Dams might be the new controlled burns

The Queensland flood disaster continues in tragic and dramatic fashion, though Sri Lanka and Brazil have it even worse. However, there is a yet more pressing concern in some quarters. You see, this isn’t just about lost lives and property, but about the future of market economics. The real question is: how can we blame this on environmentalists?

You knew it was coming, at the back of your mind at least. After the devastating Victorian bushfires on Black Saturday last year, the media was awash with abuse. “Greenies” were held to be responsible for stopping controlled burns and preventing the clearing of bush around homes. It’s quite reasonable to debate the extent of controlled burning; it’s a complex issue. It’s not reasonable to assume either (a) that unmitigated benefits follow from controlled burning, or (b) that all environmentalists are blindly opposed to it. Of course, that’s precisely what happened, and more. It was not enough for Miranda Devine to advocate for more controlled burning. It was not even enough for her to chastise the entire green “ideology” as being wrong. This is what she had to say:

…it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.

This time, we’ll be told that environmentalists are responsible for preventing the construction of more and larger dams. Dams, dams, dams. Again, this has a passing element of truth to it – the proposed damming of the Mary River (the Traveston Crossing Dam) was delayed and then abandoned, partly due to the efforts of environmentalists concerned about the extinction or vulnerability of particular fish species. Of course, this was certainly not the only reason; some upstream communities and farmland would have been inundated, and there were also concerns about the dam’s efficiency (with respect to leakage and evaporation). The Mary River did flood in the last few days, affecting a couple of towns along its length, but this certainly was not the epicentre of the disaster, and it’s not clear to what extent the proposed dam would have helped*.

It would also be wrong to attribute the dam’s demise just to the “environmentalists”. Many local residents did not want it. Despite Tony Abbott’s new dams epiphany, the state and federal Coalition have been firmly opposed to it. Only the state Labor government backed it.

Let’s be clear that dams do have flood-mitigation capabilities, but we’re talking mitigation, not prevention. By carefully managing outflows, dams can “spread out” flood flows over longer periods of time. The same total amount of water flows downstream as normal, but at a lower rate. Sometimes this is sufficient, and sometimes it is not. If a dam is full when the flood waters hit, or becomes full, there’s no controlling the excess. Further, flash flooding might occur almost anywhere, and we’re not about to start building enormous concrete dam walls across every valley in the country. (For reference, the Traveston Dam would have costed $1.7-1.8 billion; over $100,000 for each of the 16,454 people living in Gympie. Surely we can come up with more economical flood defences.)

So, you might think that nobody could seriously entertain the notion that greenies are responsible for the flood crisis, but just you watch**. It matters not that no dam could have contained the flood waters seen by Queenslanders. It matters not that a number of dams are already there and have demonstrably failed to hold back the flood waters. What matters is that “greenies” have tried to stop dams being built, and so by reverse psychology dams must be a good thing. What matters is the inevitable slander and innuendo from small sections of the media, wherein this issue is not one to be reported so much as fought and won.

One of my favourite fruitcakes, James Delingpole, is hot off the mark with a guest post by one of his regular commenters. Delingpole tries to juxtapose the plan to dam the Mary River against the Toowoomba/Lockyer Valley flash flooding. The strong implication is that lives were lost due to attempts to save the Mary River cod. This is utter nonsense – Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, where the deaths occurred, are nowhere near the Mary River. Nevertheless, Delingpole says of his commenter “Memory Vault”:

He’s understandably upset about the Australian floods, which may have claimed more than 70 lives. But what really upsets him is that this disaster could have been prevented.

“Memory Vault” mumbles something about levees and dams, and about their not being finished, but never quite gets around to saying exactly what should have been done. His/her piece is mostly a rant against “CO2 AGW madness”, filled with strained advocacy of the “theory of the cyclical nature , ocean and atmospheric [sic]”, whatever that is supposed to be.

Thus, the fight is against climate science and its implications. It has long been predicted that increased global temperatures will lead to more extreme weather events. No single disaster can be definitively attributed to climate change, but at some point we must acknowledge that climate change has probably contributed.

It’s unfortunate, but probably unavoidable, that people will perceive each new natural disaster by itself as evidence of climate change. This is not evidence per se; evidence for climate change comes in the form of hard numbers – temperatures, sea levels, frequency of cyclones, etc. However, while this unscientific reaction unfolds, there’s an even more dubious counter-reaction determined to drown it out. Delingpole and others are utterly convinced that the environmentalist movement is the new communism; that green is the new red (hence the derogatory term “watermelon” for greenies assumed to be closet commies). It’s not strictly important whether any of that environmentalist stuff is right or not. The important thing is that the greenies cannot be allowed to appear to be right, because then their secret communist ideals will permeate the establishment by stealth.

Nobody in Australia really thinks that dams are a magic bullet, but as long as environmentalists argue against them, the anti-environmentalists will argue for them.

* Andrew Bolt points to Gavin Atkins, who points to this report on the flood mitigation effects of the Traveston Dam. Modeling shows that the dam would have reduced water levels in Gympie by 4 metres during the 1999 flood. However, this may have been cherry-picked. The actual mitigation effects in any given situation would presumably depend on various factors, including the dam level beforehand and the duration and intensity of rainfall.

** Not here though. I’ve escaped the wrath of the winged monkeys thus far, because this blog is a fairly small target.