Australia needs a national plan to face the growing threat of climate disasters


Robert Glasser, Australian National University

We are entering a new era in the security of Australia, not because of terrorism, the rise of China, or even the cybersecurity threat, but because of climate change. If the world warms beyond 2℃, as seems increasingly likely, an era of disasters will be upon us, with profound implications for how we organise ourselves to protect Australian lives, property and economic interests, and our way of life.

The early warning of this era is arriving almost daily, in news reports from across the globe of record-breaking heatwaves, prolonged droughts, massive bushfires, torrential flooding, and record-setting storms.

In a new special report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, I argue that Australia is not facing up to the pace of these worsening threats. We need a national strategy to deal specifically with climate disaster preparedness.




Read more:
Explainer: are natural disasters on the rise?


Even without climate change, the impact of these natural hazards is enormous. More than 500 Australians – roughly the same number who died in the Vietnam War – die each year from heat stress alone. The annual economic costs of natural disasters are projected to increase to A$39 billion by 2050. This is roughly equivalent to what the federal government spends each year on the Australian Defence Force.

Climate change will dramatically increase the frequency and severity of many of these hazards. The number of record hot days in Australia has doubled in the past 50 years, and heatwaves have become longer and hotter. Extreme fire weather days have increased in recent decades in many regions of Australia. Shorter and more intense rainstorms that trigger flash floods and urban flooding are also becoming more frequent, and sea level has been rising at an accelerated rate since 1993.

Australians are already exposed to a wide range of the hazards that climate change is amplifying. Almost 4 million of our people, and about 20% of our national economic output, are in areas with high or extreme risk of tropical cyclones. Meanwhile, 2.2 million people and 11% of economic activity are in places with high or extreme risk of bushfire.

Chronic crisis

As the frequency of extreme events increases, we are likely to see an increase in events happening at the same time in different parts of the country, or events following hard on the heels of previous ones. Communities may weather the first few setbacks but, in their weakened state, be ultimately overwhelmed.

Large parts of the country that are currently marginally viable for agriculture are increasingly likely to be in chronic crisis, from the compounding impacts of the steady rise of temperature, drought and bushfires.

The scale of those impacts will be unprecedented, and the patterns that the hazards take will change in ways that are difficult to predict. Australia’s fire season, for example, is already getting longer. Other research suggests that tropical cyclones are forming further from the Equator as the planet warms, putting new areas of eastern Australia in harm’s way.

This emerging era of disasters will increasingly stretch emergency services, undermine community resilience, and escalate economic costs and losses of life. Federal, state and local governments all need to start preparing now for the unprecedented scale of these emerging challenges.

Queensland as a case study

Queensland’s recent experience illustrates what could lie ahead for all of Australia. Late last year, a major drought severely affected the state. At that time, a senior manager involved in coordinating the state’s rebuilding efforts following Cyclone Debbie commented that his team was in the ironic situation of rebuilding from floods during a drought. The drought was making it difficult to find water to mix with gravel and to suppress the dust associated with rebuilding roads.

The drought intensified, contributing to an outbreak of more than 140 bushfires. This was followed and exacerbated by an extreme heatwave, with temperatures in the 40s that smashed records for the month of November. Bushfire conditions in parts of Queensland were classified as “catastrophic” for the first time since the rating scale was developed in 2009. More than a million hectares of bush and farmland were destroyed – the largest expanse of Queensland affected by fire since records began.

Just days later, Tropical Cyclone Owen approached the Queensland coast, threatening significant flooding and raising the risk of severe mudslides from the charred hillsides. Owen set an Australian record in dumping 681 millimetres of rain in just 24 hours – more than Melbourne usually receives in a year. It did not, however, diminish the drought gripping much of the state.

A few weeks later, record rains flooded more than 13.25 million hectares of Northern Queensland, killing hundreds of thousands of drought-stressed cattle. As two Queensland graziers wrote at the time: “Almost overnight we have transitioned from relative drought years to a flood disaster zone.”

Time to prepare

We need to begin preparing now for this changing climate, by developing a national strategy that outlines exactly how we move on from business as usual and adopt a more responsible approach to climate disaster preparedness.

It makes no sense for the federal government to have two separate strategies (as it currently does) for disaster resilience and climate change adaptation. Given that 90% of major disasters worldwide are from climate-related hazards such as storms, droughts and floods, these two strategies should clearly be merged.

