Months before the recent floods inundated NSW, the Morrison government was handed a report warning about the impact of climate-related disasters on the built environment. It decided not to release it. Here’s a look at what that report said.
Over recent weeks, The Fifth Estate has written extensively about how climate-related natural disasters, including the recent floods, are rendering buildings, cities and suburbs uninsurable and uninhabitable. It’s a topic that’s also gained mainstream attention in last week’s Four Corners program on the ABC.
In some quarters, these articles were called “unnecessarily hyperbolic”.
It wasn’t brain surgery to work out the logic here. It was obvious. And it turns out that many of the same points were made in the most recent five-yearly State of the Environment Report, originally handed to the Morrison government in December last year.
But rather than make the report public and start tackling the issue of urban resilience, former environment minister Sussan Ley instead decided to shelve it.
The five-yearly report was finally released to the public on Tuesday by Labor’s new Environment and Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek.
The issues raised by the report won’t be news to many. But the fact the Morrison government knew, and chose to cover up the report rather than have a public conversation about climate resiliency, is a big indictment on its leadership.
We’ve combed through this massive report to find out what Scott Morrison didn’t want you to know about the impact of climate change on the built environment, along with what are some of the reactions from experts.
What ScoMo didn’t want you to know
The report is clear and unambiguous: “pressures on the urban environment are expected to increase with climate change”. This includes “a rise in urban temperatures, raised sea levels and urban flooding, as well as loss of biodiversity”.
“Climate change has a very high and increasing impact on our urban environments. Warmer temperatures, bushfires, floods, drought and sea level rise are challenging the livability, resilience and sustainability of our homes and workplaces,” the report states.
“The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events are also changing. Climate science predicts that there will be increasing impact from many extreme events, including a potential expansion in their distribution, changes in their duration, and increasing complexity of linked impacts.”
Much of the natural variability in Australia’s natural climate is “driven by broader influences in the global climate system driven by ocean and atmospheric changes and cycles, such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation”. Through its impacts on these cycles, climate change is “having a high impact on the variability of our climate”.
As the NSW floods have since shown, these “extreme events may last only hours or days”, but “can change natural and urban landscapes, and sometimes have irreversible impacts on ecosystems and individuals or communities”.
“Tropical cyclones, hailstorms, flooding rains, storm tides, heatwaves, bushfires, blizzards and other natural phenomena can change natural and urban landscapes, and sometimes have irreversible impacts on ecosystems and human society,” the report states.
“The increased frequency and intensity of extreme events occurring with climate change will exacerbate impacts on buildings and infrastructure, and the effectiveness of current engineering solutions to these events.”
The experts weigh in
Jeff Angel, executive director from the Total Environment Centre, tells The Fifth Estate the poor performance of the previous coalition government was even worse than we all thought.
A significant degree of blame must be laid at the feet of the National Party’s and Liberal Party’s inability to stand up for the environment.
“Australia clearly is at a tipping point, and the ALP cannot afford, both through its electoral integrity and for Australia’s environmentally sustainable future, to not make very major improvements.”
New legal powers, funding, and collaboration with citizens, NGOs, and business must be very strategic, very targeted and not based on superficial media releases, Angel says.
“The next 10 years really are the period where we absolutely must make dramatic progress. The heat is on the Albanese government, which could be an office for most of that time.
“There are very important lessons in the report for federal and state governments, for example, what they do with urban planning in the built environment with key instruments, such as the National Construction Code, the NSW D&P SEPP controversy and urban greening, to help the cities, where obviously most people live, to be resilient to the flood, fire and heat impacts of climate change.”
One of Australia’s top climate experts, Professor Peter Newman from Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute, tells The Fifth Estate climate will have a big impact on our built environment over the coming decades.
That’s even if we stop making the problem worse by cutting our emissions and sequestering carbon back into the soil.
“We can bring the planet back to 1.5 degrees of warming, but it will take 50 years at minimum, maybe 100, before we get back to the kind of climate we saw as normal even 10 years ago. That’s the kind of future we have to adapt our cities for,” he says.
