by Richie Merzian
[Originally published by 10 Daily, 11 Feb 2020]
In a matter of days, many Australians have been thrust from one extreme to another — from bushfires that refuse to be put out, to flooding rain that seemingly won’t stop. It’s a cruel irony.
The unprecedented bushfires that devastated Eastern Australia over the summer saw thousands of properties destroyed, dozens of people killed and a wildlife death toll estimate in the billions. The military were deployed, and over 11 million hectares of land has been burnt.
Here in the ACT, Canberrans traded P2 face masks for hard hats as smokey skies opened up to golf ball sized hail. Up to 30,000 vehicles were damaged, building roofs and windows smashed, homes lost power, and years of valuable CSIRO research was destroyed.
The severe thunderstorms and flash flooding in NSW and Queensland are the latest in Australia’s 2020 Climate Armageddon. Wild winds and rains forced evacuations and left thousands without electricity. The rains have meant the dust storms have been traded in for landslips that have written off the Blue Mountains train line.
Most Australians have become used to a new morning ritual — waking up and checking air quality apps on our phones to see if it’s safe for the kids to go outside or brave a morning jog. Phone screens are now filled with various state Fires Near Me apps, and NSW has even introduced a new sister app, Floods Near Me. It makes me wonder whether we need an Is It Safe Near Me app, to find the parts of Australia currently free of any extreme weather events.
The Insurance Council of Australia has declared the current storm events a ‘catastrophe’, allowing claims to be fast-tracked by insurers and extending the time period affected parties can submit a claim. These ‘catastrophe’ events used to be exceptional, but this is the sixth catastrophe declared by the Insurance Council in the past five months — each due to extreme weather events.
While Australians are surprised, Australian policymakers shouldn’t be. There have been 30 years of warnings — with various iterations of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report — that many of these extreme weather events will likely increase in frequency and severity due to climate change. It is chilling to read the eerily accurate Garnaut Climate Change Review’s warning that fire seasons would start earlier, be more intense, and that these effects ‘should be directly observable by 2020’.
Australians now know that 23 former fire and emergency services leaders sought to warn the PM back in April of the severity of the upcoming bushfire season and the need for action. There were also repeated warnings from the insurance industry regarding the increasing costs of climate-change disasters and the need to prepare.
While policymakers need to do everything they can to stop climate change getting worse, the reality is — as we’ve seen this summer — the impacts of climate change are already being felt.
Alongside reducing emissions, Australia needs to prepare for what’s already coming in the form of a National Adaptation Plan.
While the Australian Government has been readily supporting its Pacific neighbours to develop and implement National Action Plans, it has failed to do so itself. I know, because I co-chaired the UN negotiations that developed these Plans.
Just as bushfire response was written off as a ‘state issue’, looking at sea-level rises, the absence of federal leadership on climate adaptation has already left local councils to adopt their own benchmarks.
And as is the case along the NSW South Coast, local councils side-by-side can have completely different planning rules around sea level rise. Already, the Shoalhaven Council adopted its own sea level rise benchmark of 0.35m by 2100 — so low that even if the world cut all emissions immediately, it would still be exceeded. In neighbouring local councils it’s closer to 1m.
Australia needs a National Adaptation Plan, pronto. And our Parliament actually has the opportunity to vote for one if it wants to, Independent MP Zali Steggall is calling for one in her private member’s bill announced this week.
The bill also recognises that Australia needs to get serious with its emissions reduction efforts and put forward a net-zero by 2050 target. Even the Business Council of Australia, which previously claimed targets of similar ambition were ‘economy wrecking’, is now on board with this approach which Australia Institute research shows is supported by a majority of Australians.
Richie Merzian is Director of The Australia Institute Climate & Energy Program @RichieMerzian