disasters fell to a record low of 9,000 for the year, compared to 15,000 in 2018, but there were still plenty of tragedies to go around, with the stand-out event being Cyclone Idai which hit Mozambique and surrounding countries in March. The storm ripped through the flimsy buildings in the port city of Beira, eventually causing more than a thousand deaths and immense damage none of which, Munich Re noted with concern, was insured.

With major storms hitting the coast causing the most damage and numbers of deaths is it possible to point to any trends in those killer storms? Jessica Weinkle, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and academic Roger Pielke Jr have updated their long standing count of storms that make landfalls starting in the 1970s, when reliable data is available. But as Pielke writes in an article in Forbes in January, no trends can be identified from the count to date.

That nil result may be broadly in line with the IPCC’s lukewarm pronouncement on storm trends in its 2014 report, but remains unwelcome to the media and green groups which have been busy selling climate change as the one and only influence on natural disasters and reduction of emissions by Australia as the only possible response.

Instead, suggestions that Australia should look to changes in mundane matters such as building codes, land management practices, town planning and disaster response plans to further reduce death tolls and minimise damage are often treated as insidious efforts by climate deniers to divert attention from the true cause of the problems. Faced with such attitudes, governments wanting to make a difference by reducing death tolls and the damage due to disasters have their work cut out for them.

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