Why is southeast Asia so concerned about AUKUS and Australia’s plans for nuclear submarines? (from The Conversation)

James Chin, University of Tasmania

The announcement of a new strategic alliance between Australia, the US and UK (AUKUS) has caught many by surprise. Besides France, which reacted with fury over Australia’s scrapping of a major submarine deal with a French company, few countries were as surprised as Australia’s neighbours to the north, the ASEAN members.

In particular, Indonesia and Malaysia have come out strongly against Australia’s plan to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the US and UK. Even Singapore, Australia’s most reliable ally in the region, has expressed concern.

The Afghanistan debacle has left a bad taste among many Indo-Pacific countries, and some are wondering if the timing of the AUKUS announcement was intended as a show of US power in the region to reassure jittery partners.

Fear of a nuclear arms race

To understand the deep anxiety in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and other ASEAN capitals requires some context on where they are coming from.

First, many of them think there is no such thing as acquiring nuclear-powered submarines without the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons in the future.

Australia has not joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which requires parties to agree not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

The Morrison government says the treaty would be inconsistent with its alliance with the US, a nuclear weapon power.


Read more: The nuclear weapons ban treaty is groundbreaking, even if the nuclear powers haven’t signed


However, Australia did ratify the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1998. And Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week Australia has “no plans” to pursue nuclear weapons.

Yet, some ASEAN countries are worried the AUKUS agreement is a clear signal the West will take a more aggressive stand towards China by admitting Australia to the nuclear club.

Both Indonesia (the unofficial leader of ASEAN) and Malaysia fear AUKUS will also lead to a major arms race in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

The potential for conflict in South China Sea

The new agreement also signals that the US, Australia and UK view the South China Sea as a key venue for this contest against China.

The ASEAN nations have always preached maintaining southeast Asia as a “zone of peace, freedom and neutrality”, free from interference by any outside powers. In 1995, the member states also signed the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, which committed to keep nuclear weapons out of the region. Not a single nuclear power has signed on to it.

Although everyone knows China, the US, Britain and France have ignored these protocols by manoeuvring armed warships through the South China Sea — not to mention China’s building of military bases on disputed islands there — ASEAN does not want to see this number grow.

A Chinese missile frigate launches an anti-ship missile.
A Chinese missile frigate launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the South China Sea. Zha Chunming/Xinhua/AP

Australian nuclear-powered submarines have the potential to change the dynamics in the South China Sea and make the Chinese much more nervous. There have already been plenty of “close encounter” incidents between the Chinese and US navies in the disputed waters, as well as the Chinese navy and ships belonging to ASEAN members. The region doesn’t need yet another potential “close encounter” to worry about.

The ASEAN states are already very worried about the China-US rivalry playing out in its backyard. And the new AUKUS agreement reinforces the idea that the opinions of the ASEAN members matter little when it comes to the superpowers and how they operate in the region.


Read more: Jokowi’s visit shows the Australia-Indonesia relationship is strong, but faultlines remain


The region has always insisted on the idea of “ASEAN centrality” in their relations with the world — that ASEAN members must decide what is best for Southeast Asia — but as AUKUS shows, nuclear nations play a different game.

Indonesia is especially unhappy with Australia given the new agreement will affect it directly, given their common maritime border.

Morrison had already been forced to cancel his upcoming trip to Jakarta after Prime Minister Joko Widodo said he would be unavailable to meet — a decision that was made before the AUKUS announcement. This will add another layer to the strained relationship.

Is there anyone happy about the deal?

While in public, most southeast Asian governments have expressed uneasiness with AUKUS, there is a school of thought that says the more hawkish voices in the region will probably accept the agreement in the long term, as it will help keep China’s aggression in check.

For those in the “hawk” camp, the number one long-term threat to regional security is China. Many think the strategic balance of power has been tilting too much in Beijing’s favour in the past decade, especially after China started rushing to build military bases in the South China Sea and using its navy to protect Chinese fishing vessels in disputed waters.

So, they believe any moves to remind China it does not have a carte blanche to do what it wants in Southeast Asia is a good thing.

Japan and South Korea are clearly in this camp and their muted reaction to AUKUS suggests they are in favour of a “re-balancing” in the region. Taiwan and Vietnam are probably on this side, as well.

The only downside is that Australia may use its nuclear-powered submarines to bully ASEAN countries. If Canberra uses its nuclear submarines as a bargaining chip, it will simply turn public opinion in the region against Australia.

Implications for Australia-ASEAN relations

If anything, the AUKUS move reinforced the widely held perception that Australia’s mantra of being “part of the region” is, in fact, “empty talk”. Australia has firmly signalled its intentions to put its Anglo allies in the US and UK first.

AUKUS also reinforces the view that Australia cannot be accepted as a regional partner or player. This, of course, is nothing new. For years, the ASEAN bloc has seen Australia as “deputy sheriff” to the US, though this view would not necessarily be shared in public.

So, while AUKUS came as a surprise to many in the region, an alliance of this sort was probably bound to happen. It’s just that nobody expected it to happen so soon.

James Chin, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: For Morrison AUKUS is all about the deal, never mind the niceties (from The Conversation)

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison, whose COVID face masks have the Australian flag emblazoned on them, likes to talk about “the Australian way” of doing things and Australian values.

But it is not “the Australian way” to secretly plan, over a very long time, to deceive a close friend of this country, and then to treat them in a most humiliating and disdainful manner. That does not align with “Australian values” of honesty and fair dealing.

If Australia is really surprised an angry French government has withdrawn its ambassador from Canberra (as well as its ambassador from Washington) it suggests it has no grasp of the proprieties of international diplomacy.

To add insult to injury, on Sunday Defence Minister Peter Dutton suggested the Australian government had been “upfront, open and honest” – the French could have read the signals of our discontent with their $90 billion submarines contract, including in Senate estimates hearings. This latter reference brought to mind then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull suggesting to Barack Obama that if he’d kept up with the Northern Territory News he’d have known about Australia’s lease of the Port of Darwin to the Chinese.


Read more: C’est fini: can the Australia-France relationship be salvaged after scrapping the sub deal?


As recently as the end of August, Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne held the “Inaugural Australia-France 2+2 Ministerial Consultations” with their French counterparts. In the “bilateral cooperation” section of the communique came the sentence: “Ministers underlined the importance of the Future Submarine program”.

It’s telling that the unveiling of the new AUKUS agreement last week was surrounded by more showmanship than diplomacy. The leaders of Australia, the US and Britain were successfully linked for a synchronised performance. But Morrison apparently did not manage to speak personally to French President Macron when a massive contract was being torn up.

AUKUS carries Morrison’s individual branding. It may be the most significant legacy of his prime ministership; however long he is in office, it will certainly be one of them.

