Climate change litigation hidden in eye of the storm

Ignoring science can become a legal issue when victims of severe climate change events claim damages

The Abbott government might want to rethink its policy of not sending its ministers to attend future climate conferences: one thing that is looking increasingly likely in the wake of typhoon Haiyan and the Warsaw climate talks is that major carbon polluters like Australia could find themselves on the rough end of massive compensation claims from countries devastated by severe weather events.

A US policy document leaked by environment writer Stephen Leahy in The Guardian last week noted with some alarm that ''UN negotiations, currently under way in Warsaw, will 'focus increasingly on blame and liability' and poor nations will be 'seeking redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts'.''

A torn Philippines flag stands in the rubble in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
A torn Philippines flag stands in the rubble in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: Kevin Frayer

The Abbott government responded with Australia's traditional generosity to the tragedy, pledging $30 million in humanitarian aid. But such measures go nowhere near meeting the compensation bill that poor countries seem increasingly determined to send to rich polluters. Or to showing that we are doing our best to prevent such events in future.

The issue is called ''Loss and Damage'', meaning assistance and/or compensation for countries hit by the devastating effects of climate change. It received an airing at Doha last year, when negotiators decided to try to establish a mechanism for dealing with such claims. Last week the developing countries' Group of 77 (G77) and China made a submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) proposing what an international mechanism for loss and damage could look like and how it might work.

The issue of loss and damage is rapidly coming to dominate the new climate change agenda, taking over from emissions reductions.

No wonder the US is shaking in its shoes - and recent backsliders on climate like Australia, Canada and Japan should be too, if they have any sense. They not only have to fear a continuing row - potentially with dozens of countries - over financial compensation for all of the world's major weather disasters from now on.


They also should fear being saddled with the reputational blame for having driven climate change in the first place. And they need to start worrying about other measures like trade and diplomatic sanctions that might be taken against them if they present as indifferent to global opinion.

The UN is trying to keep the issue of loss and damage aligned with the other two big matters, of reducing carbon emissions and adapting to climate change. This too has significant implications: countries that perform weakly either in mitigation or in adaptation may make themselves bigger targets for loss and damages claims.

Australia is the world's 14th largest carbon emitter by volume (as at 2012) producing 430 million tonnes a year (not including our coal and gas exports), and the largest per capita emitter at 19 tonnes per person. It is also relatively prosperous, making it an attractive target for claims for compensation and damages.

Most people know that if you tramp a car accelerator, the car goes faster. If you turn up the gas on the stove, a pot of water boils more vigorously. If you add more energy to any process, whether it is a football game or global atmospheric and oceanic physics, the action is more violent. That's what climate scientists have been saying for a while now.

But it is equally clear that it is a proposition that former PM John Howard, his political heirs and successors and a dwindling number of Australian resources companies do not subscribe to - and that failure of understanding may cost us dear.

As the Australian National University's Professor Will Steffen explains, ''Once [cyclones] do form, they get most of their energy from the surface waters of the ocean. We know sea surface temperatures are warming pretty much around the planet, so that's a pretty direct influence of climate change on the nature of the storm.''

Cyclones need sea surface temperatures around 26.5 degrees C to get going. Typhoon Haiyan travelled across waters that were 29.5 to 30.5 degrees.

More ominously, a huge bank of heat in waters 100 metres deep was 3 degrees above average, fuelling its rage as the cyclone stirred up the waves, releasing more heat into its own heart. That heat didn't come from nowhere: it was the stockpiled result of human carbon emissions. It is still being stockpiled at an ever-increasing rate, a lethal ammunition dump for future mega-cyclones.

Early estimates of the cost of typhoon Haiyan are about $US15 billion ($16 billion), according to The Economist. In 2012 the US sustained 11 climate disasters that collectively cost it $110 billion, according to its National Climatic Data Centre. It suffered the most mega-events - 14 - in 2011.

Globally, disasters (mostly climate) have cost the planet $2.5 trillion since 2000, according to the United Nations - which is about 50 per cent more than previously estimated. The Australian Business Round Table estimated Australia will be forking out $23 billion a year (similar to the defence budget) for natural disasters by 2050 if climate change is not reined in. In such a ''climate'' there are very high potential costs attaching to a policy of staying away from the global discussion, cancelling existing climate policies, failing to act more vigorously on emissions in a transparent way, and trying to bury climate science because it is politically inconvenient.

The Abbott government has already miscalculated the international response to its refugee stance. It appears on track to miscalculate the international response to its climate stance. Providing humanitarian aid will not go far if we are seen to be a significant cause of the problem.

In the minds of climate victims, it will align us with those who don't care and won't help prevent the problem.

Rather than getting bogged in a sterile argument with Labor and the Greens over carbon markets, the government needs to go for something a bit visionary. Like a 40 per cent reduction in carbon emissions. This can be achieved by replacing all our transport fuels with algal biofuels, and a fifth of our grid energy with renewables as proposed by engineering giant WorleyParsons.

This would not only redress our climate position significantly, it would generate more than $50 billion in new export income and create tens of thousands of new jobs. If we added an energy superhighway it could see us exporting green electricity direct to China and all countries between.

Even if they are not persuaded by the climate science, surely the government can appreciate a great opportunity for renewable economic and export growth - and a chance to act like leaders, not laggards.

Julian Cribb is a Canberra science writer.