BRUCE THOM. Disaster preparedness and climate change: a national conundrum

Australia’s  policies on climate adaptation and disaster preparedness are not being brought together across jurisdictions to make the nation more resilient to inevitable shocks, let alone the insidious effects of reduced rainfall and water supplies. Professor Bruce Thom suggests how the imbalance between  emission control and adaptation can be addressed with three related policy suggestions.

In December last year, the Australian Government released its response to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Natural Disaster Funding arrangements. The Government agreed that the Commission’s report significantly enhanced the discussion on the need for actions to ensure that funding for disaster mitigation, relief and recovery is “effective, sustainable and ultimately reduces the impact of disasters on communities”. Yet the response made no reference to likely impacts of climate change on Australian society.

In one sense this is not surprising because the terms of reference for the Inquiry, as set out by the then Treasurer Joe Hockey in 2014, made no reference to climate change. Yet in 2012 the Commission produced a separate report on barriers to climate change adaptation noting how most Australians will experience climate change through changes in the frequency, location, intensity and timing of extreme events that will have disastrous consequences. They recommended that Governments at all levels should embed consideration of climate change in their risk management practices.

It was not surprising that the Australian Government did not accept some of the key recommendations of the Productivity Commission report. Nor did they appear to take much notice of the 2012 report. Successive governments have struggled with policy recommendations that would place the Commonwealth in a driving position to mitigate impacts in a nation where in the words of the Commission “natural disasters are an inherent part of the Australian landscape”, and that “climate change may also affect future costs”.

I took part in the submission from the Academy of Science in 1979 which outlined a proposal to establish a Natural Disaster Insurance Scheme like that in New Zealand. It fell on deaf ears. Despite the operation of a similar national insurance program in the USA where there were federal agencies such as the Corps of Engineers involved in disaster risk reduction, our governments have relied more on post-disaster recovery payments. It was this reliance that led to the Inquiry in anticipation that more federal and state funds could be targeted to pre-disaster planning and preparedness in line with other OECD countries.

The Commission offered a new model that could achieve the aim of increasing investment in mitigation to limit the impact of natural disasters in the first place. However, states and territories raised significant concerns with any proposal that would reduce the Australian Government’s contribution to recovery funding. The Commission noted that Government investment in disaster mitigation is insignificant compared to post-disaster expenditure. The Australian Government contributes through the National Partnership Agreement on Natural Disaster Resilience only $26m annually compared to around $13 billion spent on recovery programs in the period 2010 to 2013. During this period the taxpayer incurred a special levy to help pay for Queensland flood damages. The Australian Business Roundtable in 2013 pointed out the inadequacies of this ratio of post and pre-disaster spending and this point underpinned the advice from the Commission. However, the Government in its response did note other expenditures and has agreed to test a new post-disaster funding approach for the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure to take effect in 2018, as well as to better incorporate disaster and climate risk thinking across Commonwealth policies, programs and practices.

We are now in the fortunate position of knowing more about potential impacts of natural hazards on infrastructure and communities and how we should set about developing risk management strategies. This knowledge is not just about today but also the foreseeable future as elements of the new climate era start to take effect. Climate change will exacerbate the adverse effects of natural disasters and thereby enhance local, regional and national risk profiles.

The problem is that at the national level climate adaptation policies and disaster preparedness are not being brought together across jurisdictions to make the nation more resilient to the inevitable shocks, let alone the insidious effects of reduced rainfall and water supplies. So much of the national debate on climate change has focussed on emissions control. Yet we can expect that over the next decade or so many Australians will die, homes destroyed, people traumatised, businesses ruined and the economy disrupted depending upon the scale of the disaster. The Commission elected not to assess impacts of natural hazards on human health such as heat waves or the impacts of drought. We must anticipate organisations like the Red Cross will be perpetually involved in dealing with the after effects of disasters.

So how then to address the imbalance between the two climate change twins, emission control and adaptation?

First, all governments must realise we have an increasing national disaster risk reduction problem that will manifest itself in different ways at different scales as the impacts of climate change become more apparent. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) might be the best avenue to bring various government interests together and have before it national strategies that ensure jurisdictional responsibilities operate in a consistent way to reduce the level of harm facing communities. Some of the damaging impacts may appear to be more distant but need to be incorporated in project design and implementation. This can occur by applying the pathways planning approach. An example would be planning for the impacts of higher sea levels when days of tidal inundation reach a frequency that triggers adverse impacts on the operations of utilities. There is an expectation that the Australian Government will demonstrate leadership in reducing risks and increasing community resilience to natural disasters and adverse impacts of climate change. One way it can demonstrate leadership is through COAG.

Second, the Commonwealth needs to adopt long-term funding policies that will drive changes in behaviour of state and territory governments and through them local councils. The Commission suggested ways forward especially in areas where they have regulatory and land use planning powers. It recognised that political incentives for disaster mitigation, and climate change adaptation strategies, are weak. Such activities provide public benefits over a long time horizon which runs counter to the offers of assistance that can be made immediately after an extreme event.

And third, federal and state governments must continue to invest in research facilities that will provide on-going technical support to public and private sectors on adaptation practices which will meet the needs of local communities. It is not sufficient to just invest in science of climate change. Translation of the science into policies and programs requires another set of skills. The recent severe cut in funding to the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) does not send the right signal to under-resourced local governments who depend on clearly articulated advice for their decisions.

Emeritus Professor Bruce Thom AM is a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

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2 Responses to BRUCE THOM. Disaster preparedness and climate change: a national conundrum

  1. Steve Leeder says:

    Wise advice. I wonder what can be done to raise political awareness and action? Do we need to wait for another crisis before action occurs?

  2. David Brown says:

    wealthy and Libs seem to have such a short sighted view
    how to make instant profits, stuff the country and “ordinary” people

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