Climate change requires a sensible risk analysis Opinion Article

Apr 02, 2014 - 9:11am

This article first appeared in Newcastle Herald on 2 April 2014. 

Olivia Kember  
National Policy & Research Manager, The Climate Institute

Federal, state and local governments can make it harder and more costly for Australia to deal with the consequences of global warming.

As the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns, Australia – especially our mining, energy, tourism, water supply, and farming sectors – is particularly exposed to more intense and more frequent extreme weather events.

Consider the effects on coastal property of a 1.1-metre rise in sea level and the associated storm surge: more than 50kilometres of Newcastle’s rail track would be vulnerable, as would several hundred of the city’s commercial and industrial buildings, according to government projections. Lake Macquarie and Wyong have residential buildings at risk.

Infrastructure Australia is required to report to the federal government on how climate change would affect federal infrastructure policy. It was set up to assess infrastructure investments on their productivity merits instead of their vote-buying potential. As climate change could inflict damage worth $9billion annually to Australia’s infrastructure by 2020, it makes sense for our infrastructure advisory body to think about how to bring those costs down.

But the federal government is expunging this instruction as part of its rewrite of Infrastructure Australia’s mandate. This is despite infrastructure co-ordinator Michael Deegan’s warning that rising sea levels and heat stress are among climate impacts threatening ‘‘a significant proportion of Australia’s existing infrastructure assets ... and adaptation will require changes to the scope and mix of infrastructure investment’’.

State and federal governments are failing on their main goal – to set up their communities for a resilient and prosperous future.  

Mr Deegan also noted that ‘‘a significant proportion of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the various infrastructure sectors, notably energy and transport’’.

Indeed, energy is the source of 72per cent of Australia’s emissions.

This is not something you’ll find in the government’s framing of its Energy White Paper.  

Australia’s energy sector has the most carbon-intensive power supply in the developed world, coal exports incompatible with avoiding more than 2 degrees of global warming, and multimillion-dollar assets exposed to sea level rise and bushfire risk.

But the government’s Issues Paper doesn’t mention climate change at all. It alludes briefly to a commitment to cut emissions by 5per cent by 2020, but it fails to admit greater cuts will be needed.

There’s no interest in how the energy sector should be prepared for other countries’ carbon cutting or the physical impacts of increasing extreme weather.  By contrast, the US has made climate change a focus of its first strategic review of energy infrastructure.

The NSW government has kicked the can down to councils, telling them to work it out for themselves, beach by beach. Short of financial and technical resources, councils did just that, resulting in inconsistent regulations and lawsuits that took issue with councils for acting too much, or not enough.

Queensland deleted references to climate change and removed guidelines on planning for sea level rise from its policy last year.

These moves fly in the face of conclusions by CSIRO and others that our coastal communities and infrastructure are very vulnerable to sea-level rise, coastal erosion and major flooding such as New York’s Superstorm Sandy. New York has since committed $20billion to climate-proofing its coastline.

We need to deal with climate change as a risk to be managed sensibly rather than an ideological issue. Analysis has repeatedly shown that cutting carbon emissions is a cheaper option than trying to adapt to runaway warming.

On top of direct impacts, the Intergovernmental Panel and the US Department of Energy raise the prospect of ‘‘cascading failures’’: climate-change impacts often spill out, through the channels that connect diverse industries and firms, flooding the risk-management capacity of the whole economy.

Given our economic reliance on infrastructure systems, major infrastructure projects such as those examined by IA should be assessed against their resilience to 2 degrees of warming (the global goal), and 4 degrees (the path we’re currently on). Owners and operators of infrastructure assets should likewise be required to disclose their exposure to these levels.

A constructive move would be for governments to enact standards to ensure such information on climate exposure is truthful, accessible and appropriately used.

Taxpayers pick up much of the tab for the damage inflicted by extreme weather, whether directly through flood levies or through higher prices for goods, from food to insurance premiums.

But their willingness and ability to do so under increasing climate impacts cannot be assumed.

State and federal governments are failing on their main goal – to set up their communities for a resilient and prosperous future.  

Olivia Kember

Olivia is the Acting CEO of The Climate Institute. She has worked in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand across the fields of journalism, diplomacy and resources. Olivia has provided policy analysis and advice for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the NSW Minerals Council. She was the recipient of a Fulbright award to study in the United States and holds an MA in Security Studies from the University of Georgetown

Email   Print   Subscribe
Contact us. For further information. Follow us. Join the conversation.

Level 15, 179 Elizabeth St.
Sydney NSW 2000
Tel   +61 2 8239 6299
Fax   +61 2 9283 8154
Site Map