Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen wash-up - the need for clarity and focus

For those who are interested in the text, Copenhagen Accord. Marian Wlkinson's report in the Sydney Morning Herald is a pretty good summary of the end to Copenhagen. Paul Sheehan's opinion piece in the same paper was, I thought, a not especially helpful if fairly typical response. I quote:

Last week I received shocking photos of the Wyangala Dam, which once held several times the volume of Sydney Harbour but is now reduced to a chain of brown pools. The Lachlan River, which once fed a majestic floodplain with regular healthy flooding, has been blocked off below Condobolin to ensure water supplies for the town. This has never happened before. A rich flood plain has become an arid zone.

For those who are interested, you can find details of the Wyangala dam here. The current drought in the Murray-Darling basin may or may not have anything to do with climate change. However, if my understanding is correct, the water flows in the Lachlan River have always been very variable and uncertain; the river has stopped flowing many times before, as indeed has the Darling itself. Wyangala was built for just that reason.

In a general sense, the difficulty that I have with Mr Sheehan's piece is that it mixes together so many different things all under the climate change rubric.

For example, I can understand the National Water Commission's Ken Mathews frustration with the sometimes glacial action on water reform. Again, the actions of mining companies (and the NSW State Government) in seeking leases for mining purposes is a very hot issue just at present on the Liverpool Plains. Here potential contamination of ground water is one of the issues raised.

The question of the effective management of the waters of the Murray-Darling basin exists independent of climate change. To the degree that climate change might affect water flows, then it needs to be taken into account. Further, to the degree that management of the lands may effect our responses to climate change, then that needs to be taken into account as well. But there are many other factors involved that have nothing to do with climate change.

In an earlier piece Australian responses to climate change - a background briefing I said:

The attachment of so many things to the label (climate change) carried across into "discussion" on possible responses.

 Climate change became a weapon to be used to support a variety of already existing positions and causes.

Those supporting forests now argued that maintenance and extension of forests were required to fight climate change. Those concerned about the Murray argue that recent droughts were linked to climate change and that, given future continuing lower rainfall, action must be taken now to free water flows. Those supporting Sydney's somewhat silly water restrictions justified their stance in part on climate change.

These types of responses became remarkably pervasive, generating growing resistance. Those opposed to or affected by the responses transferred their distaste from the response to the concept of climate change itself. Faced with an argument that went a (climate change) then b (stop irrigation or whatever), it is far easier to simply reject a than it is to establish that a and b are unrelated or, at least, not related in the way presented

This remains my concern when I look at pieces such as Mr Sheehan's.

Over the next few months, Australians will have to work their way through all this as this country and others look to their responses to the Copenhagen Accord. In this, we can expect both Government and Opposition to stick pretty closely to already established positions. The debate between them is likely to be formalised, stylised, a shadow play. 

I suspect that it is going to be remarkably difficult to stand outside this. I think that we will need to if we are going to have a sensible national discussion.  


Neil said...

It will take a lot of time to sort out cause and effect in climate change, especially with things like water and drought, as there is a constant feedback effect going on: drought for example can be both a cause and an effect.

Jim Belshaw said...

It can be both, but also neither!

I am sure that your general point is correct. That's why at a personal level I want to try to avoid, if I can, discussion on particular current phenomena. It may be years before we know.

Far better to focus on untangling what might be done and the relationships between activities. Since I don't understand this myself, it's a fair bet that a number of others don't.