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Senate inquiry on extreme weather won’t help Australia prepare

Isn’t it time Australia got serious about adapting to climate change? AAP Image/Gympie Council, Greg Wilbraham

The Australian Senate inquiry on preparedness for extreme weather events was, according to Green’s Senator Christine Milne, an opportunity to bring “urgency and ambition” to the issue. The final report was released this week, and Australia has once again missed the opportunity to address the challenge of future extreme weather events.

The inquiry’s mandate was to report on recent trends in extreme weather events, and on what we know about the future occurrence of extreme events under climate change. It was also asked to assess Australia’s preparedness: in key sectors, at all levels of government and within emergency services.

Most importantly, it was to report on progress in developing effective national coordination of climate change response and risk management, and any gaps in Australia’s Climate Change Adaptation Framework.

So, how did it do? Did it improve Australia’s preparedness for climate change? Did it deliver a comprehensive review of the state-of-play? Did it make recommendations that would form a firm foundation for Australian climate change response policy?

Sadly, the answer on all counts has to be no.

The report is sound in its review of the science, but there is nothing new. The timing of the report is unfortunate in this respect – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment of the physical science will be released next month and will contain the definitive international scientific position on climate change, including future occurrences of extremes. Until then, fifth assessment findings are embargoed, meaning that the report has had to rely on the 2011 IPCC special report on extremes.

The report comes into its own in its review of the work which is being done in climate change science in Australia, on the impacts (especially costs) of past events and responses. It cannot be faulted for thoroughness and even-handedness. But, essentially, it is telling us what we already know. We have heard it many times before from equally authoritative sources – some extremes are becoming more common, are costly to the Australian economy and people, and are likely to continue this way in future.

The real question is, what are we going to do about it? And there the report falters.

It makes a number of recommendations that are piecemeal and uncoordinated. It recommends that disincentives to insurance should be removed and that authorities should work with community service organisations in planning and responding to extremes.

Flood mapping should be prioritised, and building codes adjusted. Facilities caring for vulnerable groups - such as hospitals and aged care homes - should have emergency management plans in place, and emergency services should be better coordinated.

There’s a reason these sound familiar – last year’s Productivity Commission report Barriers to effective climate change adaptation made some very similar recommendations. Indeed, the final recommendation of the Senate Report is to continue to implement the recommendations of the Productivity Commission report.

The report’s recommendations fail to hang together to deliver a basis for comprehensive and coherent policy. Their piecemeal nature means they cannot address the challenge of a world in which many extremes in many places are likely to become more common and more severe.

Australia is no further along in meeting the challenge of climate change.

This can be contrasted to the recently released report from the UK government on Making the country resilient to a changing climate. This is comprehensive, insightful and, most importantly, commensurate to the climate change challenge.

Why the difference? Purely and simply, because there is a statutory obligation in the UK to deliver to parliament, at specified intervals, climate change risk assessments for the nation. These must then be followed up by plans to evaluate the immediacy and size of the risk, and the actions that need to be taken. This statutory obligation is set out in the Climate Change Act 2008.

What will it take for Australia to bring into law this level of reporting requirement? It will require politicians and public servants who are sufficiently versed in the science to accept the reality of climate change. They will have to recognise the need for action now and, finally, be emboldened by the prospect of Australia taking a global leadership role in addressing climate change.

At the moment, we don’t meet even the first of these requirements. The Senate report is the product of that failure.

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