Evidence of coastal issues dating back to
the early 1900s. Have we learnt?
(Photo source: GCCM, 2015)

Ross Garnaut in his 2008 review of the climate change problem for the Australian Government, referred to climate change as a “diabolical policy problem”. Dryzek et al. (2013) in their edited book entitled The Oxford Handbook of CLIMATE CHANGE AND SOCIETY (Oxford University Press), expand on this phrase stating that “Climate change presents perhaps the most profound challenge ever to have confronted human social, political, and economic systems”.

President Obama has picked up this theme, but not without challenges from within the USA and externally. Later this year those challenges will again be before world leaders as they return to debate global emissions.

In Australia the politics of climate change ebbs and flows. One can only be impressed with the Baird Government in NSW deciding recently to join The Climate Group based in London, the only conservative government in Australia to do so. But we currently struggle to reach a national consensus on tackling the enormity of the challenges facing the globe in general, and the highly vulnerable Australia in particular.

There is much confusion between our exposure to extreme climatic events under current/historical conditions and what can be projected to be an enhanced exposure due to climate change now and in the future. It is clear to some Australian climate scientists that parts of Australia are already experiencing signals of climate change impacts even in the incidence of extreme events.

What we do know is that as a nation we are paying about ten times more for recovery from the impacts of natural disasters than in disaster mitigation. Reports by the Insurance Council, the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience, and the Productivity Commission have highlighted this anomaly. There are calls for the Australian Government to change its disaster policy and invest less in recovery and more in preparing for disasters such as floods, bushfires and coastal erosion/inundation. We anticipate that the “new good” Abbott Government will respond to the latest recommendations from the PC this year.

Risks and uncertainties abound. Our precious coastal world is exposed. But the exposure is not just to what might be to say a 50cm sea level rise by 2070 or whatever. For many parts of urban or urbanising Australia it is now.

Placing new infrastructure and private properties in areas we know have been hit by floods, surges or erosion is folly unless there are special local reasons that have to be carefully managed in order to reduce adverse impacts. However, we have legacy problems as highlighted in the 2009 and 2011 former Department of Climate Change report.

We need to first invest in ways to best manage risks to the existing built environments under current exposure and then couple that knowledge to possible options for adapting to enhanced climate change risks. Good understanding and management of current risks will take us that step closer to providing more resilient and safer communities in the future.

This approach could be seen as politically more acceptable by communities sceptical and anxious over the uncertainties of climate change while not neglecting the challenges of climate change.

What do you think?