“We have to make sure we’re not going to build liabilities for the future – that means building appropriately and planning with the risks in mind.” – Geoff Withycombe, Sydney Coastal Councils Group. Photo: Tasman Miller

At the national level a lion’s share of government resources and energy is being spent on designing an ideal carbon trading system that may or may not do anything to stop dangerous climate change.

At the ground level, where the climate impact will be felt, insurers and local councils don’t bother with esoteric talk of climate policy.

The main game for them is working out how to cope with the human toll and cost of property damage that will be caused by rising sea levels and wild dangerous weather, in other words, adaptation.

The outlook is not good.

The insurance industry, for one, has been at the forefront of warning the business community and government that climate change is a real threat.

Its members are appalled at the prospect of what lies ahead.

Insurance Australia Group’s (IAG) chief risk officer, Tony Coleman, said in a recent report by the Australian Climate Group: “Australia is tolerating a level of climate change risk that would be unthinkable if the nation were held to the same standards that we apply to safeguard the survival of the insurers, banks and superannuation funds that we all depend on in our daily lives.”

Australian regulations required Australian insurers to be managed so as to be able to withstand combinations of events expected to occur only once in every 200 years, Coleman said.

“These levels of risk -0.5 per cent or less – are completely dwarfed by the risk levels to our way of life that are now reliably attributable to potentially catastrophic climate change impacts, unless we act with urgency to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Insurers say use better building materials and stay away from high risk areas

Last year the Insurance Council of Australia launched a policy paper aimed at improving community resilience to climate change.

The council’s CEO, Kerrie Kelly, said individuals and businesses need to change their perceptions of what needed to be done to prepare for and recover from severe weather events.

“It is the responsibility of the general insurance industry, governments and the Australian community to take action on this issue,” Kelly said.

“It is the responsibility of the general insurance industry, governments and the Australian community to take action on this issue,” Kerrie Kelly, Insurance Council of Australia

Don’t buy in risky areas and use strong building materials

The insurance industry needed to provide advice and research to government and the community, while governments must ensure appropriate land use and planning and zoning, the report said.

But businesses and individuals needed to take responsibility. They should choose appropriate building materials for instance, and not buy property in high risk areas.

But how do businesses and individuals make those assessments if they are not fully informed of the risk?

Sydney’s most vulnerable councils, those on the coast are at the front line of the expected repercussions.

Storms brewing on the coastal watch
A group of these, the Sydney Coastal Councils Group recently released an exhaustive report on the issue.

It included controversial candid comments from council staff about likely scenarios and comments such as denial or ignorance prevalent among other colleages, staff or development clients.

The comments stayed off the record for fear of reprisals. (See our separate story Local councils struggling with climate change. We include highlights of the report and some of the staff comments here)

The report, the culmination of a two year project funded by the Federal Department of Climate Change Adaptation Program, concluded that councils were out of their depth: they needed urgent help from the federal government at both the policy and technical level.

Executive Officer of Sydney Coastal Councils Group, Geoff Withycombe, told TFE that a key concern was not to create liabilities for the future through current planning decisions.

“We have to make sure we’re not going to build liabilities for the future – that means building appropriately and planning with the risks in mind,” Withycombe said.

But the responsibility should not be left to local councils, he said.

At the federal level consistent and proper disclosure of risk is needed and at state level governments should develop consistent planning and management policies.

“We need to restrict development in future hazardous areas. On the NSW coast there will be 60 per cent growth in population over the next 20 years – and the infrastructure is already aging and overloaded, even before the serious effects of climate change.

“We also need comprehensive regional planning and adaptive management strategies, as well as new and revised revenue streams to help pay for climate change adaptation,” says Withycombe.

He was also concerned that councils lacked the technological resources to even assess the potential impacts of climate change.

“How do we assess where the impacts of climate change will be without the necessary data?

“Right now we don’t have complete nor consistent digital elevation modelling or laser scanning of landscapes to give us a clear picture of where the risks, such as flooding, are.”

But even with good data, it gets complicated.

Even when they are aware of risks, councils are reticent to tell residents about them for fear of legal action. Withycombe says potential future compensation of residents affected by rising sea levels and coastal erosion will be a significant problem.

But the responsibility should not be left to local councils.

At the federal level consistent and proper disclosure of risk is needed and at state level governments should develop consistent in planning policies.

Amidst the fanfare of climate change mitigation, it does seem that the Federal Government is starting to take adaptation strategies more seriously.

In the background the Department of Climate Change is working on an update to its three year old climate change risk management strategy for business and government.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Climate Change, the updated report, titled Climate Change Impacts & Risk Management – A Guide for Business and Government is likely to be released in around June this year.

Meanwhile, the NSW government is about to release its Climate Action Plan. No doubt NSW coastal councils will be very interested to see just what action the state government plans to take in terms of risk management and responsibility for compensation of businesses and householders affected by rising sea levels and eroding coastlines.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au