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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.

Join the conversation

27 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Obama's holistic response does seem to be more about words re having committees and bureaucrats doing what they probably do already, the US not having been without its past disasters that include fires, snow/ice storms, floods and hurricanes all on a scale much larger re damage than Australia has had or is ever likely to face.
    Meanwhile, we already have state based emergency response/control systems and if state premiers seek federal assistance, usually by use of the military that occurs with minimum delay.

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    1. Ken Swanson

      Geologist

      In reply to Greg North

      Agree 100% Greg.

      Mitigation to avert what happens naturally is fine by me and has always been done. Should we do more? Always but within our budget capabilities.

      For example had more been done in back burning in the years leading up to the NSW fires, then they would not have been the disaster they were. The Greens have been cynically silent on the need for fuel load mitigation. Any action that spoils a good disaster is a PR opportunity lost.

      The carbon tax failed to prevent the severity of the NSW fires or their cause (arson). Mitigation is the great PR challenge of the Green movement over the next 3 years.

      Stop going to conferences, stop wanting to look good in front of your mates in the international Green movement and start doing some practical risk mitigation work.

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    2. Alan John Hunter

      Retired

      In reply to Greg North

      The military started one recent Blue Mountains fire, and the Feds are running away from their responsibilities, same as the USA under Bush, Abbots soulmate and fellow neocon.
      So where does that leave you and the above garbage.

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    3. Alan John Hunter

      Retired

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Fuel load mitigation, what a load of twaddle, burning promotes growth. In Victoria the same areas have had fires in 2003 2006 2009, to the shock and amazement of the CFA volunteers fighting them.
      The areas that spread fire the hottest and fastest are steep gullies with lots of thick vegetation that dry out last, so you can't burn them as they are uncontrollable.
      Leave the bush to its own devices, its been doing fine for 1,000;s of years.
      Power lines are the major cause of fires, fix that and the problem will be greatly diminished.
      I have been to areas burnt in Black Saturday, and I learned that fire is totally capricious and unpredictable and all you armchair experts will be proved wrong at some point.

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  2. Neville Mattick

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    Thank you for the informative article.

    We seem to be embracing a "Tea Party" policy direction.

    Where I have observed a Rural Grazing Station for more than fifty years with history going back a further eighty years, we are in big trouble.

    Within weeks of the Federal Poll - 250 IWT Wind Farm - Axed.

    We haven't had a sitting day yet; The CEFC - axed, Climate Commission - closed.

    Today our Environment Minister remains quoting Wikipedia as he programs the end of the Carbon Tax and NO ETS or the Warsaw Climate Talks.

    As I see it President Obama is an iconic leader of our time, one of the very few globally in power today; Australia I hope will quickly realise the mistaken election of the Abbott Government and retain some recollection long enough to vote them out.

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    1. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      "Removing barriers..."? Good grief - we're poles apart ... our Orstayan adaption strategy will be girding our beaches in razor wire and ensuring that those huddled masses displaced by economic and environmental catastrophes don't try their by luck wiggling in here. We're gonna be OK but innit?

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    2. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      On that note, I'm sure Barnaby has a few ideas about drought assistance and winding back some of those silly ideas about water buy backs. "Orstaya has a proud history as a food bowl, nothing can stand in the way, we will feed Asia.

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  3. Christopher Seymour

    Business owner

    The link provided for the Climate Council doesn't seem to match the claims in the article. The Climate Council page is very much lacking in any hard facts that would confirm that "climate change is influencing the frequency and intensity of extreme hot days, and prolonging periods of low rainfall. " They most they say is "In the future, southeast Australia is very likely to experience an increased number of days with extreme fire danger.", which is a long way from condfirming anything.
    The use of…

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Christopher Seymour

      "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." "

      This is basically to ask government agency's to factor in the impact of climate change.....do you need to upgrade your old folk home to keep it cool so the elderly don't die during heatwaves...how much will that cost.....does this fire station need more resources due to increased bush fire risk....how many, how much?.....

      it is a very very reasonable request

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  4. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    I have a time machine. It is called the internet, and it never forgets. Let's go back, way back to Feb 2013 at theCon: "When we looked at the association between the intensity of rainfall extremes and a record of global mean near-surface atmospheric temperature, rainfall intensity was found to increase at a rate of between 5.9% and 7.7% for each degree, depending on the method of analysis. https://theconversation.com/increases-in-rainfall-extremes-linked-to-global-warming-11933 . The Climate Council says ""climate change is influencing the frequency and intensity of extreme hot days, and prolonging periods of low rainfall." Houston, we have a problem.

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    1. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Rainfall intensity ... not the same as overall annualised rainfall Mark. This is about how rainfall happens - clumpier - like floods followed by extended dries...

      Really mate if you want to rebel against a consensus one should make some effort to understand what is actually being said.

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    2. Mark McGuire

      climate consensus rebel

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      G'day Peter. Rainfall, intensified or annualised, is not the point. This is about "the science." The link provided to the Climate Council above explains "periods of low rainfall because of global warming." Yet, when explaining the floods of 2011 from rain that was never meant to fall again, "This kind of change is precisely what can be expected if one assumes that the intensity of the most extreme rainfall events will scale with the capacity of the atmosphere to hold moisture," quotes theCon. High moisture content, but low rainfall?
      As consensus science is practised & quoted at theCon, there seems a contradiction. Does global warming cause the atmosphere to hold more OR less moisture? Is it both?
      PS. Floods followed by extended dries? Do you have evidence Australia's climate was ever any different than a land of droughts & flooding rains?

