Originally published in Canberra Times on March 5, 2022

Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s no doubt well-meaning attempt to raise money for Queensland flood victims though a GoFundMe appeal this week revealed two concerning disconnects from reality. One was the Government’s failure to grasp the scope of the new era of climate disasters we now face. The second was a failure to meet expectations for the role of the State in a crisis. We expect government to do its job and keep us safe – not outsource disaster relief.

Instead of GoFundMe, Australians have a more elementary expectation: GoGovernMe.

For a start, Australia doesn’t even have a national adaptation plan or a national climate risk assessment. Australia’s National Recovery and Resilience Agency (NRRA) doesn’t mention ‘climate change’ in its 26-page strategic direction. The Morrison government has put more effort into planning carparks than preparing communities for the impacts of climate change.

Climate impacts are going to keep getting worse until we deal with the root cause, the emissions that are fuelling climate change, primarily from burning gas and coal.

The risks are enormous. Climate change make floods more frequent and extreme. A BoM study in 2017 found that climate change had already increased the frequency of major Pacific rainfall disruptions like the QLD floods, but also droughts, by 30 percent. That will increase to 90 percent early this century, and 130 percent later this century.

Any increase in the frequency of climate disasters like floods or fires has very large implication for the overall costs of disasters in Australia because individual disasters have huge costs, and the vast bulk of disaster costs come from just a few events. The 2011 Queensland floods alone were estimated to have cost $14 billion and some estimates of the Black Summer bushfires are as high as $100 billion.

In 2017, Deloitte Access Economics estimated the total cost of natural disasters in Australia was $18 billion and projected to rise to $38 billion by 2050. They now estimate the current annual cost to be  $38 billion, and project a rise to $94 billion annually by 2060 if we remain on our current high emissions path.

Much of the current and future cost of disasters is likely to be from the climate change already baked in. But what we do from now on counts a lot, with the costs estimated to be almost 30 percent higher under a high emissions scenario.

Who pays these massive costs?

Almost all of them fall on ordinary Australians.

People directly impacted pay the highest costs with impacts on their health and wellbeing and homes, sometimes tragically their lives. Insurance covers some of the costs, and ultimately, we all pay for this through higher insurance premiums. When Governments provide relief and recovery funds it is all of us collectively contributing through our taxes. We also pay through higher costs for food, for trades because reconstruction creates a shortage, and many other goods and services.

Conspicuously absent from contributing to the costs are the fossil fuel companies making immense profits from supercharging the problem.

It’s a basic principle of economics that companies should pay for the cost of the damage the cause (or “externalities” in economic jargon). That gas, oil and coal companies don’t pay isn’t just grossly unfair, but a massive market failure.

To pour salt in the wound, these same companies, mostly foreign owned coal, oil and gas multinationals pay little if any tax in Australia. A recent Australia Institute report showed two thirds of Western Australia’s gas is given away to these companies without any royalties or resource rent tax being paid. Most of these companies pay no corporate tax either. Last year the companies paying zero company tax in Australia included oil and gas companies Shell, Chevron, Santos, ExxonMobil and Origin, and coal companies Whitehaven, Peabody, Yancoal.

There is a simple way to fix this. The Australia Institute has proposed a levy on coal and gas exports to be paid into a National Climate Disaster Fund. Every dollar of that fund would go directly to paying the costs of climate related disasters supercharged by gas and coal exports. Because the levy is on exported fossil fuels it will have no effect on energy prices in Australia, and will fund recovery and resilience jobs across the economy.

Rather than trying to reduce emissions, Australian governments state and federal are stepping on the on the gas, taking proactive steps to increase fossil fuel production.

Australia Institute analysis shows that Australian coal and gas already results in around 1.5 billion tonnes of emissions being pumped into out atmosphere every year, and there are enough projects under development to add a further 1.7 billion tonnes. The Australian Government is actively trying to open vast new gas and coal basins that will result in huge amounts of amounts of emissions, with the QLD, WA and NT Governments equally culpable.

The response of the Government to climate disasters has fluctuated between denial and inaction.

As Prime Minister, Morrison poured public money into the ‘gas-fired recovery’, but when he was treasurer he discontinued Australia’s National Climate Adaptation Fund (NCCARF). The director of NCCARF at the time commented the decision had hollowed out the research community and “the capacity to take action on climate change is smaller than it was decade ago”.

The federal government offers the fossil fuel industry forward-planning, public money and certainty, while disaster-affected communities are offered GoFundMe appeals.

In a bitter irony, just as the flood waters rose in QLD and NSW, the IPCC released its devastating new report on the impacts of climate change. The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said report revealed a “criminal” abdication of leadership around the world, and that “the world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.”

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