As the effects of climate change make Australia’s coastal regions increasingly susceptible to extreme weather events, a nationwide audit of potential impacts and costs could be the best means of ensuring that the country's built assets remain safe and secure in future.
It may appear the Coalition has made itself an easy target for environmentalists and sustainability advocates, with policies that evince a blithe indifference to the potential effects of global warming.
But according to Dr. Peter Cowell, an expert in coastal geomorphology from the University of Sydney, governments in Australia may actually be doing a very sound job of ensuring that the country is equipped to deal with the future challenges brought by climate change by implementing gradual adjustments over the long run.
“[Climate change] is a hotly debated topic, and the participants get quite hot under the collar,” said Cowell. “But if you stand back and take dispassionate broad view, a lot of it just is the rhetoric of politics, and things are proceeding pretty well.
“You might read the press and think it’s all fairly fraught, but in spite of the rhetoric change is happening, regardless of people’s hardcore political persuasions. Bit by bit we are adjusting, and I think that adjustment is going far faster than needed…there’d be a lot of other countries that you’d be more worried about living in than Australia.”
Cowell pointed out that local governments have led measures for adapting to climate change, compelled by undeniable shifts in environmental conditions that date from the middle of last century.
“The states have been involved with this for a long time – really going back to the 90s,” he said. “In relation to sea-level rise, but also in relation to planning matters and coastal hazards in particular.
“Queensland together with NSW are amongst world leaders in relation to that business, forced upon them by the erosion that occurred in both states in the sixties – particularly in the Gold Coast.”
These efforts on the part of state governments are ongoing, with Queensland recently deciding to reincorporate potential sea level rises and associated hazard areas into future planning policy.
While some may consider a concerted response to climate change issues at a national level to be desirable, Cowell said this can be a source of vexation when it comes to planning issues, simply because of Australia’s governance structure.
“The simple fact is that planning law is in the jurisdiction of the states, not the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth because of the constitutional limitations and so on is generally loathe to cause duplications and additional costs, or cut across the power of the states,” he said.
“In reality when the Commonwealth gets involved it annoys the states at practical level, because sometimes the Commonwealth comes up with new ideas but is essentially reinventing the wheel as square so far as the states are concerned.”
Cowell nonetheless contends that consideration of the potential impact of climate change continues at a federal level continue despite the stance of the Abbott-led Coalition, simply because of the abiding nature of government institutions.
“It’s not true to say that Commonwealth agencies aren’t giving some consideration to these matters. That process is still underway, it’s sort of a bit more below the radar now, because the Federal Government got rid of the Department of Climate Change or anything that looks like it.”
Cowell does advocate the collation of more accurate and detailed information on coastal conditions at a national level, in order to permit more informed policy-making in future.
“The one thing that I would like to see done nationally at this stage is an audit for risk management, for analysis of potential costs of future hazards in terms of losses that might occur and the potential costs of dealing with those losses,” he said. “Gaining the knowledge in a scientific and economic framework for planners and decision-makers, including state leaders and politicians, to be better advised, better informed and in a better position to make decisions.
“This is not to take drastic action physically or even in terms of legislation, but simply to take action so that you better understand the situation.
“Really that should be done at a national level because strategically different parts of Australia have different requirements.”
Cowell pointed out that amassing such information would be inexpensive compared to concerted measures designed to deal with changing circumstances, adding that such a measure would enable policy-makers to make decisions with greater prudence and foresight.
“Because doing the audit isn’t actually the same thing as doing the work, it’s quite cheap. It’s just a bookkeeping exercise,” said Cowell. “Compared to having to actually take it on the chin in terms of future liabilities – the liability of future generations to actually clean up the mess or move, or to actually do what the Dutch are doing which is starting the engineering now, it’s peanuts – next to nothing.
“Knowledge is power, it effectively doesn’t cost that much, and to not avail of ourselves of this information just seems reckless.”