Yesterday we visited Queenscliff, a little town near the mouth of Port Phillip Bay. Once upon a time the Russians were going to invade so there is a charming fort and a few old cannon. A steam train has been restored on the old track to Geelong and the old track skirts the water. Looking out the window as we trundled along, I could see the track's clearance at high tide was perhaps 1.5 metres. The thrice-daily train provides some scenery for the many houses overlooking the water. What it doesn't provide is much in the way of a levy or flood wall. I picked up the local paper because the lead article was about a "tsunami of complaints" following a local government announcement regarding global warming (or more to the point, rising sea levels). A local real estate agent was leading the "tsunami". I can't quite work out how to phrase my reaction to use of "tsunami". I'm sensing a lifetime's failure to understand the meaning of irony, but just enough dim self-awareness to resent it. The old fort is there because Queenscliff stands between Melbourne and the ocean, so I hope we never get to find out what a Queenscliff tsunami really is. I can imagine the headline editor, staring at a fast-approaching, inescapable, roaring wall of water whipped up by the first Bass Straight cyclone since the invention of the wheel, finally grasping the meaning of the i-word. The Russians never came, so let's hope this dark vision is just as fantastic. I'm sure fear of the Russians helped draw the community together, but that's not happening yet with global warming.
The local newspaper is "free" (that is, fully paid by advertising) and I'll take a wild leap here and guess that local real estate agents are major advertisers, not that this would be remotely relevant to the front page article. The council, following "expert advice" (the quotes are not literally there but you can feel them), has proposed rezoning a lot of properties that are at risk from rising sea levels. The rezoning takes into account the latest estimates of sea level increases over the next 50 to 100 years, and would essentially block future development on some existing properties, and deny housing development in other areas. Property owners are worried because such rezoning will affect values. The interest of real estage agents is left as an exercise for the reader.
One demand was to sue the council for the loss of value (we don't shoot messengers any more, we sue them). Some gave the opinion that the council was only taking these proposed steps to avoid law-suits in the future (that is, from people who bought property and then discovered that it floods or can't be built upon). This would seem like a pretty good reason for a responsible government to take action now, but apparently I'm missing something. The council was a bit taken aback, so they plan to handball* to the relevant State Government body.
* handball is Australian slang meaning "delegate with extreme prejudice"
A strong anti-government flavor runs through the article; however, when it comes to compensation, selective amnesia sets in: when a government imposes regualtion or raises a tax, it's hurting honest, hard working tax payers, but compensation for the loss of value due to global warming magically comes from a magic box at the council, when in fact it would have to come from other honest, hard working tax payers (the ones who are not quite hard-working-enough to own beach front property). I suppose this is an early phase of "grief": anger. Another early phase is denial. It's one thing to deny that sea levels are going to rise, but this is an extreme and low credibilty position. The newspaper and the readers have enough credibility not to seriously make such a claim. Holding such opinions won't get you far in a small town debate. Although it may of course make you a frontbench member of the Federal Opposition.
A more sophisticated argument was: sea levels are projected to rise by only 30 cm, so rather than rezoning, all that's needed is 30cm higher walls. This is a little more interesting. The problem is that once-in-fifty year "tide events" are greatly higher than the average sea level. That's true today, of course. But a certain increase in average sea levels will be greatly magnified when it comes to the size of the big tides and storms. Just like a 3 degree increase in average global temperatures doesn't simply means that the hottest day in summer is 3 degrees more than now. Melbourne will get a few days of heat above 45 degrees this summer. The mean temperature in Melbourne is about 15 degrees at the moment. So a hot summer day is three times the mean. Increase the mean by 3 degrees to 18 degrees, and perhaps our hot days will peak at 54 degrees. I guess, without being an expert, the high tide events will work like this.
Of course, plenty of people make stupid mistakes the other way. Recently there has been a discussion about shooting feral camels in the Northern Territory. The idea is promoted by the government up there, which is trying to rally support by comparing the CO2 output of a camel to a car. The first proposal to shoot from helicopters caused some adverse reactions, so someone had the bright idea of linking the cull to global warming. Three camels can emit as much CO2 as a small car (apparently; let's not go there). The stupid thing about this is that the camel gets its carbon from grass and trees, which start growing back when the camel wanders off, and the regrowth sucks the same carbon back out of the air. It's the carbon cycle. That's why we have "carbon sinks" of forests. If the camels are really warming the atmosphere, we'd better chop down a lot of trees pretty soon, because all those rotting autumn leaves will release staggering amounts of CO2. Why take the risk? For the record, I'm quite sure the camels are an major environmental nuisance and even a disease risk (brucellosis?), and I don't care much how they're killed, as long as it's quick.