BRUCE THOM.Time for Adaption on Climate Change.

There is a need for the Commonwealth to rethink mechanisms for supporting the states in disaster management through the establishment of a climate change adaptation action arm within the Defence portfolio. A model is offered based on the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The Prime Minister’s evolving ideas on climate change indicates a burgeoning interest in climate change adaptation. This is interesting given how federal Coalition governments in recent years have abandoned research in this area as seen with the demise of the CSIRO Climate Change Adaptation Flagship and the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF). The fact that adaptation along with disaster management is spread around several agencies in Canberra following recent changes in machinery of government does not give confidence to the delivery of adaptation outcomes.

This point is reinforced by recent statements of the former head of Disaster Management, Mark Crosweller. He was located in Home Affairs (but the Minister responsible is also Minister for Agriculture and Water, not Home Affairs). Mark led the work on the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. He was quoted in the AFR Weekend (11-12/1/2020) as saying that changing climate required a radical rethink in the way Australians interacted with the land. He said “we cannot rely on historical experience to anticipate future impacts”; it had been impossible to get proposals adopted “so that significant work can be done in preparation and mitigation”; and “we need a step-change in addressing climate change in the future”. This is from a man who has enormous on-ground and administrative responsibilities in disaster management.

What can be done? A model exists in the USA in the form of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Established in the early 1800s it has evolved into serving the nation in both military and civil affairs. Over decades it has played a role in both preparing for natural disasters and in post-disaster recovery in all US states. There are well-established protocols for how it operates with state planning and resource management agencies and with the National Guard, the equivalent of our reserve force. Although not without its critics, what is important is that it has an on-going research role largely staffed by civilians along with operational units that can plan and undertake works that aim to mitigate the impact of disasters such as floods and storm surges.

I have personally benefitted from an association with the Corps. First as a student in learning about coastal and river processes. The Corps maintains a massive research facility at Vicksburg, Mississippi, which provides high-quality experimental research which aids engineers and scientists in the application of this know-how to different situations. Fundamental work on coastal engineering has emerged from this facility. Second, the work I have been undertaking in coastal management in NSW and elsewhere, in association with my engineering colleagues, frequently has utilised information produced by the Corps. And third, in 2013 I visited the Corps office in Alexandria, Virginia, after spending time examining impacts of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey. This visit alerted me to the plans for restoring coastal infrastructure and their broader interests in climate change impacts and adaptation actions.

Disaster management at a federal level used to be within the Defence portfolio before being moved to Attorney General and now Home Affairs. Former Department of Climate Change under the Rudd-Gillard years had a section that assessed future national risk of climate change along the Australian coast. I was engaged to assist with this work and was encouraged by the passion and quality of staff in that Department; by now they have either retired, made redundant or working elsewhere and there has been little follow-up to that work. I observe churn in staff in many agencies working in this general area of risk reduction and long-term climate impact assessment. We need a permanent federal entity that can attract the best and brightest in engineering, biophysical science and other fields that can offer the nation the best way forward in these uncertain and threatening times. If we consider our national security is at risk then we need an appropriately tasked entity to become the action arm of climate change adaptation, utilising where appropriate research from, for instance, CSIRO. The entity should also possess capabilities to use defence personnel to offer technical and other support to areas adversely affected by a natural hazard when requested by a state government.

The formation of such an entity would require cooperation with the states. It is critical that the states under their constitutional roles continue to carry out their existing functions in land planning, management and disaster mitigation and prevention. In the USA the states undertake similar tasks although not with such a wonderful engagement with volunteers as we have here. I appreciate that there are some constitutional issues at stake and perhaps require changes to the Defence Act, but with the agreement of the states, it would open up a pathway for the establishment of Corps of Engineers like entity. It could aid the states in the design of works to mitigate disaster impact as well as develop the case for joint funding of actions both pre and post disaster of a magnitude and frequency now expected in the “new normal” under climate change.

The main advantage of such a new arrangement would be threefold. First, it would embed into one permanent entity the R&D work of organisations such as the existing CRC for Bushfires and Natural Hazards, whilst also looking at technical issues associated with other hazards such as coastal erosion and inundation, river flooding and drought ( I am reminded that at the last COAG there was a reference to coastal erosion but where will this go within the federal sphere?). All these matters have a climate change dimension and require consideration of actions that may or may not need “hard” or “soft” engineering interventions that could over time cost the nation billions. All the work done by those organisations such as NCCARF on policy and management practices could be brought together under this new entity.

Second, the entity would have within it a defined capability to act in an emergency in ways trained and supported by personnel within the structure along with other branches of defence. Here is where we achieve high levels of coordination and planned collaboration with state emergency service. This is where national training and skill enhancement would become more effective. The civilian side would be in a position to offer technical advice. It would be seen as the “action arm” of adaptation.