“Lismore must shift. We cannot continue to just do little things and expect it to stay normal – it’s not going to. So It might be another five years before the next floods come, it might be 10 years, but when it comes it’ll be even worse.
“The historical records are no longer going to tell us about the future. We have to now adapt to a future of extremes, and extreme events.”
Climate Council chief executive Amanda McKenzie says Australia’s high greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the decline of our environment.
“After almost a decade of ‘lost years’ of inaction, there is no more time to waste. We must rapidly drive down emissions this decade and immediately stop the expansion of new coal and gas projects.”
The Fifth Estate has reached out to additional experts for comment, including from the Property Council and Urban Taskforce, and are awaiting responses, which we will share once we receive them.
Severe direct health impacts from thunder, smog and bushfires
The impacts of climate-related disasters go beyond rendering buildings, suburbs and towns uninhabitable and uninsurable.
The report warns that the increasing frequency and severity of extreme events is having a direct impact on human health and wellbeing.
“Temperature?driven chemical reactions in the atmosphere are likely to cause more summertime smogs in urban areas. This poor air quality will affect health,” the report states.
One way the report says rising temperatures will lead to increased summertime smog is from dust clouds, caused by more frequent droughts.
Another major cause of the smog – one that will be all too familiar to anyone who was in NSW during the 2019 bushfires – will be an increase in the number of bushfires.
“The predicted increase in the number of extreme heatwave events will also lead to increased summer bushfire activity, leading to poor air quality as a possible recurring feature of future Australian summers.”
Meanwhile, in some regions, increased thunderstorms will cause “serious thunderstorm asthma events, which will affect health, especially for vulnerable individuals and populations”.
Urban heat impacts
But it’s not just smog, bushfires and thunder that will have an adverse impact on our health – urban heat will as well.
“Urban heat is forecast to increase substantially, impacting human health, sleep patterns, productivity and other social factors, and thereby leading to increasing deaths and illness,” the report says.
“This is a result of the presence of roads, pathways, buildings and dark roofs that trap and absorb heat more than green surfaces (for example gardens and parks) and blue surfaces (for example rivers and creeks).
“With the urban heat island effect, temperatures in our urban areas can be 1–7 degrees Celsius higher than surrounding areas, particularly at night.”
Indigenous and working class communities hit hardest
The report also addresses which communities are likely to be worst affected by climate-related disasters, such as floods. The biggest impacts, it finds, will fall on low-income households in outer-suburban subdivisions in floodplains, as well as Indigenous communities.
“Many lower socio?economic urban areas may also be at greater risk because they may have less green cover where water can be absorbed by the soil,” the report states.
“Flooding is also a challenge for many Indigenous communities, whose urban environments have been pushed to urban outskirts or land that was not claimed by others because it was prone to flooding.
“Many Indigenous communities may experience multiple evacuations over the course of a year, disrupting employment and education routines that are often already inconsistent.”
Temperature extremes and climate disasters, which are increasing with climate change, are continuing the destruction of Indigenous places and cultural values. The report states that these events place stress on traditional knowledge, Country and biodiversity.
“For Indigenous people, extreme temperatures can force them to migrate away from their traditional lands for long periods into an urban setting or to seek cooler climates,” it states.
“Rising land temperatures can also reduce the availability and growth of plants used for a traditional purpose such as food and medicine; this can affect the health of Indigenous people who rely on traditional plants for their nutritional and healing properties.”
So what are the solutions?
While most of the report focuses on cataloguing problems, it does suggest some potential solutions for climate resilience. These are a more coordinated approach to urban planning, with greater involvement from Indigenous communities.
“Urban planners and governments are recognising the need for change and a more collaborative, whole-of-system approach, with place-based outcomes that can build greater resilience and regenerate our urban areas.”
The problem is that coordination between different levels of government and investment doesn’t currently exist.
“Although there have been numerous environmental initiatives at both national and state and territory levels, there is insufficient overall investment and lack of coordination to be able to adequately address the growing impacts from climate change, land clearing, invasive species, pollution and urban expansion.”
Perhaps it’s even time for a federal intervention into urban planning?