It has all the Morrison hallmarks: his own work, conceived and executed in secrecy, kept to the smallest possible round of colleagues, details to be worked out much later, and little concern for the incidental fallout.

If, 30 years on, historians rate it as a stroke of strategic foresight that greatly protected Australia in a time of Chinese potential aggression, Morrison will deserve all the credit. He says he’s been working for 18 months on this – the mustering of a new Anglosphere in our region – and he has managed to pull it off with Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, who both had their own reasons for being receptive.

On the other hand, if after 30 years, AUKUS is judged in the rear vision mirror to have escalated tensions with China to a greater degree than it protected us from Chinese aggression, history’s judgement will be different.

Even as we’re consumed by the short term, it is always worth a look at the long view. Especially when Afghanistan is fresh in our minds – a commitment that was necessary initially, but ended in a fiasco that has restored the Taliban.

Morrison’s planned nuclear-powered subs come without any estimated cost (except they’ll be more expensive than the French ones); or precise timetable (except they won’t be available for a couple of decades); or decision about which boat will be chosen (except it will be American or British), or firm indication of how much building will be done in Australia (except that it won’t be all of it and possibly only a modest amount).

If any of these aspects returns to bite, blame will (or should) rest on Morrison’s head, whether he’s around or not.

Then there’s the French relationship to manage. How long their fury will last is anybody’s guess. But given their interests in the region, it is no small thing to deliver this rebuff in what can only be seen as a crass manner.

Marise Payne may not be of great use in repairing the tear in the relationship. Her diplomatic credibility is one of the immediate casualties of the affair, especially after the recent ministerial talks. One can only imagine how the feisty Julie Bishop would have reacted to being left so compromised.

With Australia’s ambition for a free trade agreement with the European Union in mind, Trade Minister Dan Tehan, flak jacket packed, is off to Paris next week.

Also important is the message that’s been sent to some key regional countries. Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed concerns. The risk is Australia could be seen as an unexpectedly capricious player in the way it operates.

AUKUS is a mark of the supremacy of the hawks in Canberra. Although Morrison said he started planning it with former defence minister Linda Reynolds, it is a precise fit for current minister Dutton.

In thinking about defence strategy, governments of both complexions have circled around questions of long range capability, of which nuclear-powered submarines are part.

But it was not until Morrison, in the lead up to the 2020 defence strategic update, started to push Reynolds and the defence establishment to contemplate the acquisition – and potential use – of such weaponry that the real momentum came. In Dutton, Morrison has a defence minister who not only shares his instinct on this, but has a full time focus on it.


Read more: C’est fini: can the Australia-France relationship be salvaged after scrapping the sub deal?


Some months ago the secretary of the home affairs department, Mike Pezzullo, himself a hawk, wrote of hearing the “drums of war”. It was obvious well before that Australia was preparing to refurbish and expand its own drum set in the face of an assertive China already targeting Australia economically.

Dutton and others have increasingly dropped the government’s earlier attempt to avoid naming China as the potential enemy, even if we haven’t quite got back to the red arrows from the north of those 1960s depictions.

One problem with the subs deal is that, given the pace at which things move, a China-US military blow-up over Taiwan (if it comes to that) could be done and dusted, with god knows what consequences, by the time the boats are in the water. No wonder the talk now is of leasing a sub or two to fill in the gap, given the inadequacy of the Collins-class submarines we now operate.

It should be noted, incidentally, that some commentators expert in these things say the French nuclear-powered subs (as opposed to the conventionally-powered ones we’re ditching) would be more suitable to our needs than the US or UK boats.

The government says the problem is they’d need their nuclear power refuelled every seven to ten years offshore (because Australia wouldn’t have the nuclear facility), while US and UK subs are powered for their lifetimes. That would not seem a great difficulty, but obviously reworking the French deal would not have delivered the big technological and other advantages of going the full monty with the AUKUS partners.

AUKUS will bring Australia a whole lot of other US weaponry and more boots on Australian ground.

This takes us to the future of the Port of Darwin. Just as the Coalition has botched for years its attempts to get new submarines, so the Northern Territory awarding a Chinese company the lease of the Port of Darwin was a massive snafu.

It’s no good the federal Coalition saying it was all the NT government’s fault. The defence department knew about it and wasn’t worried.

Now the Morrison government has a review of the lease in train. In light of AUKUS, with enhanced military assets in the north and our assessment of the Chinese, it would seem a logical absurdity to let the lease stand. And yet quashing it would be another demonstration of Australia’s unreliability on done deals. It’s a mess.


Read more: ANZUS without NZ? Why the new security pact between Australia, the UK and US might not be all it seems


AUKUS will no doubt have a good many more consequences. One (not formally or totally linked of course) is expected to be a more ambitious climate policy from Australia, which Joe Biden has been urging on the Morrison government for the Glasgow climate conference.

Morrison in coming weeks will want to deliver to Biden (and Johnson), although we don’t know the extent of that delivery, or whether Barnaby Joyce will find himself struggling with any collateral fallout among his own people.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Teaching a ‘hatred’ of Australia? No, minister, here’s why a democracy has critical curriculum content (from The Conversation)

Lucas Walsh, Monash University

Australian Education Minister Alan Tudge says he does not want students to leave school with “a hatred” of their country because the history curriculum for years 7 to 10 “paints an overly negative view of Australia”. The minister is critical of proposed changes to the Australian Curriculum. He sees teaching about the contested nature of Anzac Day and its commemoration as a particular concern.

Two interwoven threads run through current debates about the minister’s view.

First, public debates about the curriculum like this are arguably a sign of democracy at work. Suggesting that some things, such as Anzac Day, are sacred and beyond critical inquiry is not.

Second, at the heart of this discussion is how children should learn about history and how this relates to their development as Australian citizens.


Read more: Gonski 2.0: teaching creativity and critical thinking through the curriculum is already happening


What is the Australian Curriculum?

The Australian Curriculum applies to all primary and secondary schools, affecting over 4 million students. It sets “the expectations for what all young Australians should be taught”.

Developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the curriculum is reviewed every six years. In the current review, public consultations have ended and the revisions will be finalised by the end of 2021.

The history curriculum seeks to promote understanding and use of historical concepts. These concepts include:

  • evidence – obtained from primary and secondary sources to support a hypothesis or to prove or disprove a conclusion
  • historical perspectives – comprising the point of view, beliefs, values and experiences of individuals and groups at the time
  • interpretations – contestable explanations of the past about a specific person, event or development, typically as a result of a disciplined inquiry by historians
  • significance – assigned to an issue, event, development, person, place, process, interaction or system over time and place.

The minister’s response to the proposed revisions follows a recent tradition of objections to aspects of the curriculum. Critical exploration of Australia Day – perspectives of which vary depending on one’s point of view – has been another source of debate.


