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Eco doomsayers: blind to history, unreliable tipsters

Date

Gerard Henderson

Bob Brown ... old enough to know better.

Bob Brown ... old enough to know better. Illustration: Simon Letch

Senator Bob Brown is old enough to know better. Literally.

At the weekend, the Greens' leader blamed the coal industry for the floods currently devastating large parts of Australia. In the media release headed "Coal barons should help pay for the catastrophes", he argued for an increased tax on the coal industry to "help pay the cost of the predicted more severe and more frequent floods, droughts and bushfires in coming decades".

The Greens leader, who was trained in medicine, is a very effective politician. It's a pity, however, that he does not spend more time reading history. Born in December 1944, Brown was almost 30 when, in January 1974, the area around Brisbane was inundated with water - in a flood which killed 14 people.

If Brown studied history he would know that there were numerous floods in Brisbane in the 1890s - in 1890, 1893, 1896 and 1898. Eighteen ninety-three was the worst year, with the height of the flood measured at more than nine metres. The history of the time is documented in Ronald Lawson's book Brisbane in the 1890s, which was published a year before the 1974 flood.

Lawson had this to say about the two floods that afflicted Brisbane in 1893: "Railway lines were temporarily cut, the river blocked, the bridges destroyed, warehouses inundated, and stock ruined. Furthermore, since most workers' homes were in low-lying areas, the floods exacerbated the plight of many of the unemployed."

In 1893 the working class tended to live in the low-lying areas, close to the river. By 2011, these areas were very much the preserve of the more affluent, who were encouraged by the Brisbane City Council, especially during Jim Soorley's time as lord mayor (1991-2003), to embrace the Brisbane River.

During the past week, the Premier, Anna Bligh, has been praised widely for handling the flood crisis in Queensland. She deserves this. Campbell Newman, Brisbane's Liberal lord mayor, has also put in a sterling performance. Newman's military background has equipped him well for crisis management. But there is more to it than this.

Newman approaches the crisis with considerable authority. He has been one of the few senior Queensland politicians who have told it as it is. Newman's message is blunt. Brisbane was built on a flood plain. This explains why there has been so much flooding of Brisbane - in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Put simply, Brisbane has flooded in the past and, sadly, it will flood again.

When Brisbane flooded in 1893 and 1974, at levels higher than last week, no one blamed global warming in general or the chief executives of coal companies in particular.

In his statement at the weekend, Brown overlooked the fact that the reason the flood peak was higher in 1974 than 2011 turned on the construction of the Wivenhoe Dam, which was opposed by environmentalists of the day.

What has been particularly valuable about the extensive media coverage, particularly on ABC News 24 and Sky News, has been the focus on older Australians in Brisbane and in numerous towns on various rivers. They remember past floods in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, just as older Victorians, who experienced the bushfires of Black Saturday 2009, remembered Black Friday of 1939.

Writing in The Age last Friday, Ellen Sandell declared that "these floods should be a deafening wake-up call". She is national director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Sandell wrote: "As a young person who will inherit the world being created now, I want us to start talking about what needs to happen to prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring again and again. I don't want to live in the kind of world we are previewing right now."

Sandell is a true-believing environmentalist. Pity she does not know more history. There has always been droughts and bushfires and floods in Australia, before and after European settlement. There always will be. If Sandell does not want to live in this kind of world, then the only solution is personal emigration. The problem is that most countries, over the ages, have experienced weather disasters. It's called nature.

The problem with so many environmentalists turns on their capacity to exaggerate, which is exacerbated by a lack of historical awareness. There is much of the eco-catastrophist in lawyer/politician Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, film and book. Yet he remains a hero of the green movement.

It's much the same with the American academic Paul Ehrlich. The thesis of his 1968 book The Population Bomb was that "the battle to feed all of humanity is over". Ehrlich predicted that "in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions will starve to death". He even prophesied that Australia would close its borders in 1974 to prevent a fever pandemic.

None of this happened. Yet Ehrlich is still making predictions of doom. He was interviewed on the Radio National Late Night Live program a year ago, but no one spoke about false prophecy. It's much the same with Brown. Eco-catastrophist seers are rarely held to account for unfulfilled predictions or historical amnesia.

In recent years, there has been much public funding of environmental causes. Brown's ahistorical approach to weather disasters indicates Australia should put more resources into history courses. Let's start with the Brisbane floods of 1893, 1974 and 2011.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.

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277 comments

  • Bob Brown has been very successful as a politician pursuing his own career and agenda but as a senator for Tasmania he has been a disaster. He never mentions the decline in Tasmanian industry since he and Senator Milne embarked on their crusade to reduce the Tasmanian people to inevitable welfare dependency. Queenslanders would do welll to ignore his attempts to destroy their economy.

    Commenter
    SteveH.
    Date and time
    January 18, 2011, 6:24AM
    • I must say I'm impressed that you described any service by the ABC as valuable, after your last column.

      Commenter
      Andrea
      Location
      FTG
      Date and time
      January 18, 2011, 6:26AM
      • I have heard people referring to environmentalism as the new religion - it seems that this is true. Beliefs rule environmentalism, they have their " belief - leaders " and any contradicting observations are at best ignored.