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    3. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      My understanding of the science and the projections is that it will do both Mark - that we will have a more energised and unstable climate with higher highs and lower lows ... that some places will see extreme storms and rainfall events followed by extended droughts ... other places will see steep declines in rainfall as dominant regular patterns such as monsoons and ice-melts cease of move about, or a predominant wind pattern like say the roaring forties moves a few points south and stops dum,ping rain on southern WA for example.

      So the short answer is more extremes of everything within a pattern of quite rapid and locally significant climate change.

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  5. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    "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?"

    This is pathetic....The REAL Issue is reacting to extreme weather....not avoiding CO2 release? how ignorant can you get.

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    1. Michael Rowan

      Emeritus Professor at University of South Australia

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Worry about the weather but not CO2 and the climate?

      If and only if you change the climate you change the weather. That much is definitional. That does not imply that you can say that this particular weather is a result of climate change. That is a causal connection we could never establish beyond considerable doubt, if the weather concerned is within the range of observed climate variability. What we can say is that climate change is biasing the variability towards warmer weather.

      Now if…

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    2. Jeremy Culberg

      Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael, there are two issues at hand here (at least), that being the change that is going to occur (even if we stopped all CO2 emissions tomorrow, we are still going to have a change), as well as limiting how big that change is going to be (which is through reducing CO2 emissions).
      I'd say that any government needs to have a plan for both. The current plan seems to be heads in sand at a federal level, on both issues.
      But at the state and local government level, plans need to be in place for both issues. From specifying zoning of land, to changing how buildings are built, to where roads go, to the number of emergency shelters, to ensuring levels of energy efficiency in new projects.

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Michael Rowan

      I don't know what you are talking about and I am pretty sure you don't either.

      Weather happens within a climate

      Change the climate....change the weather

      Hotter climate = more energy in the weather system

      simples

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    4. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Jeremy Culberg

      I Agree it's important to tackle both, I was only objecting to the idea that conversations about CO2 reductions are a distraction.

      If talking about Reducing CO2 and the impact it has is a distraction then I would suggest the focus or framework is too narrow

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    5. Michael Rowan

      Emeritus Professor at University of South Australia

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Let me explain a little more. We use the term 'climate' in two senses. In the first, the climate is the long term average of the weather. Thus changing weather changes the climate as a mathematical necessity. In the second, the climate is the collection of underlying physical systems which interact to bring about the weather we experience. In this sense of 'climate' the relationship between climate and weather is causal but probabilistic, like the relationship between a coin's being biased to heads and its landing heads.
      Or if you like, the relation between weather and climate is like the relationship between performance and form in cricket, as I argue here persuademe.com.au

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    6. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Michael Rowan

      I think I might understand what you are saying now, my only objection was to the idea that talking about CO2 emmissions is a distraction from the real issue.......which of course it is not.

      My objection is in regards to your framing rather than the idea that we need to prepare for extreme weather.

      Anyone who states that talking about CO2 emmissions is a distraction from some other "Real" issue is confused or at best playing linguistic games

      Nothing is more important than cutting CO2, least we get to a point where the methane is being released from the permafrost and runaway warming takes place - taking it completely out of our control and leading to 10 degrees of warming

      AKA Death of our species on this planet

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  6. MItchell Lennard

    Researcher - Distributed Energy Systems

    Thanks Rosemary for such a concise overview.

    With all the present short term noise over Emissions Control it is easy to forget that there is a great deal of work being done, and a great deal more work that needs to be done in this country on Adaptation.

    One of the issues that needs to be discussed more is that a 'business as usual' approach to emissions control is not a zero cost decision. What we don't spend today on Emissions control will probably flow back to us as adaption costs later.

    Understanding the complexity of adaptation is a key aspect of the overall debate… so it excellent to have an input from this article. I hope your article is the start of more discussion on this site.

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  7. Dennis M

    Author, Philosopher, Carer.

    What are we waiting for? A Prime Minister who has a few clues!

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    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Dennis M

      I agree Dennis, but not in the same order, Obama isn't a climate scientist, but he does take governing seriously, and clearly refers to credible scientific advice. Ours takes his responsibilities less seriously and is leading an assault on credible scientific advice, he gets his advice from the "flat earth society", as Obama describes these crack-pots. Obamas war is with the Koch brothers, Heartland, and the tea party. I hope the republicans implode.

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  8. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Environmentalist

    Thank you for this article, Rosemary Lister - articles such as this utterly refutes the, always ridiculous argument, spouted by climate ostriches that "the rest of the world isn't doing anything, so why should Orstraya?"

    Their argument is ridiculous because, all major polluting countries are/have been/willbe taking action, right now:

    http://www.climatechange.gov.au/international/actions/countries-acting-now

    "A broad range of countries have introduced, or are planning, market based emissions…

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  9. Stephen Morey

    Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

    An excellent article; a good example of why I read The Conversation for news and comment, and leave the so called 'newspapers' sitting on the train where they have been abandoned by the previous reader for the nonsense that they are.

    I have been away from Australia during the recent bushfires, but I believe there have been fierce attacks on those who pointed out that the increasing ferocity of these fires IS a result of climate change, HAS been predicted and CAN be expected to occur again.

    And what is our Government's response? With the support of 53% of Australians, they will undo all action taken in recent years to mitigate climate change.

    I will be using whatever discretionary income I have to donate to the cause of lobbying for action on climate change (i.e. taxes on pollution).

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  10. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    US policy: "agencies must describe how improving climate adaptation and resilience has become part of their work".

    Australian policy: plant a few trees to shut up the Greenies, but make sure industry need trump environmental imperatives. Dig, baby, dig: burn, baby, burn. What a hopeless shower of policy makers we have elected ourselves.

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