Read more: Australia is only one front in the history curriculum wars


Three related issues arise in relation to Tudge’s concern.

History is neither static nor unproblematic

First, history is not static. This means one can expect the curriculum to change as new discoveries, insights and perspectives emerge over time.

Second, we would hope to foster learners who are curious, critical and well-informed about Australia’s rich (and sometimes troubled) history.

The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration outlines education goals for all Australians. These goals include development of critical thinking and intercultural understanding. All education ministers signed the declaration.

Students should learn about events such as Anzac Day and Australia Day, their historical origins and different meanings when viewed from various perspectives. It’s a valuable way of developing both critical thinking and understanding of people who are different from ourselves.

Acknowledging this to an extent, Tudge told ABC Hack he is “not concerned” about the curriculum in relation to “the arrivals of the First Fleet, people should learn about that, and they should learn the perspective from Indigenous people at that time as well”. What he doesn’t like is that certain events are critically explored:

“Instead of ANZAC Day being presented as the most sacred of all days in Australia, where […] we commemorate the 100,000 people who have died for our freedoms […] it’s presented as a contested idea [but] ANZAC Day is not a contested idea, apart from an absolute fringe element in our society.”

Setting aside who that “fringe element” might be (some historians?), this implies a settled, uncritical view of history. Tudge suggests the curriculum is “asking people to, instead of just accepting these for the things which they are, such as ANZAC Day, to really challenge them and to contest them”.

Commemorating sacrifice is compatible with critically reflecting on the conditions in which that sacrifice occurred and how that sacrifice is memorialised. Further, the assertion that the challenging of ideas produces hatred is as problematic as uncritically accepting things for whatever the minister thinks “they are”.


Read more: The past is not sacred: the ‘history wars’ over Anzac


“We’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Tudge said, “and we should be teaching the great things that have happened in Australia, as much as we should our weaknesses and flaws and some of the historical wrongs.”

History is often a messy contestation and confluence of violence and discovery. Pride has its place too, but pride can withstand critical inquiry, and perhaps even be strengthened by it.

Tudge says he wants “to make sure there’s a balance” of perspectives. That’s precisely the point of the revised curriculum.

Debate is a good thing

Finally, having a robust and vibrant debate about the curriculum, in which people take an active interest in what is taught, is a sign of healthy democracy. Such debate can only be strengthened when young people are encouraged to recognise that people have different points of view and history is not set in stone, as the curriculum seeks to do. It’s one key dimension of developing active, informed citizenship.


Read more: Young people remain ill-equipped to participate in Australian democracy


The Australian Curriculum is founded on the idea that:

“Education plays a critical role in shaping the lives of young Australians and contributing to a democratic, equitable and just society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse.”

The minister’s objection to proposed changes to the curriculum inadvertently illustrates why it should be taught: it’s not about hatred, but a sign of healthy democracy while meeting Australia’s educational goals.

Lucas Walsh, Professor and Director of the Centre for Youth Policy and Education Practice, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’re sick of COVID. So government messaging needs to change if it’s to cut through (from The Conversation)

Shutterstock

Ernesta Sofija, Griffith University and Natalie Reyes Bernard, Griffith University

Most people want to do the “right thing” when it comes to following public health measures, such as wearing a mask or not mixing with friends and family.

Yet after what feels like a never-ending 18 months of lockdowns and COVID-19 saturated government messages, we’re all just a bit over it.

So government communications must adapt to our changing needs and emotions to reach people suffering pandemic fatigue. Here’s how government messaging needs to change at this stage of the pandemic.


Read more: Sick of COVID-19? Here’s why you might have pandemic fatigue


Pandemic fatigue is real

Pandemic fatigue describes how, over time, we can naturally lose motivation or become complacent about following COVID-19 public health advice or seeking information about it.

Certain groups — such as health-care workers and young malesare already experiencing it. You might be feeling it too.

Gradual exhaustion and inability to engage with government public health messaging is not unusual and is part of a complex interplay of factors, including those relating to risk and control.

Perception of risk

First, someone’s motivation to follow COVID-19 health advice relates to how likely they think they’ll be infected or have serious disease.

Despite increasing rates of the disease in the community, as time goes on, some people start to consider the personal, social and economic consequences of restrictions greater than the actual risk related to the virus.

A degree of control

Second, the need for self-determination, or controlling what happens in your life, begins to set in. The urge for freedom may incite certain groups to act out.


Read more: Public protest or selfish ratbaggery? Why free speech doesn’t give you the right to endanger other people’s health


Pandemic fatigue is a concern

Pandemic fatigue is a concern as people are more tempted to cut corners, putting themselves and others at risk. So governments must recognise the potential consequence of monotonous messaging, making it all too easy for people to switch off.

They must acknowledge what makes it hard or easy for people to adopt protective behaviours.

And as pandemic fatigue sets in, we also need to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Governments can provide this by explaining how specific actions taken can make a difference to overall outcomes.

Without fostering hope, the public’s commitment to limiting the impact of this crisis is likely to continue to slide.

Here are four ways government messaging needs to change to stave off pandemic fatigue.

1. Understand people

Governments must identify and understand population groups who have notable pandemic fatigue, such as people with lower education, young males or health-care workers.

Then they need to tailor and test new evidence-based messages with these target groups. It’s best to have fewer quality messages hitting the right spot than many lower quality messages distributed widely.


Read more: Why telling stories could be a more powerful way of convincing some people to take a COVID vaccine than just the facts


2. Engage people as part of the solution

We know one of the main drivers of resistance to following government public health messages is the need to feel in control and have a sense of autonomy. Governments must engage people by reframing messages as much as possible to be positive and hopeful.

By using personal stories as motivators, collective words like “we”, a two-way dialogue and trusted voices in the community, governments can engage and inspire communities to have self-determination.

When we studied Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s communications during the first wave of the pandemic, we found he used limited personal stories and empathetic language.

But Norway’s government recognised the community as experts of their own lives and engaged them in creating solutions, for example, flexible ways of reopening kindergartens.


Read more: Even with a vaccine, we need to adjust our mindset to playing the COVID-19 long game


3. Allow people to live their lives but reduce risk

As the pandemic progresses, the “all or nothing” approach to public health advice may be overly daunting, and risks alienating and demotivating people.

So government messaging should move beyond “do not” to “doing things differently”, allowing us to incorporate the things we value into our “new” way of living.

This acknowledges people will want to hug others and celebrate birthdays, and advises how to minimise the risks when doing so.

For instance, the Netherlands government released specific guidance for people seeking intimacy during the pandemic, advising people find a “cuddle buddy” rather than being intimate with several partners.

This harm reduction approach recognises abstinence is not an option for many.

4. Acknowledge and address people’s hardship

While lockdowns and other stringent measures are crucial to control the spread of virus, they have taken a toll on the mental health and well-being of populations across the globe and affected everyday life through loss of jobs and security.

Governments should acknowledge this hardship through messages of empathy and hope. They should also create opportunities to ease the feelings of life being put on hold.

Norway’s health minister provided a great example of this, where he acknowledged the hardship young people faced, thanking them for their contribution to society. He also called on them to come up with safe solutions for university events.

This seemed to have had a positive impact with young people in Norway more likely to follow COVID-19 restrictions than those over 50.

Yes, communicating in a pandemic is hard

During such a prolonged crisis, there is no “one size fits all” communication strategy. An initial analysis of national pandemic responses around the world showed many leaders found it hard to balance communicating public health measures with the growing impatience to return to some sense of normalcy.

And by the end of Australia’s first wave, we showed Morrison’s communication was dominated by political and economic actions. Repeating the same old themes may contribute to pandemic fatigue.

Now it’s time for government messaging to adapt and adjust to our level of fatigue, taking into account ways in which current methods may actually be contributing to levels of disengagement.

If governments don’t do this, people may miss or purposefully avoid public health advice. And that makes it harder for us to ever recover.

Ernesta Sofija, Lecturer, public health and health promotion, Griffith University and Natalie Reyes Bernard, Research assistant, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From October, it will be all but impossible for most Australians to vape — largely because of Canberra’s little-known ‘homework police’

Last year when the government tried to ban the import of import of e-cigarettes without a prescription, it cut corners. This time, the Office of Best Practice Regulation helped get the decision right.

Source: From October, it will be all but impossible for most Australians to vape — largely because of Canberra’s little-known ‘homework police’

Australians under 60 will no longer receive the AstraZeneca vaccine. So what’s changed? (from The Conversation)

Paul Griffin, The University of Queensland

Australians aged under 60 will no longer receive first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine due to the rare risk of a serious blood clotting disorder among people aged 50 to 59.

The government has accepted the advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), which recommends those aged under 60 now receive the Pfizer vaccine. It previously recommended Pfizer to those aged under 50.

The change is based on the advisory group’s assessment of the risks of the clotting disorder, called thrombosis and thrombocytopenia syndrome or TTS, versus benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in protecting against COVID-19.

While the risk of TTS is still very low overall, it is more common in younger age groups. And younger people are less likely to die or become seriously ill from COVID-19.

What is the clotting disorder and how common is it?

Thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) is a rare clotting problem that can occur after vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

We don’t fully understand why TTS occurs, but we know it’s caused by an overactive immune response. This is a very different mechanism to clots people might get after travelling or being immobile for lengthy periods.

The condition involves blood clots as well as a depletion in blood clotting cells known as platelets. The clots associated with TTS can appear in parts of the body where we don’t normally see blood clots, like the brain or the abdomen.


Read more: How rare are blood clots after the AstraZeneca vaccine? What should you look out for? And how are they treated?


In Australia we have now seen 60 cases of TTS, with 37 confirmed and 23 probable.

Of the 12 recent cases, seven occurred in people aged between 50 and 59.

Sadly, two people have died.

The risk of TTS reduces with age. For people aged under 50, there are 3.1 cases of TTS per 100,000 doses. This reduces to 1.9 cases for those aged 80 and above:

As awareness of TTS grows, clinicians’ ability to detect and diagnose the condition has also improved. This means the risk of becoming severely ill and dying from this condition has fallen dramatically.

How does this compare to the chance of dying from COVID-19?

Globally, 177 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported, with around 3.83 million deaths, or just over 2%.

The risk of dying from COVID-19 increases with age. The rates depend on the country you live in and your sex. In China, for instance, the death rate was reportedly:

  • for under-50s, less than 1%
  • 50 to 59 years, 1.3%
  • 60 to 69 years, 3.6%
  • 70 to 79 years, 8%
  • 80 and above, 14.8%.

In terms of data from Australia, in 2020, for every 600 people with COVID-19 aged in their 50s, one person died and 18 required admission to a hospital intensive care unit (ICU).

For every 600 people aged in their 70s with COVID-19, 24 died and 42 were admitted to ICU.

So the benefits of vaccination to prevent severe COVID-19 are greater among older age groups.


Read more: A history of blood clots is not usually any reason to avoid the AstraZeneca vaccine


What if you’ve already had one dose?

If you’re aged 50 to 59 and have already had one dose, and didn’t have a significant reaction, the advice is for you to return for your second dose.

Relatively few Australians have received a second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. But data from the United Kingdom shows TTS appears much less commonly after second doses – 1.5 cases per million doses.

If you have concerns about the risk of TTS, talk to your doctor or vaccine provider.

In the future, as more evidence emerges and is assessed by Australia’s regulators, we may use other vaccines for follow-up doses. But this is not currently the recommendation.


Read more: Can I get AstraZeneca now and Pfizer later? Why mixing and matching COVID vaccines could help solve many rollout problems


How does the advisory group decide?

ATAGI is a group of experts that closely monitors vaccines both in Australia and internationally for side effects, as well as how well they are working.

It also considers the amount of disease circulating that the vaccine is designed to protect from.

These factors are considered at the time of initial approval, and then monitored continuously. When some of these factors change, the way we use vaccines also needs to change.

Today’s change demonstrates the strength and robustness of the ongoing surveillance of adverse events of vaccines and our regulators’ commitment to ensure the safety of the community receiving these vaccines.

We’re fortunate to have excellent control of COVID-19 in Australia and low rates of severe disease. We’re also fortunate to have an alternate vaccine in the form of Pfizer, albeit still in relatively short supply.

Out of an abundance of caution and considering all of these and other factors, it makes sense to increase the age cut-off for the use of this vaccine in our country at present.

This may be subject to further changes in the future, in either direction, as the situation around us continues to evolve.


Read more: How do we actually investigate rare COVID-19 vaccine side-effects?


Paul Griffin, Associate Professor, Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New COVID variants have changed the game, and vaccines will not be enough. We need global ‘maximum suppression’ (from The Conversation)

Daniel Cole/AP

Susan Michie, UCL; Chris Bullen, University of Auckland; Jeffrey V Lazarus, Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal); John N. Lavis, McMaster University; John Thwaites, Monash University; Liam Smith, Monash University; Salim Abdool Karim, Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), and Yanis Ben Amor, Columbia University

At the end of 2020, there was a strong hope that high levels of vaccination would see humanity finally gain the upper hand over SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In an ideal scenario, the virus would then be contained at very low levels without further societal disruption or significant numbers of deaths.

But since then, new “variants of concern” have emerged and spread worldwide, putting current pandemic control efforts, including vaccination, at risk of being derailed.

Put simply, the game has changed, and a successful global rollout of current vaccines by itself is no longer a guarantee of victory.

No one is truly safe from COVID-19 until everyone is safe. We are in a race against time to get global transmission rates low enough to prevent the emergence and spread of new variants. The danger is that variants will arise that can overcome the immunity conferred by vaccinations or prior infection.

What’s more, many countries lack the capacity to track emerging variants via genomic surveillance. This means the situation may be even more serious than it appears.

As members of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission Taskforce on Public Health, we call for urgent action in response to the new variants. These new variants mean we cannot rely on the vaccines alone to provide protection but must maintain strong public health measures to reduce the risk from these variants. At the same time, we need to accelerate the vaccine program in all countries in an equitable way.

Together, these strategies will deliver “maximum suppression” of the virus.

What are ‘variants of concern’?

Genetic mutations of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 emerge frequently, but some variants are labelled “variants of concern”, because they can reinfect people who have had a previous infection or vaccination, or are more transmissible or can lead to more severe disease.


Read more: UK, South African, Brazilian: a virologist explains each COVID variant and what they mean for the pandemic


There are currently at least three documented SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern:

  • B.1.351, first reported in South Africa in December 2020
  • B.1.1.7, first reported in the United Kingdom in December 2020
  • P.1, first identified in Japan among travellers from Brazil in January 2021.

Similar mutations are arising in different countries simultaneously, meaning not even border controls and high vaccination rates can necessarily protect countries from home-grown variants, including variants of concern, where there is substantial community transmission.

If there are high transmission levels, and hence extensive replication of SARS-CoV-2, anywhere in the world, more variants of concern will inevitably arise and the more infectious variants will dominate. With international mobility, these variants will spread.

South Africa’s experience suggests that past infection with SARS-CoV-2 offers only partial protection against the B.1.351 variant, and it is about 50% more transmissible than pre-existing variants. The B.1.351 variant has already been detected in at least 48 countries as of March 2021.

The impact of the new variants on the effectiveness of vaccines is still not clear. Recent real-world evidence from the UK suggests both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines provide significant protection against severe disease and hospitalisations from the B.1.1.7 variant.

On the other hand, the B.1.351 variant seems to reduce the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine against mild to moderate illness. We do not yet have clear evidence on whether it also reduces effectiveness against severe disease.

For these reasons, reducing community transmission is vital. No single action is sufficient to prevent the virus’s spread; we must maintain strong public health measures in tandem with vaccination programs in every country.

Why we need maximum suppression

Each time the virus replicates, there is an opportunity for a mutation to occur. And as we are already seeing around the world, some of the resulting variants risk eroding the effectiveness of vaccines.

That’s why we have called for a global strategy of “maximum suppression”.

Public health leaders should focus on efforts that maximally suppress viral infection rates, thus helping to prevent the emergence of mutations that can become new variants of concern.

Prompt vaccine rollouts alone will not be enough to achieve this; continued public health measures, such as face masks and physical distancing, will be vital too. Ventilation of indoor spaces is important, some of which is under people’s control, some of which will require adjustments to buildings.

Fair access to vaccines

Global equity in vaccine access is vital too. High-income countries should support multilateral mechanisms such as the COVAX facility, donate excess vaccines to low- and middle- income countries, and support increased vaccine production.

However, to prevent the emergence of viral variants of concern, it may be necessary to prioritise countries or regions with the highest disease prevalence and transmission levels, where the risk of such variants emerging is greatest.


Read more: 3 ways to vaccinate the world and make sure everyone benefits, rich and poor


Those with control over health-care resources, services and systems should ensure support is available for health professionals to manage increased hospitalisations over shorter periods during surges without reducing care for non-COVID-19 patients.

Health systems must be better prepared against future variants. Suppression efforts should be accompanied by:

  • genomic surveillance programs to identify and quickly characterise emerging variants in as many countries as possible around the world
  • rapid large-scale “second-generation” vaccine programs and increased production capacity that can support equity in vaccine distribution
  • studies of vaccine effectiveness on existing and new variants of concern
  • adapting public health measures (such as double masking) and re-committing to health system arrangements (such as ensuring personal protective equipment for health staff)
  • behavioural, environmental, social and systems interventions, such as enabling ventilation, distancing between people, and an effective find, test, trace, isolate and support system.

Read more: Global weekly COVID cases are falling, WHO says — but ‘if we stop fighting it on any front, it will come roaring back’


COVID-19 variants of concern have changed the game. We need to recognise and act on this if we as a global society are to avoid future waves of infections, yet more lockdowns and restrictions, and avoidable illness and death.

Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology and Director of the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, UCL; Chris Bullen, Professor of Public Health, University of Auckland; Jeffrey V Lazarus, Associate Research Professor, Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal); John N. Lavis, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Evidence-Informed Health Systems, McMaster University; John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University; Liam Smith, Director, BehaviourWorks, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Salim Abdool Karim, Director, Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), and Yanis Ben Amor, Assistant Professor of Global Health and Microbiological Sciences, Executive Director – Center for Sustainable Development (Earth Institute), Columbia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Morrison should appoint stand-alone minister for women and boot Andrew Laming to crossbench (from The Conversation)

AAP/Mick Tsikas

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison is trying to have things both ways over disgraced Queensland Liberal Andrew Laming.

Laming, who has allegedly bullied constituents and photographed a woman inappropriately, announced at the weekend he won’t seek another term.

But he hasn’t been booted out of the parliamentary party, which is what should happen.

Having Laming go to the crossbench would wipe out the government’s majority, which is what the prime minister wants to avoid. The departure of Craig Kelly to the crossbench has already removed the Coalition’s working majority on the floor of the house.

When Nine on Thursday was about to run a story on the bullying, Morrison called in Laming and made him apologise in the house. Laming then trashed his own apology, saying on Facebook he didn’t even know what he’d apologised for. Morrison gave him another talking to.

On Saturday (speaking before the story about Laming photographing a woman stacking a fridge, whose underwear was showing, came to public light) Morrison told the media: “I spoke to him again this morning, and I’m arranging for Mr Laming, for Andrew Laming, to now go and get appropriate assistance through an appropriate course to build his understanding and awareness about his actions.

“And I think this is one of the important things that we need to do. The way you fix this is we’ve got to educate, inform and increase awareness to change behaviour. I want to see behaviour change.”

This sounds like some parallel universe – the prime minister “arranging” for Laming to get “appropriate assistance”, and suggesting he has to build “awareness about his actions”.

This MP has been in parliament since the 2004 election. He trained as a doctor. Let’s be frank: no MP needs a course to know gross bullying of people in his local community is appalling conduct for a parliamentarian.

As seems the way now with Coalition parliamentarians in trouble, Laming has gone on leave.

