How has droughts in Australia (Brisbane, Melbourne) impacted perceptions of climate change?
July 7, 2009 3:00 PM   Subscribe

How have landscapes transformed by drought in Australia (esp. Brisbane or Melbourne) impacted people's perceptions of climate change?

I'm traveling through Brisbane and Melbourne at the moment, researching how the consequences of drought have transformed the landscape (e.g. rainwater tanks, water conservation signs, desiccating lawns and parks, disappearing ponds, lowering dams, shifts toward native Australian plants for gardening, waterless fountains, brown sporting fields, etc.), and the subsequent cognitive processing of climate change. Even with the recent flooding, is this a connection Australians make? Have landscapes been transformed in other ways? And who might provide relevant insights into this question?
posted by GIMG to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in the sixties and seventies. Pretty much everyone had rainwater tanks in those days and pretty much everyone conserved water in some way. To me, it looks like we've just returned to the way things were prior to a brief period when we bought into the idea that modern technology could solve all everything and would make squandering on of our most precious resources viable.

A similar attitude happened with the whole bushfire risk thing. Unreasonable faith that somehow money and modern technology would turn this into a nation where major bushfires would no longer be a major event.

A meteorologist I know points out that the "recent changes" in our climate are part of a pattern which has repeated many times here, and are natural variations in our climate cycle.

Look at the older parts of Sydney and Melbourne and how housing was built up until the last thirty or forty years. It was built with the climate in mind. "Queenslander" houses are a great example of this. Often on stilts because SE Queensland floods regularly. Usually have high ceilings and are designed for maximum cross-ventilation because Brisbane is both hot and humid.

We're not so much doing something new as going back to what worked and what we should have continued doing all along.
posted by Lolie at 3:17 PM on July 7, 2009

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains.
-Dorothea Mackellar, "My Country", 1908 (wiki)

Droughts, bushfires and floods are natural events that have been occurring here on a regular basis for thousands (if not tens of thousands) of years. This is something that most Australians know. Thus, I think that the current perception is that these events (in Australia, at least) are not good examples of climate change. I mean, it's note really change, is it? It's more of the same.
posted by kisch mokusch at 4:19 PM on July 7, 2009

I feel as if it has impacted people's perceptions of climate change, but I work in a field where people are aware and active anyway, so I'm not the best indicator. Like Lolie I grew up with rainwater tanks and so forth (I was also in the country and we had to use rainwater, there was no other option).

I think Australians as a very general rule have always been aware that nature is pitiless and we are at its mercy. Maybe the recent floods and bushfires have brought that home in a much more pertinent way to a population where a majority of people are now living in cities and towns clinging to the coast and therefore might have felt that we'd largely tamed nature. The fact that the February bushfires, for a while, seriously looked like coming into some of Melbourne's outer suburbs seems to have been a big shock to many.
posted by andraste at 4:26 PM on July 7, 2009

I live in Sydney. We've been in drought and under water restrictions since I moved here.

Drought in the city can be a bit...abstract. You know that somewhere out West the paddocks are dry, the sheep are starving and farmers are selling off their farms. But in the city, the drought manifests in petty ways - you can only water your garden on Wednesdays and Sundays, and the rich aren't allowed to fill their swimming pools.

People generally follow the rules, and wasting water is seen as socially unacceptable. But I think many Australians struggle to make the connection between their own urban inconveniences, and the 'real' drought out West, let alone the global process of climate change. One reason for that is that Australia has always cycled in and out of drought, so climate change is seen as an exacerbating factor rather than a root cause.

Incidentally, what really brought the drought home for me was travelling to a place called Good Hope. You can see from the website that it's a boating resort and holiday park, set on a big lake. I visited it by accident in 2006, just looking for a place to stay while road-tripping.

We arrived at night, and the owners greeted us with a weird desperation, as though we were the only guests in months. We found our cabin, made a few jokes about how the lake level was probably a bit low, and went to sleep. The next morning, we looked out the window to see the sun rising over a bone dry field. There was no lake. There was just brown dirt, stretching to the hills, covered in upturned boats.

Seeing Good Hope made the drought real in a way that city water restrictions and dry sports fields never did. It was a lesson that I could never really have learned in the city: water is precious. I was a lot more careful about taking short showers after that.
posted by embrangled at 4:29 PM on July 7, 2009

FWIW, long before European settlement indigenous Australians would spend months rehabilitating a single water-hole which had been contaminated by a dead animal. It's probably only since the end of WWII that the idea that we have tamed nature took hold. Prior to that, we adapted to the land rather than expecting it to adapt to us.

The recent Victorian bushfires are a tragic example of what happens when you urbanise fire-prone areas and the generational memory of how to prevent, prepare for, and deal with bushfires has been lost. In other regions, urbanisation of flood-prone areas is a bigger problem. Our expectations of the land have changed.

There are so many examples of how we've destroyed this land (visit Queenstown in Tasmania some time), that it's hard to regard climate change as a bigger deal or higher priority than all the other environment havoc we've reeked on this continent.
posted by Lolie at 4:48 PM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Agree with Lolie; much of what is being pushed now as a reaction to climate change is a return to what were normal practices before the 70's.

