EASTERN Australia is now suffering from the worst drought in living memory and one which is likely to be without precedent over the past 400 years.
Over the past few days, we have seen former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce make a controversial call for environmental water from the Murray-Darling Basin to grow feed for livestock, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison declare the drought his government’s first priority.
While Australia has suffered many droughts, it is clear that with climate change droughts will become more frequent and more severe.
Farmers and their communities are at the forefront of the worst effects of drought.
Researchers ... have found that drought-affected young people under 35 are disproportionately experiencing psychological distress.
The more severe the agricultural impact of drought, the greater the impact on the mental health of farmers.
Researchers at the University of Newcastle have found that drought-affected young people under 35 are disproportionately experiencing psychological distress.
There are also physical risks. During drought, dust storms can irritate the bronchial passages and lungs. This can make chronic respiratory illnesses worse and increase the risk for respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia.
The federal government has (finally) provided some support for affected farmers in the current drought conditions. A relief package of $190 million was announced in August. However, this support is a Band-Aid solution that is being applied in an ad hoc fashion.
So why does Australia not have a plan to cope with these events?
The United Kingdom has recently published its second report regarding adaptation to climate change. The UK’s Climate Change Act came into force 10 years ago and has legislated for the National Adaption Programme (NAP). It includes a plan for dealing with drought – in the UK!
The NAP is a multifaceted approach to identifying the climate risks and making plans to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Central to the plan is communication of the risks, the impacts and the actions to take: “People will be empowered with a full understanding of the climatic challenges and opportunities ahead”.
No such national adaptation plan exists yet in Australia.
A proposed strategy – a National Strategy for Climate, Health and Well-being– has been put forward by health groups as a comprehensive way of tackling the health impacts of climate change. This plan has been endorsed by the Labor party but has yet to be taken up in federal government policy.
Some Australian state governments have begun to make climate change adaptation plans but it is a relatively token effort compared to the UK’s response.
Take for instance NSW. In 2016-17 there was $160 million spent via the NSW Climate Change Fund. About $94 million was spent on the solar bonus scheme (which was a previous commitment), $8.2 million was spent to support the Australian Energy Market Commission’s budget and $13.2 million was spent on bushfire management – an activity that was already funded.
Overall this is a pittance compared to the UK’s budget, which has seen £2.6 billion allocated over six years on capital investment to reduce flood and coastal erosion risk alone.
It is extraordinary that David Littleproud, the Australian Minister for Agriculture, could claim on the ABC’s QandA that he “doesn’t give a rat’s if it (climate change) is man-made or not”. To deny the fact goes against the overwhelming scientific evidence and abdicates responsibility to act.
It is also a slap to farming communities. Agriculture is on the frontline of climate change. Farmers’ livelihoods depend on their capacity to survive the changes. And everyone’s survival depends on their ability to continue growing our food.
Australia is in a “climate emergency”.
About 184 million of the 533 million tonnes of annual greenhouse emissions come from the generation of electricity from fossil fuels. It is critical that this is reduced to zero as quickly as possible. Australia has the ability to do so.
There will be further negotiations on the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) over the coming weeks. It is crucial that stabilising global warming to protect human health is the energy ministers’ number one priority.
The UK has designated 2019 the “Year of Green Action”. It’s time Australia does the same and creates a binding National Adaptation Program and takes climate change seriously.