ASPI’s decades: Cop this in the era of disasters
1 Nov 2021|

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

We cop it from climate change. Now we seek to cope. The job of COP26 in Glasgow is to come up with a fair cop for the planet.

Part of ASPI’s response to the ‘cop this’ of global warming was an all-hazards approach to natural disasters, linked to the all-hazards approach to terrorism.

ASPI’s risk and resilience program, led by Paul Barnes, ran from 2014 to 2020. The program explored disaster risk reduction in the Indo-Pacific region, researched climate impacts and worked to strengthen Australia’s critical supply chains (road, rail, aviation and maritime).

Australia needed a new and continuous conversation about resilience, Barnes wrote. Prevention was important, but we also needed better preparation and planning for what was coming:

Natural disasters are partly surprises: while we can’t predict when they’ll occur, we know that they will happen. To prepare, we must plan ahead, but we re-relearn lessons and often make the same mistakes. Given the many royal commissions and other investigations into disasters over the past few years, the lesson book is a thick one.

The 2016 defence white paper pointed to six key drivers shaping Australia’s security environment to 2035. One of them was ‘state fragility, including within our immediate neighbourhood, caused by uneven economic growth, crime, social, environmental and governance challenges and climate change’.

Climate change would be a major challenge for countries in Australia’s immediate region, Defence said, causing higher temperatures and increased sea-level rise and increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events: ‘These effects will exacerbate the challenges of population growth and environmental degradation, and will contribute to food shortages and undermine economic development.’

In 2018, Robert Glasser joined ASPI. Now head of the institute’s Climate and Security Policy Centre, he’s a former assistant UN secretary-general and was the UN secretary-general’s special representative for disaster risk reduction.

In Preparing for the era of disasters, Glasser wrote: ‘As the world warms beyond 2°C, as now 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.’

This emerging era would stretch emergency services, undermine community resilience and escalate economic costs and deaths. Federal, state and local governments had to prepare for the unprecedented scale of these challenges. Glasser recommended:

  • scaling up Australia’s efforts to prevent the effects from natural hazards, such as from extreme weather, from becoming disasters through greater investment in disaster risk reduction
  • planning for financial support to states for economic recovery following disasters, with ‘fodder banks’ and ‘land banks’ for communities in chronic crisis and the permanently displaced
  • strengthening disaster response capacity and planning at all levels, including in the military, which will ‘play an increasingly important role in transporting firefighters and equipment, fodder drops from helicopters and the provision of shelters’
  • embedding climate change effects in flood and bushfire risk maps, building codes, planning schemes, infrastructure delivery and laws.

Such thinking was amplified by the bushfire royal commission’s 2020 report on the dire consequences of climate change—increasingly intense natural disasters, catastrophic fire conditions, more violent cyclones and continued sea-level rise.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, chaired by a former chief of the Australian Defence Force, Mark Binskin, was established to investigate the devastating Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20.

The Binskin report said that natural disasters had changed, ‘and it has become clear to us that the nation’s disaster management arrangements must also change’.

Extreme weather had ‘already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable’.

Australia had warmed by approximately 1.4°C since 1910. Globally, temperatures would continue to rise, and Australia would have more hot days and fewer cool days. Floods and bushfires would become more frequent and more intense.

The commission said that the 2019–20 fires started in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Much of the country that burned had already suffered drought. The fire danger index was the highest since national records began. Catastrophic fire conditions could render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective:

Tragically, 33 people died and extensive smoke coverage across much of eastern Australia may have caused many more deaths. Over 3,000 homes were destroyed. Estimates of the national financial impacts are over $10 billion. Nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced and many threatened species and other ecological communities were extensively harmed.

The commission cited the Bureau of Meteorology’s conclusion that further ‘warming over the next two decades is inevitable’ and noted that, over the next 20 to 30 years, ‘the global climate system is going to continue to warm in response to greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere’.

Looking beyond Australia in The rapidly emerging crisis on our doorstep, Glasser pointed to the exceptional hazards affecting maritime Southeast Asia (MSEA). Hundreds of millions of people living in low-lying coastal areas would experience more severe extremes and more frequent swings from extreme heat and drought to severe floods. The diminishing time for recovery between events would have major consequences for food security, population displacements and resilience, Glasser wrote:

MSEA faces a dangerous constellation of simultaneous climate hazards. Sea-level there is rising four times faster than the global average, driven by climate change and other factors, such as groundwater extraction. MSEA has the world’s highest average sea-level rise per kilometre of coastline and the largest coastal population affected by it. Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, and 60% of its population (165 million people) is in coastal areas. The same is true for over half of the Philippines’ municipalities and 10 of its largest cities.

Glasser said that scientists have determined that, by 2040, at 2°C of warming, Southeast Asia’s per capita crop production may decline by one-third. Amplifying the food insecurity risks is the region’s reliance on fisheries. Indonesia obtains more than half of its animal protein from fish, while in the Philippines the figure is about 40%. Fish species are moving out of the region to escape warming waters, and the region’s coral reefs, the ‘nursery’ for roughly 10% of the world’s fish supply, are degrading rapidly.

The emerging regional impacts could overstretch Australia’s operational capacities—creating demands on the ADF to simultaneously support disaster relief within Australia and respond to regional security challenges, Glasser wrote:

The posture, training and capabilities of the ADF will need to change so that it can be part of Australia’s response to more frequent, higher impact regional natural disasters. Its capability set will also need to evolve to equip it to operate at greater scale and in places affected by large natural disasters.

After defending Australia, Defence planning sets the second strategic objective as the stability and security of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. ‘Realising that objective,’ Glasser judged, ‘is about to become much harder.’

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.