Why Are We So Scared To Say The C-Word During Drought?

Climate change is our problem, like bad roads and bad politicians are our problem.

This unfolding natural disaster is not just about a parched, barren landscape.

It’s about people.

It makes no sense to talk about the drought without talking about the economic impact. This is not just about crops that won’t grow and emaciated livestock with nothing to eat.

It’s about people’s livelihoods, and before long, it will be about the prices we pay at the checkouts.

It equally makes no sense to talk about the drought without talking about the underlying causes. And one of those causes is almost certainly climate change.

Australia, we are taught early on at school, is the driest continent on earth. Drought has always been part of life here, and always will be. Nobody argues that.

Climate change? Image: GLENN NICHOLLS/AFP/Getty Images.

But there are certain factors that make droughts both more likely and more severe. The obvious one is rising temperatures.

Last week, University of New South Wales climate scientist and senior lecturer Sophie Lewis tweeted:

“The Bureau of Meteorology July summary shows another hot July -- year after year we are having hot or record breaking temperatures. Last year's record July was 12 times more likely due to climate change.”

Australia -- and indeed the world as a whole -- has been experiencing above-average temperatures for several decades now. The increased temperatures greatly exceed any natural historical trend, and are being experienced over a wide area.

(Image: Bureau of Meteorology)

Just recently, for example:

  • Sydney’s average maximum temperature in July, the city’s coldest month, is usually 16.4. This July it was 19.9 degrees. Last July it was 19.1;
  • Brisbane’s average maximum temperature in July, the city’s coldest month, is usually 21.9. This July it was 23.2. Last July it was 22.9;
  • Dubbo, in central NSW, has an average maximum temperature in July, its coldest month, of 15.5. This July it was 17.5 Last July it was also 17.5.

If you draw a triangle between these three major population centres, you’d find that pretty much every town and region inside that triangle (and plenty of places outside it) are now drought-affected.

And you’d find they’ve all been experiencing consistently above-normal temperatures. Not just during extreme one-off weather events. But month after month, season after season, year after year.

Can we talk about that? Should we talk about that?

When we know that higher temperatures cause farms to lose surface water and soil moisture more quickly -- turning dry spells into drought and droughts into severe droughts much quicker -- does it make any sense NOT to talk about it?

Cattle on a dry paddock in the drought-hit area of Quirindi in New South Wales. Image: GLENN NICHOLLS/AFP/Getty Images.

About 25 years ago, a clever public relations push from the fossil fuel lobby in America sought to sow doubt in the public mind as to the causes of climate change. This cynical campaign of deliberate misinformation was so successful that it divided the issue along political lines.

George H.W. Bush once boasted that he was going to "fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect". Now Donald Trump believes climate change is some sort of conspiracy or hoax, and has pulled out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.

President Trump is fiddling while America burns -- literally. This week, while fires raged in California, he tweeted that it was “bad environment laws” preventing the containment of the fires.

Experts were quick to rebuke that comment on numerous fronts -- excuse the pun. Meanwhile leading US climate scientists like Michael Mann calmly explained the link between dangerous wildfires fires and climate change:

“We’re not saying that climate change is literally causing the events to occur,” he told America’s Public Broadcasting Service.

“What we can conclude with a great deal of confidence now is that climate change is making these events more extreme… You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worst drought. You bring all that together, and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

It’s the same story in America as it in Australia, as it is in Europe, which has experienced unprecedented heat across the continent this northern hemisphere summer.

In announcing his $190 million drought relief package this week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull eventually joined the dots, drawing a link between climate and drought.

"I think everyone agrees that we're seeing rainfall that is, if you like, more erratic, droughts that are more frequent and seasons that are hotter," he said

Other MPs, including Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and Barnaby Joyce, were less keen to discuss the connection. Littleproud was disinterested, saying he didn’t “give a rat’s”. Joyce was outright dismissive.

But this isn’t an issue where we need to give a rat’s what politicians think.

Climate change is an issue we need to make part of normal conversation, the way we all talk about the weather or the football scores or reality TV.

The good news is, you don’t have to plough your way through long reports to get informed (although if you’re interested, you could start with the Bureau of Meteorology’s easily digestible two-yearly State of the Climate reports).

And we have to get over this idea that it’s not right to talk about climate change while people are experiencing hardship. That’s like saying you should stop seeking the cure to a disease while someone is suffering from it.

Climate change is our problem, like bad roads and bad politicians are our problem. Let’s do what we can to help the farmers, then try to spark a conversation about how to stop the world overheating even more.

READ MORE: The Haunting Poem That Is The Silent Face Of Drought

READ MOREThe Quiet Drought That Has Snuck Up On Our Doorstep

READ MORE: Drought Crisis: What You Need To Know In Under Five Minutes

If you want to help Australian farmers in need, you can donate to a registered charity. Donate online to Rural Aid's Buy a BaleDrought AngelsAussie Helpers or Lions' Need for Feed. You can also support farmers by buying Australian grown produce at your local supermarket.

For 24/7 crisis or suicide prevention support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp.