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 “The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step” (P. Casals).

 Unless there is a turn-around in global emissions, the planet is faced with a dire climate-driven future. Australia is recognised as a nation under great threat. Within one- or two-decades lifestyles and livelihoods will be forced to adapt to conditions never before experienced. This especially applies to people on the coast where most of our population is concentrated. We are at cross-roads; recent events highlight a national lack of resilience to climate-driven events. Either we make changes in behaviour as Bob Hawke intimated in 1989 at the First Prime Ministers Science Council, or the steps we take will create more harm.

We know enough to say that impacts from hazards in and around coastal settlements are substantial. They will increase substantially with climate change including the insidious adverse effects of sea level rise. Increasing storm, heat, drought and fire intensity and severe compound flooding events are degrading coastal and nearshore marine ecosystems as well as threatening the lives of coastal dwellers. Homes and infrastructure under threat have been documented through first and second pass risk assessments since 2009. This persistent exposure of property and public assets puts at risk so much of what Australian society values and will want protected. This is a national crisis in the making.

What can be done to mitigate this crisis beyond emissions controls? All Australians must become more aware of the consequences of living close to and enjoying the fruits of being “girt by sea”. In particular, people living near the coast require environmental intelligence and reliable short-term and long-term forecasts in order to anticipate, prepare, adapt, resist, and recover from hazards of whatever type. Risk-informed decision-making is crucial. However, there needs to be effective methods of communication to planners, lawyers, developers, finance institutions, policy makers, politicians, and emergency managers in readily understood terms and formats. It is essential for programs that address local and regional planning emanate from a new national policy framework.  This should integrate principles of soft and hard engineering and land use planning with environmental and community values that seek acceptable outcomes thereby meeting the challenges of potential coastal threats. We must accept that coastal vulnerabilities are both locally and regionally specific.

Yet resilience to both the shocks and gradual impacts of climate change in coastal areas is more than local and regional, it is national. No borders are respected; we must recognise the importance and capacity of cross-agency and cross-government coordination in seeking integrated outcomes to meet social, economic, and environmental needs. The private market may no longer provide insurance and mortgages for those who are most vulnerable. As a result there will be greater and greater dependency on federal support. Thus a national program is fundamental, embracing all tiers of government with the private sector to make full use of science, both physical and social, that will offer that critical knowledge base for effective decision making.

Several recent events have highlighted to me both the urgency of national action and just how hard it is to take the next step as a nation to mitigate threats posed by on-going climate change. In no specific order let me list some that have struck me as relevant:

  • The joint CSIRO-Bureau of Meteorology report on state of climate warning of trends occurring and of dire impacts in the future on Australian natural and human systems unless international action on emissions control is effectively implemented.
  • Reinforcing this point is an article by John Church in IMPACT (No 210, 2020), the journal of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering entitled “Rising sea levels—a threat to our coastal society”; he concludes “To avoid worst case sea-level rise of many metres that would impact the lives of one billion people living in the low elevation coastal zone and damage ecosystems, urgent, significant and sustained global mitigation of our greenhouse gas emissions is required”.
  • David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at University of Adelaide, wrote a powerful article in Pearls and Irritations, the public policy journal on 4 November, on what he expected from the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements (the Bushfires report). He argued that it “must lead to a national Climate Adaptation Policy”. He referred to past problems such as the demise of NCCARF, the lack of a national water policy, that adaptation currently resides with the states, and what has happened in Europe in this policy space. Tim Flannery and others going back to the 2009 House of Representatives coastal report have made similar pleas.
  • Recommendations from the Bushfires report in general have been well received. However, the emphasis is clearly on disaster preparedness and management seeking “whole of nation” cooperation and effort based in improving “resilience”. Its recommendations on national coordination in the disaster context makes good sense but to my mind it leaves open the need for considering those adverse impacts of climate change that are not “disasters”. I cannot see any recognition of a national adaptation policy that would address differences between states in land use planning, in water management during drought, and in meeting the “moral hazard” arising from the market limiting financial support for those in vulnerable areas.
  • Increasingly I see articles that highlight concerns from insurers, bankers, and others with commercial concerns over impacts of climate change. Tom Wilson the CEO of the huge ALL STATE Corporation in the US was quoted in the New York Times as saying people spend a lot of time arguing about the long-term solution when the house is burning down. From his perspective the private market already is finding the impact of big events is becoming too expensive and that they are dropping homeowners insurance in most vulnerable areas. The IAG in Australia was reporting similar concerns in an article by Peter Hannan in the SMH in September.
  • Our Federal Parliament is currently dealing with several pieces of legislation that link to climate change. One is that bill put up by the independent Zali Steggall, the other concerns changes to the EPBC Act. Members of the Wentworth Group have offered submissions on both. I appeared before a Senate Inquiry on Monday 23rd on the EPBC Act and made mention of the need for the Act to consider the consequences on climate change on Australian ecosystems of national environmental significance that are under increasing threat.
  • Finally, we are potentially facing a new world order in managing climate change risk. President-elect Biden is going to appoint John Kerry to a specific role in his administration on climate change. This could have serious consequences for the way we interact with the USA and other nations especially those in the Pacific region. One can only hope that this change will really give rise to greater US engagement (and Australian) in global initiatives in both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2020. For correspondence about this blog post please email