He said in a weekend statement he will “get assistance with courses in empathy and appropriate communication, not just to be a better MP, but to be a deeper and more empathetic person than what the recent events have demonstrated.

“The common thread of the last week has been not demonstrating anything close to understanding how my actions affect others. I intend to own those mistakes.

“I will also be obtaining clinical counselling, for a duration decided by others, but I will aim to complete it by the next parliamentary sitting”.

That is, when the government needs him back.

His leave is from electorate and committee work but Laming says his office will be “continuing to serve the community”.

Laming is the third embattled Liberal to go on leave in a few weeks. The others are ministers Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds.

Reynolds’ leave is a justified case – she has a heart condition.

It’s another matter with the others. Leave, frankly, looks like an excuse not to be around.

Morrison (who must be wishing he could get a bit of stress leave himself) will be bracing for any more revelations about people in his ranks.

It will be interesting to hear how he responds to the Sunday suggestion by two of his female backbenchers, Sarah Henderson and Katie Allen, on the ABC that MPs should be subject to drug and alcohol testing.

Henderson said she had heard “a few rumours about drugs”, although no names had been mentioned to her.

Meanwhile, early this week Morrison will announce his reshuffle. This involves shifting Porter and Reynolds but keeping them in cabinet, another compromise likely to be criticised as inadequate.

But a real test in this reshuffle is what Morrison does with the position of minister for women.

If he is serious about women’s issues, he should reallocate this post, at present held by the Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Payne has shown no sign she can drive the agenda for women. She certainly can’t carry the very difficult public debate for the government; she has been little seen on the issues in the last few weeks. She did not even participate when the PM addressed Coalition staff the other day.

Given the present crisis embroiling the government, Morrison should have a stand alone cabinet position of minister for women.

This article has been corrected to remove a quote wrongly attributed to Josh Frydenberg.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: Sex, power and anger — a history of feminist protests in Australia (from The Conversation)

Angela Woollacott, Australian National University and Michelle Staff, Australian National University

Rage and roar are two words commonly used to describe the events of Monday 15 March, when tens of thousands joined the March4Justice: the emotional rage fuelling the protests; the roar of angry shouting voices raised against the treatment of women.

The anger driving the marches around the nation connects the day’s events to earlier feminist protests in Australia, and by Australian women in London. For well over a century, feminists have been angered by women’s lack of equal rights, their treatment by governments, and issues surrounding sex.

Indeed, for some women this recent protest was just one more in a lifetime of fighting for women’s rights and expressing their anger.

This was especially evident in front of Parliament House in Canberra. The large and energised crowd was diverse: from babies to the elderly; mostly women but many men; Indigenous people and whitefellas; dogs and prams threading among university and school students and those in business attire on their lunch break.

Feminists of the 1970s generation were in abundance, expressing their demands through placards, t-shirts and with their voices. Elizabeth Reid, who served as Women’s Adviser to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam from 1973 to 1975 — making her the first women’s adviser to a head of government anywhere in the world — sat down at the front in a folding chair, a highly-deserved queenly position. Her presence and globally historic role were acknowledged by the speakers.

Reid’s friend Biff Ward, a key founder of the Women’s Liberation group in Canberra, was one of the speakers, appearing alongside younger women like Brittany Higgins.

Four women of different ages stand with a fist in the air.
Biff Ward, third from left, joined thousands of women from across the generations at the March4Justice. Jessica Whaler

It was a joy to observe this range of generations joining forces.

The March4Justice adds to the long history of feminists using public space in spectacular ways to draw attention to society’s gender problems. Anger, sorrow and issues surrounding sex run through this history.

But so too do themes of joy, hope and resilience.

The spectacle of women’s suffrage

Feminist protest in Australia began in the late 19th century, when women were galvanised en masse for the first time by the issue of voting rights. Many were angered by the inequality and violence they witnessed and faced on a daily basis. They saw the vote as the key to transforming society, believing it would allow them to elect leaders sympathetic to women’s rights.

Pamphlet reads: 'Womanhood suffrage. Public meeting. Protestant hall, Monday, 4th June, 1990.'
Pamphlets were distributed to invite women and men who supported the suffrage movement to rallies and meetings. State Library New South Wales

As the historian Marilyn Lake explains in Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, while all women lacked rights in the Australian colonies it was the plight of the married (white) woman that really captured suffragists’ attention. Upon marriage, women lost what little independence they had. They could not own property, easily file for divorce or maintain custody of their children.

The gender-based violence dominating feminist conversations in 2021 was also rife and politicised many early feminists. They were outraged wives had no personal autonomy and frequently suffered marital rape, unwanted childbearing, physical violence and economic control.

In response to this dismal situation, from the 1880s campaigns for women’s suffrage mounted. Local suffrage and other women’s organisations were formed and acted as pressure groups lobbying for change.


Read more: The long history of gender violence in Australia, and why it matters today


Activists like Louisa Lawson and Rose Scott made impassioned speeches, held public rallies and wrote to major newspapers to press for the vote, refusing to stay silent and submissive as was expected of women at this time.

Campaigns in Australia were more peaceful than elsewhere, but, like those marching for justice last week, suffragists were very much motivated by anger and frustration. They wanted to make a splash and used spectacle to bring attention to their efforts.

In 1891, Victorian women collected a massive 30,000 signatures on a 260-metre-long “monster petition”.

In 1898, two to three hundred women in the colony reportedly “invaded the club-room of the Legislative Council” to pressure members to pass a women’s suffrage bill.

Although unsuccessful at the time, the scale of these efforts revealed the force of women’s desire for change.

13 women in rows of three, in stiff formal wear of the time.
Suffragists about to march on the Parliament of the colony of Victoria, published in the Australasian on 17 September 1898. Trove

It is important to note the suffragists were almost exclusively concerned with the rights of white women like themselves. Aboriginal women — who endured even greater and more institutionalised forms of discrimination and violence — were not included in their vision for a new society based on equal rights. Then just as now, feminism had a significant race problem.

In 1902, white Australian women became the first in the world to enjoy the dual rights of voting and standing for parliament. They revelled in their new-found status as enfranchised citizens. But as daughters of the empire, they felt strongly connected to their British “sisters” and despaired they remained voteless after decades of protest. Some even travelled to Britain and contributed to its increasingly spectacular suffrage struggle.


Read more: Australian politics explainer: how women gained the right to vote


One Australian who captured imaginations in Britain was the performer and activist, Muriel Matters.

She was incensed by British women’s second-class status and, in 1908, famously chained herself to the iron grille separating the ladies’ gallery from the rest of the House of Commons, proclaiming “We have been behind this insulting grille too long!”

Both she and the grille — which many women saw as a symbol of their oppression — were removed in a dramatic scene, and Matters was sent to Holloway Prison.