The third arrangement is more long-term. This involves what is termed transformative adaptation. It goes beyond intervention and recovery that just seeks to enhance “resilience”. This more dramatic form of adaptation requires assessment of whether risks and costs of continuing with a settlement or a function such as maintaining a long-established land use outweighs economic, social and environmental benefits. There needs to be some entity that can deliver options to governments on the basis of best science. An engineer-oriented organisation can assist by bringing the options to the table with the assistance of staff skilled in a range of disciplines. The US Corps is now a multi-discipline organisation. This is vital to provide the entity with credibility amongst professionals. The advice would of course then be the subject to political consideration. But the nature of uncertainty of future impacts anticipated in the new climate era (+ 2-3 degrees?) is surely an issue of national security and warrants a greater role in the defence of the nation.

Bruce Thom, Member, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists


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6 Responses to BRUCE THOM.Time for Adaption on Climate Change.

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    I so admire Bruce’s manifestly practical approach to this very complex problem.

    Our Parliament itself should commend Bruce’s initiative (if Parliamentarians do not read this blog, they are simply not doing their job) – and appoint him as a consultant in the context of establishing something very close to what he’s suggesting. His expertise, experience and commitment is brazenly obvious. As is his ‘uncommon’ sense.

  2. Michael Flynn says:

    Thank you for a strong case for a better way to mitigate the present dangers. The Morrison Government could agree and I hope this article is with advisers. Also the next ALP National Conference should find a place for this this proposal in the agenda.Perhaps the need will be seen when insurers decline to insure risks in fire prone areas and on the coast where sea levels will rise. Volunteers and donations are unable to do the job.

  3. Mike Scrafton says:

    It is blatantly clear that there is a need for a professional, full-time, well funded and equipped national organisation that is able to respond to the natural disasters – flood, fires, storms, pandemics etc-that will become increasingly prevalent as the globe warms. It should also be able to attend to post-disaster issues like housing displaced people, feeding them, distributing aid, counselling etc. But there are strong reasons for not making it military:

    – the overheads of military personnel are significantly greater than civilian costs
    – the culture and organisation of the military might not be the optimal one
    – the core purpose of the ADF-which is fighting-would be diluted and demands of the ADF will increase as international tensions over mass migration due to climate effects, conflicts over resources like water, food, and land are only going to grow
    – and a dedicated civilian organisation won’t have as many competing demands placed upon it

    However, the biggest problem is the opportunity it provides to government to pigeonhole the global warming challenge in the national security box and continue to ignore the disruptive transformation required in industry, energy, human settlement, agriculture, health services, etc etc

  4. Allan Kessing says:

    It would indeed be forward thinking were the ADF to be committed to fulfilling the meaning of the name – Australian DEFENCE Forces – in the form of a Land Army.
    To be viable it would require a “third rail” that no politician dare touch, national service, aka konskription (so as not to frighten the kiddies).
    Apart from the sheer, undeniable & urgent necessity in the future – coming soon to a patch of bushland near you- not to overburden the volunteer RFS and the urban equivalent, the SES – why a rich, educated western relies on volunteers defies my meagre understanding – there is also the social benefit that would result from such a policy change.
    It is beyond contention that the major cankers of Sydney/Melbourne are a brake on the development of anything approaching an equitable, civilised society – a hangover from the colonial daze of being export ports to the Mother Country.
    Look at overcrowded Euroland, apart from the state capitals, there are virtually none which have cities exceeding a million yet there are dozens of under a 100,000 – to compare, the inland cities of NSW, Orange, Bathurst & Dubbo are our largest with barely 40,000.
    There is another, neglected – indeed shunned – aspect of national service, for men & women, especially advantageous given the often wasted period of gap year.
    This is the bonding and homogenising effect which might lead to a truly national awareness – not nationalism, heaven forfend! – and an awareness, not least amongst the teeming myriad of unemployable urbanoid yoof, that there is a life beyond the brick, concrete & asphalt.
    How many might meet someone from another region or state and decide to leave the septic cities – did I forget to mention that the national service b
    I know, I’m dreaming.

  5. R. N. England says:

    US Army Corps of Engineers is an interesting example of the constructive use of taxpayer funds appropriated via the defence budget. Demahcracy betrayed: the assiduously beaten-up xenophobia of the American taxpayer covertly redirected into something useful.

    One major example of adaptation to global warming would be restraining the development of coastal wetlands into marina-style real-estate. These places will be the first to be wiped out by rising sea level and storm intensity. A quick look at the geography of the Gold Coast, the fastest-growing city in Australia, shows that the amount of money involved is huge, enough to wipe out any government that shows any sign of wisdom on the subject. The market solution of greatly increased insurance premiums suffers from the same problem. Stupid money is still money, with overwhelming power in Western-style democracy.

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