Are We Ready For More Extreme Weather?

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How prepared is Australia for climate change? The worrying answer is: not very. But what’s even more concerning is that we don’t seem to be very serious about improving our climate preparedness. Recent extreme weather events have highlighted what scientists have been telling us for decades.

There are two trends at play here. Firstly, climate really is changing for the worse in most parts of Australia. South-east Australia, for instance, is getting hotter, drier and more fire prone. South-west western Australia is drying out. The northern tropics may well get even wetter.

Secondly, extreme weather events are getting more dangerous and costly over time, because more and more of us are in harm’s way. The graph below shows the increase in insurance costs due to extreme weather events in Australia since the 1960s. There has been a steep ramp up in payouts. As Australian cities have sprawled out into rural areas and up and down our coastlines, more and more people and property have been put at risk. The fate of outlying Melbourne commuter villages during the Black Saturday bushfires, and the inundation of thousands of Brisbane homes built on a natural flood plain since 1974, are just two recent examples.

Above: Insurance losses due to extreme weather events over the last 40 years. Source: Insurance Council of Australia.

Perhaps the most dangerous risk Australia faces from future extreme weather is from heatwaves. Sustained bouts of very hot weather can kill people — especially the elderly and the infirm. The heatwave associated with the Black Saturday bushfires in early 2009 is thought to have resulted in the deaths of more than 370 people — even more than those who died in the fires themselves. Heatwaves disproportionately affect poorer portions of our community, particularly those living in older houses and apartments with poor insulation and lacking air conditioning.

But heatwaves and bushfires are just the most obvious manifestation. Climate change is likely to cause death and destruction in all sorts of ways, from flash floods like the one that wiped out Grantham in Queensland, to storm surges attacking vulnerable coastal cities, to devastating droughts that may destroy inland agricultural industries.

Want a truly scary disaster scenario? How about a tropical cyclone hitting Brisbane? According to the recently established National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, "some climate models suggest cyclones will track further south as a result of climate change, affecting places that are unprepared in terms of building design, methods and materials". The Centre points out that "the high-set Queenslander house is well designed for hot and humid Queensland summers, but offers little protection in a severe wind storm".

As long ago as 2008, security analyst Anthony Bergin was warning us about Australia’s natural disaster resilience. Since then, there have been some efforts to invest in better climate preparedness — such as the laudable decision by the current federal Government to invest $50 million into the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility mentioned above. But much remains to be done.

A glance at the infrastructure risks to our national electricity grid shows the scale of the challenge. Much of the electricity network in Queensland is vulnerable to cyclones and storms, while Victoria’s grid is vulnerable to bushfires. Indeed, it was a fallen power line that started the Kilmore East fire that killed 120 people on 7 February 2009. And yet the costs of securing key electricity distribution lines below ground is thought to run into the tens of billions of dollars. Given the political heat being caused by the current round of electricity price rises, it would be a brave state government that embarked on such a measure.

Another cause for concern is the state of our emergency services, nationally. Extreme weather and natural disaster preparedness inherently involves public sector emergency services, such as fire-fighters, ambulance, police and SES. Most of these services are delivered by the states. That’s a problem, because the states have long term financial problems caused by their eroding tax base, particularly the slowly growing GST.

Recent rounds of cost cutting in the eastern states have seen cuts to fire services in New South Wales and Queensland. The conservative governments of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have also backtracked on most aspects of of their states’ climate change policies, dismantling climate policy agencies and defunding environmental programs across many portfolios.

But the problems of our disaster preparedness go further than simply cash-strapped state governments and anti-climate conservatives. Bergin, a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has repeatedly argued that disaster relief is another example of Australia’s increasingly dysfunctional federation. While the states run the emergency management services and employ the first responders, the federal government is the only agency with the financial resources to adequately fund relief efforts in the wake of a vast natural disaster on the scale of Queensland’s 2011 floods.

In general, there is far too little coordination between the states and Canberra over disaster relief policy. After the 2011 floods in Queensland, the CEO of big insurer Suncorp, Patrick Snowball, called for a national inquiry on the issue, but that hasn’t happened. We’ll have to make do with a Senate Inquiry established by Christine Milne, which will examine "Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events."

Bergin argues that we need to think much bigger than this. "We should be undertaking national disaster management reform on the scale of previous major economic reforms" in the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote in 2011.

There are other challenges. Much of the most important planning and policy work of this nature goes on at the local government level. But local governments are the least resourced and resilient of Australia’s three tiers of government. Many of them aren’t keeping up with their existing tasks of maintaining basic infrastructure like bridges and storm water drains.

There’s a looming personnel crisis too. Australia’s emergency response effort is still heavily reliant on volunteer labour. But volunteers fit enough to fight bushfires or rescue flood victims will become more difficult to find as our society ages.

Nor have our emergency services solved all their information and communication issues. During Black Saturday, breakdowns in internal communications in the Victorian fire control system meant that crucial warnings to residents in Marysville and Kinglake never went out.

Some of the biggest barriers to preparedness appear to be cognitive. The climate debate has become so politicised that many politicians and citizens would prefer to believe that climate change is not driving extreme weather events, even when the evidence tells us it is. This was the reasoning — if reason we can call it — behind National Party politician Warren Truss’ inaccurate statement that "I guess there’ll be more CO2 emissions from these fires than there will be from coal fired power stations for decades." Truss’ claim was were soon demolished by the scientific community, but his views are widespread amongst conservative politicians and voters. Many believe that Australia has long faced devastating fires, droughts, floods and cyclones, and that the future will be no different.

The truth, of course, is much scarier than that. Australia is heading into climatic conditions that the human species has never before faced. And yet we are doing it with a measure of complacency that future generations will judge to be breathtaking. "She’ll be right" will not be enough.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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