With media reports suggesting that at least 124 people have died because of Hurricane Irma and that more than 60 have lost their lives in Hurricane Harvey, the impact of these events has been devastating.
For Australia, this drives home the need to prepare our communities for what many climate scientists say will be rising sea levels and weather events which are more frequent and intense in nature.
The magnitude of the problem should not be underestimated. Take sea level rises, for instance. In its report on likely sea level rises released in January this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States talked about six possible scenarios where global average sea levels would rise by between 0.3 metres and 2.5 metres between now and the year 2100. Intermediate projections sat at 1.0 metres and intermediate-high projections sat at 1.5 metres. With an average sea level rise of 1.1 metres, Australia’s then Department of Climate Change estimated (as of 2009) that 247,600 individual buildings Australian buildings in coastal zones could be at risk due to flooding, inundation, erosion and other hazards.
Since their impact does not always appear to have an immediate effect upon people’s daily lives, however, efforts and expenditure on climate change adaption strategies are not a political vote winner.
That raises questions about whether Australia’s efforts to prepare our communities to become more resilient are sufficient or if efforts in this area are being impacted by political expediency.
According to Alan Stokes, executive director of the Australian Coastal Councils Association (ACCA), not enough is being done.
As an example, he points to the National Climate Adoption Research Facility at Griffith University which was originally set up under the Howard Government and which works to support decision makers throughout Australia to prepare for and manage risks associated with climate change and sea level rise. An important tool which the facility has developed is an online service called Coast Adapt. This enables coastal planners and decision makers to access information surrounding sea level rise predictions and risks for their individual municipality as well as decision making tools to determine a plan for action.
Whilst the facility has received more than $50 million since its inception, however, Stokes says only half a million has been earmarked for it across the current financial year and no money has been allocated for future years. Given this, he says exactly how datasets contained in the tool will be maintained to reflect up-to-date information going forward is anybody’s guess.
A bigger concern, however, revolves around the lack of a coordinated approach toward flood mitigation for coastal communities involving the three tiers of government: federal, state and local. As part of its 47 recommendations to better manage our coastal zone in a changing climate back in 2009, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts recommended the Australian Government work with state and local governments to develop an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Coastal Zone, which would define the roles and responsibilities of the three tiers of government in coastal zone management and would form the basis of a national policy and strategy on coastal zones.
Thus far, this has not happened. In its communiqué following a conference it held in Queensland last May, the ACCA renewed its call for the federal government to lead a coordinated approach across all levels of government to deal with the issues of coastal hazards including more frequent and extreme weather events. This included the development of an intergovernmental plan.
According to Stokes, this is necessary because of a mismatch across different government levels which he says sees much of the responsibility for dealing with coastal management fall largely upon local councils. This is the case even though the federal government accounts for more than 80 cents in every dollar of government revenues across all tiers of government and much of the authority in respect of planning decisions rests with states. This, he says leaves local councils with responsibilities far beyond what they can reasonably be expected to manage.
Whilst acknowledging that he is not a scientist and that ascribing any particular weather event to the impact of climate change is difficult, Stokes says the overall message from the available science is that sea levels will rise and that extreme weather events will increase in both severity and frequency.
With 85 per cent of Australians living within 50 kilometres of a coastline, he says the impact of this on our population will be significant. He says a national approach is needed with agreement from all three tiers of government about which tier of government is responsible for what, the roles of each tier of government, who will fund the works and what work needs to be undertaken.
At the moment, he says not enough is being done.
“As we see it, the issue has been so politicised over the past 10 years that it is difficult to get the sort of commitments out of all levels of government that are required so that we can undertake a coordinated national approach to managing the risk,” Stokes said.
“There is no question that we are not doing enough or allocating enough resources for the work that is going to be required.”
To be sure, a significant volume of work is being done. Research projects underway through the federally funded Bushfire and Natural Hazard Research Corporative Research Centre, for example, include mitigation strategies for flood-prone buildings, cost effective mitigation strategies for building related earthquake risk, a natural hazard exposure modelling framework which models buildings and infrastructure within given geographic areas to understand natural hazard events, improvements to the resilience of existing housing stock and enhancing critical road infrastructure (road heights, bridges, culverts) as an engineering solution to disaster mitigation.
Take, for example, a program the centre is running led by James Cook University Researchers Professor John Ginger and Dr David Henderson. Began in 2014, it aims to provide existing property owners and their builders with evidence based tools and a suite of usable measures at different levels throughout different parts of Australia which they can undertake to make their homes more resilient within their particular area.
Up north, for example, this could mean strengthening for high wind uplift during cyclones. In some older houses in Adelaide, it could mean regular checking to ensure that straps used in tie-down systems between timber top-plates and brick walls have not become corroded. The program also aims to provide an evidence base from which policy makers can better understand macro-level costs and benefits of promoting different types of resilience efforts.
At a high level, the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience published by the COAG in 2011 outlines a range of strategies to deal with climate change and describes disaster resilience as a shared responsibility between all levels of government, communities, and individuals.
Amanda Leck, director at the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience and director of information and community safety at Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) says the impact of extreme weather events can be seen through the Black Saturday bushfires of Victoria, the Blue Mountains fires in 2013 and a huge amount of cyclone activity in Northern New South Wales and Queensland.
Particularly from an emergency management perspective, Leck said improvements have resulted from learnings from the COAG National Inquiry into Bushfire Mitigation and Management in 2004 and the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission in 2009. Following a critical recommendation of the Commission in Victoria around the need to warn communities of impending danger and to move communities away from danger, for example, she says we now have warning frameworks in place for bushfires and floods.
“I think all levels of government are actively engaged in the issues that severe weather events will bring to Australian communities and are developing strategies around harm minimisation, mitigation, preparedness of communities and increasing the capability of emergency response agencies through cross-border sharing arrangements,” Leck said.
“There is a significant body of work underway.”
Leck agrees with the COAG report about resilience being a shared responsibility. Going forward, Leck would like to see individuals and communities become more involved and take a proactive approach toward understanding the risk and preparing themselves and their communities.
Asked about political factors impacting efforts in this area, Stokes says challenges revolve around how the debate was being framed and the length of time involved in projected impacts. When hearing about impacts expanding out to 2100, Stokes says many feel climate change would have little impact upon them personally.
He says this is erroneous. First, more frequent weather events were already happening now and risks associated with these need to be managed now. Second, longer term impacts will affect future generations.
“If we talk about the risks posed in terms of what those risks are likely to mean by the year 2100, people say ‘that’s 83 years away, it’s not going to impact upon me personally and it is not going to impact upon my assets personally,’” Stokes said.
“We don’t take the next step and say, ‘what kind of impact is it going to have on our children and grandchildren and what sort of protection steps are we taking to protect the world that they are going to be living in?’”