The following year, Matters took her protest to the skies. Laden with a megaphone and 25 kilograms of flyers, and with a huge grin on her face, she crossed London in an airship emblazoned with the words “Votes for Women”.

There was a joyousness in this act of defiance. As Matters said: “If we want to go up in the air, neither the police nor anyone else can keep us down”.

Australian-born suffragette Muriel Matters prepares to take off in a dirigible air balloon from Hendon airfields, London, 16 February 1909. Wikimedia Commons

Vida Goldstein was another Australian who made waves in London. In 1911, she was invited by Emmeline Pankhurst — whose suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, was infamous for its militant tactics — to travel to London, where she participated in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession.

The scale of this event was huge. Over 40,000 people marched four miles across the city, in what Goldstein described as “the most amazing triumph of beauty and organisation”. They were watched by great crowds of spectators and ended with a rally at the Royal Albert Hall.

Goldstein, along with Margaret Fisher (the Australian prime minister’s wife) and Emily McGowen (the NSW premier’s wife), led the Australian contingent. This group carried a banner designed by Australian artist Dora Meeson Coates. It was adorned with the figures of two women — representing Britain and Australia — and the words “Trust the women mother as I have done”.

Five women, whole-length, full face, wearing full length gowns, jackets, wide brimmed decorated hats, standing in a row. Text reads: Mrs. Fisher, Mrs. McGowen and Miss Vida Goldstein from Australia.
Many Australian women took part in the Great Suffragette Demonstration in London, 1911, after they had won the vote back home. State Library Victoria

Vivid imagery and clever slogans continue to be part of feminist protests today.

The suffrage protests of the late 19th and early 20th centuries used spectacle to draw attention to women’s grievances. They were driven not only by anger and frustration, but also an enduring sense of hope that sustained them in the face of adversity.

The roar of Women’s Liberation

The many protest marches of the Women’s Liberation era of the 1960s and 1970s were also driven in good part by anger. They were spurred, among others, by issues of sex: legalising abortion; access to the pill; the sexual double standard; objectification of women’s bodies; sexual harassment; and violence against women.

The anger was palpable in the size and noise of the marches, the protesters’ willingness to disrupt city streets and public spaces, the eagerness to shock spectators through casual styles of dress, and the deployment of both occasional profanities and popular music.

Women on the march wave their placards at the International Women’s Day march, Melbourne, March 8, 1975. Australian Information Service photograph by John McKinnon, via the National Library of Australia

Just as rage and roar have been used to describe the events surrounding the March4Justice, the Women’s Liberation anthem written and sung by Australian Helen Reddy featured the lines: “I am Woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”.

Yet there was also a joy to some demonstrations of this protest era, especially the Women’s Liberation marches that allowed feminists to ventilate their rage, to prove to the world and themselves they were strong in number, sisterhood really was powerful and there were plenty of women who weren’t going to take it anymore.


Read more: Helen Reddy’s music made women feel invincible


Both the anger and the joy are well documented in the recent film Brazen Hussies. Brazen Hussies tells the story of the Australian Women’s Liberation movement from 1965 to 1975, covering its roots and rise.

Catherine Dwyer’s film provides insight into the anger fuelling the movement, from women’s individual stories of pain and injustice — the awful grief and trauma of having your baby taken from you because you weren’t married, the fury of being paid less for comparable work just because you were a woman, the trials of being a single mother, the enraging burden of shame due to the sexual double standard. And it covers the movement’s exclusion of Indigenous women and, to some extent, of lesbians through interviews with people like Pat O’Shane and Lilla Watson. https://www.youtube.com/embed/sTOccDdT0Gg?wmode=transparent&start=0

But there are also the triumphs and achievements: the legislative victories, the intellectual joys of feminist insights, the growing visibility of the movement.

That Australian Women’s Liberation was also marked by a sense of fun is perhaps best shown by a key event sparking the movement. On March 31, 1965, three Brisbane women dramatically protested their exclusion from the front bar at the Regatta Hotel in Toowong. When they were refused service (as was customary at the time for women in a front bar), two of the women chained themselves to the bar footrail, and the third took the key and threw it into the river.

It took hours for the police to remove the chain, and the event won an enormous amount of publicity.

Merle Thornton, Rosalie Bognor and Elaine Dignan were consciously playing on history when they staged this event, evoking the proclivity of suffragettes to chain themselves to fixed objects. It was also a clear echo of the moment when Muriel Matters chained herself to the grille in the House of Commons over 50 years before. https://www.youtube.com/embed/GRTf_B5n4lc?wmode=transparent&start=0

The fact protesters at the March4Justice were urged to wear black, and many did, signals a vital difference in its overall emotional affect compared to such earlier moments of fun.

The sombre colour of the rallies on March 15 was in stark contrast to the international suffragettes’ customary white dresses (with green and purple sashes), or the Women’s Liberation style of blue denim and colourful t-shirts, hippy skirts and dresses.

Black is the colour of sorrow, which was evident last Monday alongside the anger: sorrow at the terrible pain and suffering of women who are harassed, assaulted and raped, and not able to speak up, or are denied justice.

And sorrow at the fact women are still being harassed, assaulted and raped.

But even stronger than the sorrow was the anger at the Morrison government’s failure to deal with the assaults and allegations, or even to send a representative to the protest happening at its front door.

Fighting gender-based violence in 2021

Looking back at the history of feminist protest highlights striking continuities in the nature of gender-based violence and discrimination over time.

It shows the various ways women’s bodies have been controlled and abused.

It reveals how feminists have persistently protested their subordination, taking up space and refusing to be silenced. Anger, frustration and despair have driven people to action. Optimism, resilience and joy have empowered women to keep fighting even in the face of significant barriers.

21st century feminists are building on a substantial legacy of women’s protest. They are also grappling with the limits of feminisms past and present.

Indigenous women, leaders and community groups participated in many of the rallies around the country last week, drawing attention to the extensive trauma First Nations women have endured and continue to face. Their presence called for feminists to meaningfully engage with issues of race and to help end systemic injustice in the era of Black Lives Matter.

Trans and non-binary activists are calling for recognition gender-based violence disproportionately affects gender-diverse people. Feminists of the past largely viewed their fight through a gender binary. The challenge for today’s activists is to move beyond this.

Intersectionality exists as an ideal; the challenge now is to meaningfully put it into practice.

It remains to be seen what will come of the March4Justice and whether it lasts as a genuinely transformative cultural moment. What is sure, despite the many hurdles they have faced, Australian feminists have consistently found creative and captivating ways to express their indignation and visions for a better future. Feminists today can find inspiration in — and learn from — the various moments and the people who have shaped this history.

Brazen Hussies is now available on ABC iView, and will be broadcast nationally on ABC TV on Monday 5 April at 8.30 pm.


