Floods following a storm in Perth

With the recent baton change in Canberra there’s a fresh opportunity to change the dialogue about climate change.

While Prime Minister Turnbull has publicly affirmed his commitment to the Coalition’s established policies (the increasingly expensive Emissions Reduction Fund and relatively unambitious mitigation targets tabled ahead of this year’s UN climate talks in Paris), there’s a critical policy area that is currently receiving little attention: adaptation to the impacts of a changing climate.

While it may still be politically challenging to talk about climate change in Australia, there is a word, which fairly neatly encapsulates a response to the adaptation challenges we face: resilience.

Australia needs to develop a national resilience strategy

It’s important to recognise that adaptation and resilience are not strictly environmental concerns. They are far more broad-ranging, and cannot be managed with silo thinking by just one ministry or body.

An effective national resilience strategy would need to take a holistic approach to the challenge and develop policies to protect Australia’s assets (both natural and built), jobs and people while creating new opportunities for managed prosperity. In so doing it would recognise that effective adaptation starts with mitigation: a contribution to limiting the extent of climate change is still critically important.

The NRS would seek to align outcomes and contribute to strategy and policy setting within existing government departments and agencies ranging from Agriculture to the Attorney General’s Office, Industry, Health, Education, Employment, Infrastructure, Environment, Immigration, Trade and Defence. Its development would involve close liaison with states and territories. A potential mandate for an NRS would include:

  • Ensuring the stability and security of our:
    • Food and agricultural industries, considering likely impacts to local and global agricultural productivity (including climate, weather, water, pollinator and invasive pest impacts) and developing programs to ensure any short to medium-term regional benefits of a changing climate can be exploited, while capitalising on export opportunities and reducing reliance on imports for key crops
    • Fresh water supplies, covering irrigation, environmental and urban flows
    • Energy supply and distribution including infrastructure protection, fuel switching and exploring clean energy export opportunities
    • Transport networks, again covering infrastructure vulnerabilities and reduced carbon intensity
    • Cities, building on the work of municipal adaptation strategies that have already been developed in Australia and abroad
    • Natural environment and ecosystems (including interdependencies upon which agriculture and urban environments rely)
  • Encouraging industry transformation or transition to substitutes (for example through the provision of incentives or removal of subsidies) for other high emissions industries, such as concrete and steel, which are estimated to contribute (including associated energy emissions) around five per cent of global emissions each.
  • Boosting our health sector to better cope with heat wave emergencies, other weather related disasters and challenges such as the spread of insect borne diseases. An emphasis on prevention of potential health issues from such emergencies would also flow into related areas such as building design and biohazard reduction.
  • Guiding the transition or transformation of exposed industries such as the billions of tourism dollars reliant on the integrity of the Great Barrier Reef, the Snowy Mountains’ snow, our glorious beaches and other natural assets. Some work in this direction has already been started by Austrade’s Tourism Industry Resilience Working Group.
  • Policies for coastal exposed and flood prone infrastructure and property, including:
  • Harmonisation of state and local government policies to provide planning certainty to property owners and businesses
  • A clear framework to help guide local decisions around the level of sea level rise (or other exposure) at which “protect and defend” strategies would give way to “abandon and retreat”, and how such approaches would be funded as they pertain to property or infrastructure of private, local, state or national significance; and
  • A hazard assessment tool, coupled with development guidelines for new structures and alterations to existing buildings. This approach might be modelled on the concepts of the various bushfire threat levels and associated construction requirements.
  • The federal government may also be able to facilitate (with the states) the development of a legal framework that will help councils implement changes to local planning instruments while minimising the risk of costly legal action from disgruntled property owners who would oppose such changes due to their impact on values.
  • Strategic hazard reduction and emergency preparedness / coordination (for example covering extreme weather risk such as bushfire and flooding) and again harmonising planning considerations for future development. This would build on the work of the ANZEMC.
  • Development of national and regional population strategies.
  • Formulation of policy relating to climate migrants and their resettlement.
  • International aid, development assistance, defence and related programs to help vulnerable countries improve their own resilience.
  • Education, research and skills development, to ensure the country has the right capabilities to support the types of initiatives outlined above.
  • Systems to measure progress towards achievement of the strategy’s objectives.

By inference the strategy would also consider the means by which the country can achieve and ideally exceed its greenhouse emissions abatement targets.

Why this should be an urgent priority

We’re already starting to experience climate change and its manifold effects. Businesses that are canaries in the coal mine are to be found in sectors such as agriculture, insurance and emergency management. To the trend watchers in such fields it is increasingly clear that the climate is changing, and that the effects are likely to be generally negative and far reaching.

A changing climate (and the inference of human causes) may affect businesses and communities in several key ways:

  1. Increasing risk through the direct and secondary impacts of warming, extreme weather and rising sea levels. This will flow through to increased costs of insurance, asset protection and repair. Urban businesses and those dependent on coastal infrastructure or suppliers are not immune.
  2. Farmers, vintners, tourism operators, water utilities and others who depend on the continuing provenance of a natural asset such as a rice field, river, coral reef, snowfield or beach are increasingly exposed.
  3. The potential impost of carbon taxes/pricing, international trade sanctions and/or societal backlash on carbon-emissions intensive businesses. Even relatively environmentally benign industries may be affected by increasing costs if their supply chain includes emissions intensive processing or transportation.
  4. Some industries will actually benefit by providing goods and services that will be more sought after as climate change progresses. Coastal protection and storm water infrastructure are two amongst many examples.

In time the effects of climate change will dominate global and national economies. Countries that have realised and planned effectively for the challenge will thrive, perhaps like the Netherlands, which commits a material proportion of its GDP to an ambitious 200-year plan to defend its low lying nation against sea level rise and river flooding.

Even so it will be a fraught journey, with certain industries and low lying communities eventually needing to be abandoned. A country that plans ahead will reduce the chances of its citizens becoming climate or economic migrants, or of plunging its people into civil or regional conflict over increasingly scarce water and food resources in the second half of this century.

David McEwen is director of Adaptive Capability.

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