Time to think about climate adaptation

In the interest of full disclosure, I am part of that community which is concerned about global warming and accepts the science of climate change. But my side of this continuing debate has a major PR challenge to communicate relevant, believable measures of the planet’s ill health and our proposed policy responses in ways to which mainstream audiences can relate.

When Al Gore mounted his hi-lift vehicle in front of a huge projected graph in a 2006 presentation to dramatise how much atmospheric carbon dioxide loadings had increased over 650,000 years, and with them average global temperatures, the message was compelling. The planet was overheating and fossil fuels were the problem.

But temperature data show flat global averages over the past 15 years even as greenhouse gas emissions have increased every year to new record levels. Expert commentaries that temperature trends over many decades are what matter are met with understandable scepticism.

Sea levels are rising but interpretation of the data is contentious, even contradictory, and few Australians, other than a small number of waterfront dwellers, ever experience the damaging consequences of storm surges, flooding, and dune erosion amplified by such rises in sea levels.

The frequency of extreme weather events is increasing – perhaps. But our experiences of cyclones, floods, heatwaves, dramatic hailstorms, are familiar and their occurrences are, fortunately, infrequent enough that the any data trends are ambiguous. Especially for a continent such as Australia whose climate narrative has always been punctuated by extreme climate events.

Perhaps biodiversity is reducing and some species are disappearing, but not the familiar ones (yet). Icebergs are melting, glaciers are receding but few of us directly observe these, and stark satellite pictures of diminishing Arctic ice or increasing desertification are impressive but easily ignored as they seem to be happening somewhere else far away.

And some climate change advocates have overreached in their warnings.

The one metric that seems to be achieving cut through, especially during this summer season, is the number of days with temperatures in excess of 35 degrees, often leading to warnings of extreme fire danger. Global warming models forecast continuing increases in the occurrence of very hot days and these have observable consequences such as creation of conditions for widespread and very severe bushfires, health impacts upon the vulnerable, power outages from unmanageable loads on electricity supply systems by air conditioners, breakdowns in transport infrastructure and so on.

For east coast cities, the number of such very hot days is expected to double from, for example, about 10 in Melbourne over a year to more than 20 within 50 years. These are readily measured and reported in real time, can be dramatised by commentators, and illustrated with attention grabbing imagery. This particular number, although slowly changing, may carry the message of global warming for many summers ahead. But will that be enough to persuade sceptics of the climate crisis ahead?

But what of our policy responses? Consider the recent devastating bushfires in Tasmania (and Victoria and NSW). If you were convinced that climate change from excessive CO2 emissions was responsible, and this may yet be proven to be the case, what should be that state’s response?

Should the state immediately shut down coal and gas-fired electricity generation, increase hydroelectricity, accelerate adoption of wind, solar and geothermal energy, and convert to all- electric cars?

Perhaps a stiffer carbon price should be added and all energy intensive industries such as smelting and manufacturing be closed down?

How about planting plenty of trees, investing in geo, soil, and bio sequestration and becoming the first truly carbon-neutral state? Or pushing per capita energy consumption down to third world levels?

Unfortunately, these will have absolutely no effect upon Tasmania’s climate and weather and propensity for bushfires.

Of course at COAG meetings, that state’s leaders could then point to their example and encourage the rest of the Commonwealth, and the world, to follow and decarbonise their economies – but would we pay attention or just dismiss our Tasmanian colleagues as being quirky and then become uneasy with their pleas for federal government financial support for an inevitably faltering economy with surging unemployment?

To some extent, Tasmania is to Australia as Australia is to the world when it comes to climate change. We are affected but cannot, on our own, make a difference by directly addressing emission intensity or the carbon cycle. An Australian emissions trading scheme will not lower bushfire risks, stabilise sea levels, reverse the bleaching of our corals, or alleviate our national water challenges.

And current reports in New Scientist note that the outcome of the recent Doha climate talks is an agreement covering nations which contribute 14 per cent of global emissions, mainly the EU and Australia after Russia, Japan, NZ and Canada pulled out. Son of Kyoto appears not to hold the solution.

The more urgent and relevant Australian response to the changing weather patterns is for the states to prepare for an inevitably hotter climate – adapting to, and perhaps even learning to thrive in, a warmer climate as Tom Friedman suggests – and this may be happening but without the attendant climate change headlines.

Investments need to continue in our extreme weather event modelling, forecasting, monitoring and warning systems. We are fortunate to have world class capabilities in our Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO.

Our emergency response systems, resources and technology, aid agencies and the management of casualties, must be of the highest quality as they will be tested by more fierce heatwaves, fires, storms and floods in the future. A warming climate will inevitably bring higher costs to any society that wants to maintain its existing lifestyles.

Sensible zoning of waterfront developments, including siting restrictions, must continue as should the tightening of domestic and commercial building design codes both to cope with more extreme weather and to help shield householders from energy and water costs which will inflate for many years to come. Where appropriate, flood barriers and seawalls may need to be constructed.

Industry, including agriculture, is already adapting and changing practices and locations as energy costs rise and traditional crops prove vulnerable to warming and the intensification of various weather patterns including El Nino cycles.

Communities need to have confidence in the practical, evidence-based actions of governments to help mitigate adverse consequences of climate change. We need to be involved in assessing the implications of future environmental change, be part of the contingency planning, and be regularly informed about this critical topic as research reveals new insights.

There is a Darwinian contest at play here which business has always understood. Society must adapt at least as fast as the climate changes. Away from the international stage and climate talkfests, it seems that our states and communities may be addressing the practical steps which will make a real difference for the next two generations at least.

Ziggy Switkowski is chairman, Suncorp Group and chancellor, RMIT University.

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