One of the prime objectives of the new strategy should be to scale up Australia’s efforts to prevent hazards from turning into disasters. Currently, the federal government spends 30 times more on rebuilding after disasters than it does on reducing the risks in the first place.




Read more:
Properties under fire: why so many Australians are inadequately insured against disaster


Australia should be leading global calls for urgent climate action, not just because we’re so vulnerable to climate hazards, but also for traditional national security reasons. We are the wealthiest nation in a region full of less-developed countries that are hugely vulnerable to climate change. Shocks to their food security, economic interests and political stability will undermine our own national security.

No military alliance, deployment of troops or new weapon system will adequately protect Australia from this rapidly escalating threat. The only effective “forward defence” is to reduce greenhouse gases globally, including in Australia, as quickly as possible. Without far greater ambition on this front, the scale of the disasters that lie ahead will overwhelm even the most concerted efforts to strengthen the resilience of Australian communities.


This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Strategist.The Conversation

Robert Glasser, Honorary Associate Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Unnatural disasters: how we can spot climate’s role in specific extreme events


Sophie Lewis, Australian National University

These days, after an extreme weather event like a cyclone, bushfire, or major storm, it’s common to find people asking: was it climate change?

We also often hear people saying it is impossible to attribute any single weather event to climate change, as former prime minister Tony Abbott and the then environment minister Greg Hunt said after the bushfires in New South Wales in 2013.

While this may have been true in the 1990s, the science of attributing individual extreme events to global warming has advanced significantly since then. It is now possible to link aspects of extreme events to climate change.

However, as I describe in an article co-written by Susan Hassol, Simon Torok and Patrick Luganda and published today in the World Meteorologcal Organization’s Bulletin, how we communicate these findings has not kept pace with the rapidly evolving science. As a result, there is widespread confusion about the links between climate change and extreme weather.

Evolving science

The science of attributing individual extreme weather events to climate change dates back to 2003, when a discussion article in Nature raised the question of liability for damages from extreme events. The idea was that if you could attribute a specific event to rising greenhouse gas emissions, you could potentially hold someone to account.

This was soon followed by a 2004 study of the 2003 European heatwave, which caused more than 35,000 deaths. This analysis found that climate change had more than doubled the risk of such extreme heat.

Brussels residents gain some respite from the 2003 heatwave, the event that launched the science of climate attribution.
EPA Photo/Belga/Jacques Collet

These early studies laid the foundations for using climate models to analyse the links between specific extreme weather events and human-induced climate change. Many studies since then have focused on putting numbers to the risks and likelihoods of various extremes.

Attribution science has now evolved to the point where it is possible to analyse extreme events almost as they happen. The World Weather Attribution project is an example of an international effort to sharpen and accelerate our ability to analyse and communicate the influence of climate change on extreme weather events.

This project examined the major flooding in France and nearby countries in 2016. The floods – which forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes and caused damage estimated at more than a billion euros in France alone – were made about 80% more likely by climate change.

Lost in translation

The communication of this science outside the research community has, with a few notable exceptions, not fully reflected these scientific advances. This confusion about the state of the science comes from many sources.

The media, politicians and some scientists outside this area of research still often claim that we can’t attribute any individual event to climate change. In some countries – including Australia – the causes of specific extremes can be seen as a politically charged issue.

In the aftermath of an extreme event such as a fire or flood, it can be seen as insensitive or overly political to discuss the human-induced causes of loss of life or property. The views of political and media leaders can be influential in shaping public opinions about extreme climate events.

It doesn’t help that confidence and uncertainty are widely misunderstood concepts outside the scientific community.

Another part of the problem is that for a long time, many scientists themselves repeated this message because of the complexity of the climate system. All extremes take place in a naturally variable and chaotic climate system, which complicates event attribution.

Attribution scientists have the greatest clarity and confidence in attributing heat events that occur over large areas and extended time periods. For example, two separate studies found that the 2013 extreme heat in Australia would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.

Rainfall events are trickier. This complexity can create confusion about the extreme events that are better understood, and lead to missed communication opportunities.

The need for better communication

Understanding the precise causes of recent extreme weather and climate events isn’t just an academic pursuit.

