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Obama prepares US for climate change impacts – what is Australia waiting for?

The political controversy which erupted recently about the influence of climate change on the NSW bushfires was a distraction. First, the Climate Council has confirmed climate change is influencing the…

A year after Hurricane Sandy, President Obama has taken serious steps toward climate adaptation. Australia is also subject to extreme weather, but we’re underprepared. Charlie Walker

The political controversy which erupted recently about the influence of climate change on the NSW bushfires was a distraction. First, the Climate Council has confirmed climate change is influencing the frequency and intensity of extreme hot days, and prolonging periods of low rainfall. This increases the risk of bushfires.

But just as importantly, political controversy about scientific phenomena takes the public’s and the government’s attention away from the real issue. What are Australian governments doing to prepare a nationally coordinated response to extreme weather events and disasters?

We might do well to look to the United States on this. Exactly one year ago, Hurricane Sandy allowed President Obama to talk openly during his presidential campaign about climate change.

Why? Because damage estimates are near US$50 billion while at least 147 direct deaths were recorded and 650,000 houses either damaged or destroyed. Up to 8.5 million customers lost power for weeks or even months in some areas. Yet only about US$20 billion of the losses were insured.

That meant in January 2013, Congress had to approve a further US$50.5 billion under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act 2013 to fund the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force.

On November 1 this year, President Obama showed his determination to deal comprehensively with climate change threats. He published an Executive Order called Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.

The President itemises the climate change impacts already affecting human and non-human communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the US. He acknowledges that managing these risks requires deliberate preparation, close cooperation, and coordinated planning by the Federal Government in cooperation with a wide range of government, private sector and NGO stakeholders.

He refers to the many existing Federal Government programs on climate change but points to the need for a new whole-of-government agenda, while confirming that the Federal Government will continue to support the scientific research, observational capabilities, and assessments needed to improve understanding of, and responses to, climate change.

Under this new Executive Order, government agencies must promote:

  • strong interagency partnerships and information-sharing
  • risk-informed decision-making
  • adaptive management, and
  • preparedness planning.

Far from abolishing climate change agencies, the President has established two new bodies - the Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, and the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Up to 30 government agencies will sit on the Council to ensure an integrated Federal strategy to deal with climate change, in consultation with the Task Force. Significantly, the Council is co-chaired by the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

All these Federal government agencies are ordered to:

  • remove barriers that discourage investments in building climate change resilience while ensuring continued protection of public health and the environment
  • reform Federal policies and funding programs that may increase the vulnerability of natural or built systems, economic sectors, natural resources, or communities
  • identify opportunities for climate-resilient investments by government, local communities, and tribes, including in the context of infrastructure development
  • report their progress in achieving all of this
  • continue to develop, implement, and update a comprehensive Adaptation Plan that integrates climate change into agency operations and overall mission objectives and submit these plans to CEQ and the Office of Management and Budget for review.

The Council must also build resilience in the US’s watersheds, natural resources, and ecosystems, and their dependent communities and economies. By August 2014, the heads of all Council agencies must complete an inventory and assessment of the necessary changes to their land and water policies, programs, and regulations to make that possible.

As part of the “open data” policy, Federal agencies are ordered to work together to develop and provide authoritative, easily accessible, usable, and timely data, information, and decision-support tools on climate preparedness and resilience.

They have to establish an online portal so agencies can share and coordinate their climate decision-making data and tools. Here, agencies must describe how improving climate adaptation and resilience has become part of their work with agency suppliers, supply chains, real property investments, and capital equipment purchases.

President Obama accepts the scientific consensus on climate change and the risks of climate change to the US. He has shown political leadership to establish a whole-of-government Federal framework to build the nation’s resilience in cooperation with all other levels of government.

He understands that it is the duty of governments to do all that they can to protect citizens, natural resources, ecosystems and the economy against the threats of climate change, now and in the future.

In August 2013, the Australian Senate released a report on Australia’s preparedness for extreme weather events. It shows that, compared with Obama’s holistic response, there are still significant gaps in our efforts to establish effective national coordination around extreme weather events.

For example, the National Climate Change Adaptation Framework has not been properly implemented and existing coordination between relevant government agencies at all levels of government is inadequate.

Given our vulnerability to climate change, and the extreme weather event disasters we have already suffered, all Australian governments should learn from the comprehensive response demonstrated by the Obama administration.