Brisbane in particular* had a series of progressive and expansionist Lord Mayors during the late 60's->early 80's which, while undoubtedly doing some much-needed good work in dragging the city forwards, had a lot of unintended consequences for the general urban environment. That, coupled with a general trend towards more "modern" and horribly energy-expensive / thermally inefficient buildings built at higher urban densities, effectively did away with once-common things like backyard gardens, chook pens, and rainwater tanks - things which, thanks to various social pressures (including belief in climate change), are starting to re-appear.

Interestingly though, the trend towards more native plants started in about the 70's too. Before that, home & public gardens were very much in the traditional English / European style. My opinion is that the change was the result of a 'growing up' in the Australian outlook - part of Australia starting to appreciate and embrace its own unique national character. That, and the general low-impact & low-maintenance aspect of native plants compared to introduced species, made them ideal for cash-poor councils & time-poor urban families.

Geographically, eastern Australia is interesting. The Great Dividing Range means that there's a narrow coastal strip running north-south, and that whole area is a conflict of coastal and mountain influences - coastal swamps butt up against remnant mountain forest, and we try to build cities and farm there. The close proximity of the mountain means there aren't any long slow rivers (as generally exist in e.g. Europe and America) to deposit new soil/nutrients or provide a constant water supply. The only soil you're gonna get is what's already there, it's gonna take longer to rejuvenate than you care to wait, and the only water is what falls in the local area. People are starting to appreciate that the whole area, from Cape York to Victoria, is highly dependent on existing soil and coastal rainfall, and small changes in that have a big impact on the availability & cost of water.

A bit more on the soil: go west of here, out to the Darling Downs, and you've got a perfect example of what Australia is. The whole area was basically originally rich dark soil, the remnant of basalt flows from the volcanoes that formed the range, overlying sandstone - a near perfect soil. But now it's old and worn-out - a couple of million years of forest, a few thousand years of aboriginal fire-stick management, and 100 or so years of intensive farming mean that all it's basically good for now is stopping your plants from falling over. You've only got to look at what we call the "natural" vegetation of the area - brigalow scrub - and you can see how poor the soil is. It's old, it's never had any rejuvenation potential, and it's just worn out...

IANA(Environmental Scientist | Ecologist), although I'm studying it. If you're wanting to dig further, I'd start by contacting the various state & federal EPAs / Environment Departments, state public policy departments, council urban planning units, and university natural resource science & urban planning schools.

(* One thing to note about Brisbane - the city council is the largest in Australia, and encompasses not only the city area itself, but a large urban area extending north, south, and west out to semi-rural areas (at least in the north and west; the south runs in to the Logan / Gold Coast conurbation). This leads to a lot of conflict and cross-purposes in council planning decisions - what's good for the city isn't necessarily what's good for the inner urban isn't necessarily good for the outer urban isn't necessarily good for the semi-rural ...)
posted by Pinback at 5:42 PM on July 7, 2009

Even with the recent flooding, is this a connection Australians make?

I think people who make this connection may be (deliberately or otherwise) forcing the evidence to fit their political position. I don't think anyone can really tell whether Aus is fucked up because of climate change, or it's fucked up because, well, it's Australia, and we're pretty famous for having an inhospitable climate.

That said, I do recall that when I was a kid droughts bloody ended, eventually.
posted by pompomtom at 6:14 PM on July 7, 2009

is this a connection Australians make?
I also don't think many Aussies see recent weather events as a result of climate change, but tend to express feelings like "there'll be more of this under global warming."
Certainly mainstream scientists in the media are quick to downplay current weather as being climate change related, and talk instead about more frequent adverse weather in a global warming environment. I think the driver for that is partly honesty, who knows if we would have had floods anyway, for example, and partly defensive so the drought breaking is not presented as refutation of climate change by skeptics.
posted by bystander at 11:08 PM on July 7, 2009

What bystander said. I accept that climate change is real, that it is caused by humans, and that there is strong potential for it to have widespread devastating effects. I don't necessarily equate the current drought with climate change, though. I do think we could have more droughts that are more severe, but I've known water tanks and dead ovals for all of my three and some years decades in the country, as did my father for twenty years before that. A near-dead landscape is not really new or recent.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:19 PM on July 7, 2009

Best answer: As for who might provide insights, I'd suggest the CSIRO, except that they're known for having gagged staff who spoke to loudly about climate change. They might have some data though. Gardening Australia (or, more specifically, their host Peter Cundall) might have some stories on how people used to garden, or try the state botannical gardens (Kings Park in WA, Royal Tasmanian, etc). Tim Flannery's The Future Eaters covers what Australia was like before and during Aboriginal settlement, then how the English colonisers had to adjust their ideas about how to relate to nature here. Oh, it looks like it's got a documentary too.

There's a wide variation in ideas about climate change in Australia. There's a small group of denialists, but a much larger group who aren't denialists, exactly, they just think it's more of the same drought/flood cycle we've always had. And then there's a bunch who see a difference between the usual cycle and now - generally people who were observing or recording rainfall or frog habitat or whatever, not as scientists but as a hobby or for their own info. Plus the usual urban greenies and under-informed general populace. We've got the lot!
posted by harriet vane at 3:59 AM on July 8, 2009

Actually, I just remembered that the ABC had a doco about the history of bushfires in Australia - can't find a link just now, but it aired last year so should have a proper site with multimedia, etc.
posted by harriet vane at 4:00 AM on July 8, 2009

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