Extreme event attribution has become a research avenue with important benefits to the public. Society’s beliefs about which events are caused by climate change will influence decisions about how to adapt to those changes. Poor decisions in this area can jeopardise infrastructure and human health.

For example, if we dismissed the link between climate change and the 2003 European heatwave without scientific analysis, we would be poorly prepared for protecting vulnerable people from heat stress in the future under further global warming.

Any assessment of future climate risk and preparedness requires a scientific basis. It should not be based on opinions formed from personal perceptions, media reports, or politicians’ comments.

A community responsibility

Changes in extreme weather and climate events are the primary way that most people experience climate change. While scientific discussions around global average temperatures are useful for understanding the wider issue, you don’t experience “global average temperature”. Yet we all have some direct experience of extremes.

We argue that scientists need to communicate accurately the scientific links between extremes and global warming, so that people can make informed decisions about actions to limit the risks posed by these events.

We propose several simple guidelines for clear communication around extremes:

  • Lead with what the science does understand and save the caveats and uncertainties for later. For example, start by explaining the impact of global warming on heatwaves and then discuss the specifics of an individual event.

  • Use metaphors to explain risk and probabilities. For instance, discussion of global warming as “loading the dice toward more rolls of extreme events”, or
    “stacking the deck” in favour of extremes, are examples of accessible language.

  • Avoid loaded language like “blame” and “fault”.

  • Use accessible language for conveying uncertainty and confidence. For example, scientists often use the word “uncertainty” to discuss the envelope
    of future climate scenarios, but to the public, “uncertainty” means we just don’t know. Instead, use the word “range”.

  • Try to avoid language that creates a sense of hopelessness. For example, rather than calling further increases in some extreme weather “inevitable”, we can discuss the choice we face between a future with increases in extreme weather, and one with less.

These guidelines may also help the public evaluate the accuracy of reporting about weather extremes. If the link between an extreme event and climate change is rejected outright without an attribution analysis, it probably doesn’t represent the evolving science.

Conversely, if an extreme is presented as evidence of climate change, without discussion of nuance and complexity, it is equally unlikely to reflect up-to-date attribution science.

If scientists get better at communicating their work, and readers get better at assessing what’s accurate and what’s not, we will all be better informed to make choices that can hopefully stave off a future with more extreme weather.


This article is based on an analysis published today in the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Bulletin, led by Susan Hassol and Simon Torok.

The Conversation

Sophie Lewis, Research fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rats: Disaster for Islands


The link below is to an article that reports on the problem of rats for many islands around the world and the environmental disasters they bring to islands.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/jul/04/rats-islands-wildlife-south-georgia

Climate Change: Bringing on Disasters


The link below is to an article reporting on suggestions that climate change may bring on volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis.

For more visit:
http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/climate-change-is-set-to-shake-the-earth-20120228-1tzr2.html

EARTH HOUR: A COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME???


Earth Hour is to be held this Saturday (March 28) between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm. All you need to do to take part in Earth Hour is simply turn your lights off for the hour between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm on March 28.

Earth Hour began as an annual event in Sydney in 2007, when an estimated 2.2 million buildings switched off their lights for an hour. This year Earth Hour is going global for the second year and is giving people the opportunity to ‘vote’ for either the Earth or global warning. By switching off the lights for an hour a person can ‘vote’ for fighting global warning.

Organisers of Earth Hour are hoping some 1 billion people will ‘vote’ for the Earth and hope to be able to give world leaders 1 billion ‘votes’ for the Earth at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009. The conference is the forum in which world leaders will determine policy to supersede the Kyoto Protocol on Greenhouse Gas reduction.

For more on Earth Hour visit the official website at:

http://www.earthhour.org  

However, is Earth Hour a colossal waste of time? What is really being gained by turning the lights off for an hour once a year? All other electrical devices are still on and a lot of people go for alternative lighting devices that also pollute the environment. Other than awareness of global warming (which I would suggest everyone knows about now and either believes or does not believe – turning off some lights won’t change anyone’s mind on global warming), what does Earth Hour really achieve?

The following Blog post makes for interesting reading:

http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/earth_hour_crashes_to_earth/

Am I against reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions? Am I against reducing Global Warming and other associated disasters? Am I anti-environment? The answer to those questions is no! I’m just simply saying Earth Hour is little more than tokenism by most people who are against the Rudd government Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction policies and other policies that actually aim to make a difference.