        Commenter
        Muzarooni
        Location
        NSW
        Date and time
        January 18, 2011, 6:28AM
        • Ah so this is the new meme spun by coalition propagandists to distract the stupid and gullible: the only measure of climate-change is now flood-height in the Brisbane river.

          No, Gerard, the true measure of the effect of climate-change is the amount of precipitation and there was actually twice as much rainfall this time around than there was in 1974. What we saw in the Lockyer valley has never been see before in that part of the country. YOu conveniently failed to mention that sea-surface temperatures in the Coral Sea are at at record highs and that December was the wettest month in Australian recorded history and 2010 was the wettest and equal-warmest year on record globally.

          "Eco-catastrophist seers are rarely held to account for unfulfilled predictions"

          I don't see you holding to account the sceptics like David Evans (from Sheehan's column yesterday) who have long predicted "global cooling" and are looking increasingly stupid.

          Commenter
          Think Big
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          January 18, 2011, 6:30AM
          • Don't always agree with Gerard Henderson but this article, both for its specific argument and for the general philosophy of reviewing the history and background to events and issues before raving on, should be widely read.

            Commenter
            actsenior
            Date and time
            January 18, 2011, 6:31AM
            • History does indeed hold lessons for humanity. But Mr. Henderson ought to study a little modern science to leaven his historical knowledge.

              Every reputable scientist in this field, including the Royal Society (not known for radical and unsupported assertions), and the Australian Academy of Science, as well as the IPCC hold that climate change is real, and accelerating.

              While it is incorrect to blame any one weather event on climate change, it is valid to look at the trends over a period of time. The extreme weather events of this decade past match exactly the predictions of climate change science.

              Use of emotional language such as "unreliable tipsters" indicate the weaknesses in Mr. Henderson's arguments.

              Perhaps when we see another flood event like this one, only worse, inside the next 10 - 20 years the deniers may be forced to change their tune.

              Commenter
              Riddley
              Location
              Preston
              Date and time
              January 18, 2011, 6:34AM
              • The whole green-house debate has got out of control. We simply need to apply the classification techniques we learned in Risk Management 101.

                1) What is the chance of something happening, in this case - that human activity is causing global temperatures to rise.
                - then -
                2) If does happen, how dire are the consequences?

                Personally, I feel that (1) is almost certain, and (2) is where all the debate really lies. ie - the correllation between human activity since the industrial revolution and global average temperatures is statistically significant (note that word "correllation", not "causation")

                But (2) we don't know. However, it could be bad. Really bad. Irreversibly bad.

                So, what are the consequences of seeking to mitigate (2)?

                And here we see the doomsdayers on the otherside of the equation: Those who claim that moving away from a petroleum based economy will lead to global economic collapse. Funny how they sound exactly like the loony greens on the other side.

                The reality is most likely somewhere in between. Some current unsustainable practices will need to cease, and business models that rely on effectively not paying the full cost of their activities will fold. Fair enough. If I sold widgets and never paid my supplier, I'd be out of business too. In return, we get nicer air, cleaner water, and less crap dumped into our environment... greenhouse or no.

                Commenter
                Matt
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                January 18, 2011, 6:51AM
                • ....and Gerard, the science that predicts that global warming will cause an increase in the frequency and degree of extreme weather events, is that all just swept aside?

                  ........as a journalist you should know better. Literally.

                  Commenter
                  Damian
                  Location
                  Hobart
                  Date and time
                  January 18, 2011, 6:56AM
                  • Widespread land clearing in the early 19th century meant that flooding rains washed topsoil into the river systems which silted up making previously navigable rivers too shallow for shipping. Rain falling on high ground that was previously soaked up by vegetation and took days or weeks to flow into rivers, washes off hard packed grazing land in a torrent taking exposed topsoil with it and further damaging both the land and the river, ending up in the ocean where the cocktail of chemicals used in agriculture (and mining) poisen the reefs.

                    These "freak" flood events will become more frequent regardless of climate change because the underlying environment is so degraded.

                    The deserts of northern africa were the grain bowl of the roman empire and the same thing happened there. It just takes a long time Gerard, but we're working towards the same result here.

                    Commenter
                    swissfondue
                    Date and time
                    January 18, 2011, 6:57AM
                    • Gerard you overlook three important facts:
                      1. Bob's comments were made in the context of the widespread floods, not just Brisbane, and a lot of those floods are unusually severe
                      2. SMH has itself reported the higher temperature levels in the pacific, higher than any such records began? and this agravates the La Nina effect
                      3. Don't be so certain about food security, populations are increasing, climate uncertain, and agricultural lands being steadily degraded, crops yields no longer spectacularly increasing, as in the green revolution. Lot more work and research needed there to keep our head above water in this area also.

                      Conclusion - don't be complacent, follow the serious science, ignore the attention grabbers, whatever side they be on.

                      Commenter
                      peteri
                      Date and time
                      January 18, 2011, 6:57AM

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