Read more: Bad times call for bold measures: 3 ways to fix the appalling treatment of women in our national parliament


Angela Woollacott, Manning Clark Professor of History, Australian National University and Michelle Staff, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Yes, Australia is a land of flooding rains. But climate change could be making it worse (from The Conversation)

Etching of the 1867 flood in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, depicting the Eather family. illustrated Sydney News/author provided

Joelle Gergis, Australian National University

Over the past three years, I’ve been working on the forthcoming report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I’m a climate scientist who contributed to the chapter on global water cycle changes. It’s concerning to think some theoretical impacts described in this report may be coming to life – yet again – in Australia.

The recent flooding in New South Wales is consistent with what we might expect as climate change continues.

Australia’s natural rainfall patterns are highly variable. This means the influence climate change has on any single weather event is difficult to determine; the signal is buried in the background of a lot of climatic “noise”.

But as our planet warms, the water-holding capacity of the lower atmosphere increases by around 7% for every 1℃ of warming. This can cause heavier rainfall, which in turn increases flood risk.

The oceans are also warming, especially at the surface. This drives up both evaporation rates and the transport of moisture into weather systems. This makes wet seasons and wet events wetter than usual.

So while Australia has always experienced floods, disasters like the one unfolding in NSW are likely to become more frequent and intense as climate change continues.

People watch swollen river
Flooding is likely to become more severe as the planet warms. AAP

Understanding the basics

To understand how a warming world is influencing the water cycle, it’s helpful to return to the theory.

From year to year, Australia’s climate is subject to natural variability generated by the surrounding Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans. The dominant drivers for a given year set up the background climate conditions that influence rainfall and temperature.

It is a combination of these natural climate drivers that makes Australia the land of drought and flooding rains.

However, Australia’s climate variability is no longer influenced by natural factors alone. Australia’s climate has warmed by 1.4℃ since national records began in 1910, with most of the warming occurring since 1970. Human-caused greenhouse emissions have influenced Australian temperatures in our region since 1950.

This warming trend influences the background conditions under which both extremes of the rainfall cycle will operate as the planet continues to warm. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture (higher water vapour content), which can lead to more extreme rainfall events.

A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture which can lead to more extreme rainfall events. Climate Council

Since the winter of 2020, Australia has been influenced by the La Niña phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Historically, sustained La Niña conditions, sometimes with the help of a warmer than average Indian Ocean, have set the scene for severe flooding in eastern Australia.

During these events, easterly winds intensify and oceans around Australia warm. This is associated with the Walker Circulation – a giant seesaw of atmospheric pressure that influences the distribution of warm ocean waters across the Pacific Ocean.

The last La Niña occurred in 2010–2012. It led to widespread flooding across eastern Australia, with particularly devastating effects in Queensland. The event caused the wettest two-year period in the Australian rainfall record, ending the 1997–2009 Millennium Drought.

Oceanographers from UNSW studied the exceptional event. They demonstrated how a warmer ocean increased the likelihood of extreme rain during that event, primarily through increased transport of moist air along the coast.

Their analysis highlighted how long‐term ocean warming can modify rain-producing systems, increasing the probability of extreme rainfall during La Niña events.

It is important to point out that changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns are still not as well understood as fundamental changes in thermodynamics. However, because regional rainfall changes will be influenced by both factors, it will take researchers time to tease everything out.

So what about climate change?

The theoretical changes to the global water cycle are well understood. However, determining the contribution of natural and human influences on climate variability and extremes – known as “attribution” – is still an emerging science.

More studies are needed to distinguish natural or “background” rainfall variability from recent human-caused changes to the water cycle. This is particularly the case in a country like Australia, which has very high yearly rainfall variability. This contrasts with some regions of the Northern Hemisphere with less variable rainfall, where a clear climate change signal has already emerged.

Right now, La Niña conditions are decaying in the Pacific Ocean. As expected, the 2020–2021 La Niña has brought above-average rainfall to much of eastern Australia. This helped ease the severe drought conditions across eastern Australia since 2017, particularly in NSW.

NSW rainfall total, week ending March 22, 2021
NSW rainfall totals for the week ending March 22, 2021. Bureau of Meteorology

What’s interesting about the 2020–2021 La Niña is that it was weak compared with historical events. The relationship between La Niña and rainfall is generally weaker in coastal NSW than further inland. However, it’s concerning that this weak La Niña caused flooding comparable to the iconic floods of the 1950s and 1970s.

The rainfall totals for the current floods are yet to be analysed. However, early figures reveal the enormity of the downpours. For example, over the week to March 23, the town of Comboyne, southwest of Port Macquarie, recorded an extraordinary 935mm of rainfall. This included three successive days with more than 200mm.

The NSW coast is no stranger to extreme rainfall – there have been five events in the past decade with daily totals exceeding 400mm. However, the current event is unusual because of its duration and geographic extent.

It’s also worth noting the current extreme rainfall in NSW was associated with a coastal trough, not an East Coast Low. Many of the region’s torrential rainfall events in the past have resulted from East Coast Lows, although their rainfall is normally more localised than has been the case in this widespread event.

Remember that as the air warms, its water-holding capacity increases, particularly over the oceans. Current ocean temperatures around eastern and northern Australia are about 1℃ warmer than the long-term average, and closer to 1.5℃ warmer than average off the NSW coast. These warmer conditions are likely to be fuelling the systems driving the extreme rainfall and associated flooding in NSW.

Sea surface temperature anomalies along the NSW coast. Bureau of Meteorology

A nation exposed

Weather and climate are not the only influences on extreme flood events. Others factors include the shape and size of water catchments, the presence of hard surfaces in urban areas (which cant’t absorb water), and the density of human settlement in flood-prone areas.

The Hawkesbury–Nepean region in Western Sydney, currently experiencing major flooding, is a prime example. Five major tributaries, including the Warragamba and Nepean Rivers, flow into this extensively urbanised valley. https://www.youtube.com/embed/28SN9KixO2I?wmode=transparent&start=0

Improving our understanding of historical weather data may help improve future climate change risk assessment. For example, past floods in the Hawkesbury–Nepean have been a lot worse than the current disaster. In 1867, the Hawkesbury River at Windsor reached 19.7 metres above normal, and in 1961 peaked at 14.5 metres. This is worse than the 13.12 metres above normal recorded at Freemans Reach on March 23.

It’s sobering to think the Hawkesbury River once peaked 6 metres higher than what we’re seeing right now. Imagine the potential future flooding caused by an East Coast Low during strong La Niña conditions.

It will take time before scientists can provide a detailed analysis of the 2020–2021 La Niña event. But it’s crystal clear that Australia is very exposed to damage caused by extreme rainfall. Our theoretical understanding of water cycle changes tells us these events will only become more intense as our planet continues to warm.

Joelle Gergis, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.