Severe weather is leaving parts of Australia uncultivated

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Fbefore her balcony in Lismore, a town in northern New South Wales, Maralyn Schofield examines the wreckage of her neighborhood. Located at the confluence of the slow-moving Wilsons River, her house was built on 13-metre stilts to protect it from seasonal flooding. But when Lismore was flooded in February last year, after days of rainstorms, the floodwaters poured into Ms Schofield’s sitting room.

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She was rescued by boat and deposited on a neighbor’s roof. At least her house, now filled with blankets and election billboards for walls, is still standing, she notes bravely. The house next door is in a crumpled heap. Another was swept away.

Australia’s extreme climate makes it particularly vulnerable to global warming. Much of its vast interior is semi-arid and, with temperatures 1.5°C above the long-term average, increasingly subject to wildfires and drought. A warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, which leaves the country subject to record rainfall – such as the heavy rains and floods it suffered this year.

Brisbane received almost a year’s worth of rain in five days last February, costing A$656m ($444m) in damage. Sydney’s western suburbs were included in July for the fourth time in 18 months. A large amount of water recently entered through the Murray-Darling basin, a large river system in eastern Australia, swallowing several towns. This year’s floods have claimed the lives of at least 27 people and destroyed or damaged more than 28,000 houses. And as this article went to press South Australia was threatened with new rain.

Tory politicians, often associated with the coal industry, denied for years that such disasters were getting worse. This has not only prevented Australia from reducing its emissions, it has also prevented it from taking effective measures to adapt to the warming they are causing. The government has “gone through with easy options”, says Jamie Pittock of the Australian National University. He built levees, built homes and went out on disaster cleanups. It is estimated that Australia has spent nearly 50 times as much on disaster response in the past two decades as it has on building more sustainable homes and other infrastructure.

But as the cost of climate-related damage rises, it’s becoming harder to ignore. According to the Climate Council, an advocacy group, around one in 25 Australian homes could be uninsured due to excess flood risk by 2030.

Anthony Albanese’s Labor government, elected in May, has set tougher emissions reduction targets. After campaigning for a pledge to increase funding for climate-related disasters, he has also helped launch a more serious debate about how Australia’s cities and suburbs can adapt to the effect of warming. Some must be abandoned. There is “recognition that we have to go through a managed retreat and pay people to move,” said Mr Pittock. Many in suburban Lismore agree. “I love my house,” says Ms Schofield, but living in the flood zone has been “just too dangerous”.

One solution is for governments to “buy back” unaffordable homes to take them off the market. In October the state and federal governments launched an A$800m “stability” fund that will buy 2,000 properties in northern New South Wales from people who are at “grave risk to life”. The fund will also give money to owners to build or waterproof their floors. A similar scheme, of A$740m, was set up in Queensland.

Another way to help local people is to exchange their ruined plots for safer ones, as happened in Grantham, a small town west of Brisbane. After floods in 2011 killed 12 people and destroyed much of Grantham’s infrastructure, the local council bought upland fields and moved dozens of families to them under a land swap deal. Some homeowners simply cut their buildings free from the foundations and carted them up the hill.

Where Australians choose not to leave disaster-prone areas, state governments may forcefully acquire their lands. Meanwhile, Australia’s short-term commitment to this solution will last. Even as New South Wales and other states are trying to get people out of some high-risk areas, they are bringing them into others. So, for example, the intensive development that is taking place on the flood plains west of Sydney.

In 2017 a federal infrastructure agency predicted that the number of people living in floodplains could double by 2050, to more than 260,000. But the western suburbs of the city are already seeing regular heavy flooding. The premier of the state, Dominic Perrottet, recently promised to impose some building restrictions, but only in the most dangerous areas. “People have to live somewhere,” he says, but fire and water will limit their options.

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