Home » Disaster Inquiries » Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 6

Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 6

In this final instalment of my series on the Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events Inquiry I’ll address the remaining terms of reference in a roundabout way. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 here. The remaining terms deal with Australia’s overall response to climate change adaptation and national coordination of risk management. I want to address the impact of climate change on severe weather events being far from the only climate impact relevant to emergency management; climate change adaptation being far from the only emerging challenge in emergency management; and the interconnectedness of many current and emerging threats for Australia and the world.

(f) progress in developing effective national coordination of climate change response and risk management, including legislative and regulatory reform, standards and codes, taxation arrangements and economic instruments;

(g) any gaps in Australia’s Climate Change Adaptation Framework and the steps required for effective national coordination of climate change response and risk management; and

(h) any related matter.

Although there is still massive uncertainty about the magnitude and direction of changes in many extreme weather variables, the risk of large changes will require emergency management officials to redouble efforts in disaster mitigation, land use planning, community education and engagement and response capability development.

Climate change poses a number of additional challenges to emergency management beyond the projected increases in the incidence and severity of some extreme weather events. These include:

Climate change is far from the only challenge facing emergency management in present times. Present risks are largely being driven by increasing exposure (through rising population growth and wealth) and there are a number of other serious existing and emerging challenges that will require new approaches. Many of these issues could increase disaster risks greater than any increase from climate change. These long term threats include:

Emergency management is not the only sector of government and the community that needs to respond to long term threats like climate change. The World Economic Forum publishes reports on global risks seeking to identify short, medium and long term threats and their interconnections. The most recent report was released in 2013 and outlines a range of threats with wealth gaps and unsustainable government debt being the top two. It identified a number of ‘X factors’, emerging and little understood threats and opportunities including runaway climate change, significant cognitive enhancement, deployment of rogue geoengineering, rising costs of living longer and the discovery of alien life. The report also rated Australia’s overall preparedness for all the global threats as average.

The Global Risks 2013 Report identifies a number of key emergency management related risks:

  • Persistent extreme weather events

  • Unprecedented geophysical destruction

  • Vulnerability to pandemics

  • Vulnerability to geomagnetic storms

  • Terrorism

More importantly it identifies a large number of risks connected to these, both as drivers and flow-on effects. The following risks are connected to 3 or more of the above, with those connected to 4 or more in bold:

  • Critical systems failure

  • Critical fragile states

  • Diffusion of weapons of mass destruction

  • Failure of climate change adaptation

  • Food shortage crises

  • Global governance failure

  • Irremediable pollution

  • Mismanaged urbanisation

  • Prolonged infrastructure neglect

  • Rising greenhouse gas emissions

  • Severe income disparity

  • Unforeseen consequences of climate change mitigation

  • Water supply crises

Aside from climate change little attention is being paid to many of these existing and emerging threats. What work is being done is often in isolation and doesn’t address the interconnections of many of these risks either in their understanding or policy response. Australia lacks an integrative approach to risk management across governments, increasing its vulnerability to many of these existing and long-term threats. The International Standard Risk Management focuses on the creation of risk management systems and the governance of risk – arguing that risk management needs to be central to an organisation’s business for risk to be appropriately recognised and managed. An analysis of public inquiries in the UK found that severe adverse outcomes were associated with multiple systemic governance failures including:

  • Poor strategic risk management

  • Closed culture

  • Poor working relationships

  • Low levels of accountability

  • Poor leadership

  • Poor information for decision makers

  • Lack of clarity

It is ultimately these factors that are responsible for a host of man-made and ‘natural’ disasters. This is especially the case for long-term, high consequence and low probability risks. Without an organisational culture geared towards risk management, it is unlikely to respond to even clear signs of impending disaster.

Public inquiries play a key role in public policy in Australia and at least 100 disaster related inquiries have been conducted since 2000. One common criticism levelled at public inquiries is that they are quick to disband and little attention is paid to the implementation of inquiry recommendations. Aside from the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Implementation Monitor I am unaware of any other concerted effort to publicly and transparently monitor the implementation of inquiry recommendations.

Australia needs to establish an independent, statutory inter-governmental body to advise Australian governments on significant and national risks (I’ll use the working title of National Risk Commission or NRC). The NRC could be modelled on the Productivity Commission, which has been integral to the establishment of sound economic policy in Australia. However the NRC should be an inter-governmental body able to respond to references from the Federal or any state or territory government. The NRC should regularly produce a broad and wide ranging National Risk Assessment (which could be modelled on the UK’s National Risk Register, the WEF’s Global Risks Reports ) as well as more detailed and specific risk assessments on certain topics (for example food security or the vulnerability of infrastructure to geomagnetic storms). It should also have:

  • a mandate that extends beyond disasters and climate change to include economic, security and health related risks;

  • expanded investigatory capabilities, including the ability to review internal and confidential government documents and where necessary the ability to compel expert testimony;

  • the ability to require governments to respond to report recommendations;

  • the ability to monitor the implementation of report recommendations;

  • the ability to monitor the implementation of recommendations of relevant official inquiries;

  • a mandate to champion the improvement of risk management systems and risk governance of all levels of government and the private sector; and

  • a mandate to link national risk related research and activities of all governments, research institutions and the private sector to reduce duplication of effort.

The NRC should have a focus on transparency, accountability and the continuous improvement of risk governance. Where possible the NRC should make its reports public.

Summary

The emergency management implications of the impact of climate change on extreme weather events could be significant. However there are many other important climate impacts on emergency management, that may even eclipse increases in severe weather. Of additional importance are other key long-term threats including demographic shifts, globalisation, technological trends, emerging diseases and reduced fossil fuel use which combined with climate change will pose serious challenges to emergency managers into the future. Climate change is connected to many other serious global risks that could impact Australia, our preparedness for which could be substantially improved. The interconnectedness of these global risks poses substantial challenges for Australian governments. New mechanisms, such as a National Risk Commission, should be established to improve understanding and policy responses to these national risks.

Recommendations

  1. Research and policy responses related to natural disasters and climate change should consider broader climate change impacts and other long-term trends and threats in disaster management.

  2. COAG should commission a feasibility study into the establishment of a National Risk Commission to review and advise governments on risks to the safety, security and well-being of the nation.

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