Climate change strategy must be adaptable to withstand new era

Nov 19, 2021
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If the new climate change strategy is to succeed, it will need to be a living document, to be adapted and enhanced.

The latest climate change adaptation strategy from the Australian government (NCRAS) is an attempt to give more clarity to the roles and responsibilities of governments in addressing adaptation challenges facing the nation.

But if it is to address the short- and long-term impacts of global warming, it must be seen as a “living strategy” capable of considerable enhancement.

NCRAS was released on October 29 by Environment Minister Sussan Ley, ahead of COP26 in Glasgow where debate on emissions control has dominated the conference.

And while the impact of climate change on developing nations has attracted considerable attention, we are all aware that Australia is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and longer-term effects of climate change.

This is very apparent at a national level in the work of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements 2020, recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and other inquiries and reports into effects of droughts, coral bleaching, Torres Strait Island inundation etc. Now we have NCRAS designed to “position Australia to better anticipate, manage and adapt to our changing climate”.

From what I have observed there has been very little public discussion of NCRAS since it was released.

A consultation process did occur during the year on the strategy where it was made clear that while various government and non-government sectors had roles and responsibilities in adaptation, the Australian government’s role is to:

  • Provide national science and information;
  • Manage Commonwealth assets and programs;
  • Provide leadership on national adaptation reform; and
  • Maintain a strong, flexible economy and a well-targeted social safety net.

Many submissions and comments on this role noted its narrowness.

For instance, the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, commented on how our federal government could also provide “a key role in facilitating financing adaption measures at sub-national scales through national agreements, direct grants, co-funding and other instruments. T

his carefully thought-out submission argued that there is now a policy reform window for the Australian Government to adopt a range of measures in partnership with the states, including:

  • build on and synthesize existing adaptation plans from states and territories and other organisations;
  • betterment not rebuilding “as was” in harms way after a disaster;
  • better building standards;
  • coastal development standards;
  • buy back schemes to reduce risks and economic losses;
  • floodplain restoration — to “give rivers room”;
  • fire management;
  • environment and water including restoration of riparian lands; and
  • information coordination involving benchmarking good practices and knowledge brokering independent of existing information provision agencies.

While the released NCRAS does not go into that level of detail, it does offer some scope for future expansion if the Australian government is motivated to put more resources into national adaptation planning.

Perhaps I am being optimistic given the fate of past attempts at such by different federal governments. Following considerations at COP26 there is a further imperative to achieve what NCRAS says it must achieve, namely, sustained and ongoing action across four domains: natural, built, social and economic.

The strategy gives three objectives to enable more effective adaptation across Australia recognising that adaption is a “shared responsibility”:

  1. Drive investment and action through collaboration where the Australian government will provide “enhanced leadership and coordination”, and will “partner with governments, businesses and communities to act and invest”;
  2. Improve climate information and services to better predict, manage and adapt to climate change; and
  3. Assess progress and improve over time through national independent assessments of climate impacts and adaptation progress.

NCRAS should be seen as a “living strategy” capable of enhancement. It must go beyond coordination and assessment and provide a clear direction to assist other levels of government and communities in managing risks and impacts.

The Commonwealth has had success in the past in working in coastal areas as noted in the work of Beverley Clarke and Nick Harvey.

NCRAS admits the need for “sustained and ongoing actions”.

Lessons from one-off programs such as Coasts and Clean Seas (and the demise of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility) highlight the lack of sustained federal commitment to address national-scale problems (e.g. those confronting us from “sustained and ongoing” sea level rise!).

The first objective does invoke the word “invest”.

While no new funds have been identified the power of submissions to the NCRAS process like that from ANU should foster more encouragement to federal agencies. They should collectively design adaptation plans in collaboration with the states to address short and long-term needs across all four domains mentioned in NCRAS. This must involve consideration of those federal powers over banking and insurance where those powers can influence market decisions to build or remain in areas highly vulnerable to natural disasters.

To meet the challenges of the new climate era, it is vital to keep pressure on federal and state governments to ensure their respective roles and responsibilities are enhanced so that NCRAS will be effective and not wither like past national adaptation efforts.

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