Defending Australia from disasters
2 Jun 2023|

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns, once again, that climate-change impacts—hazards such as bushfires, drought and flooding—are becoming more frequent and more intense, damaging nature, people and infrastructure. Yet measures to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to these climate-fuelled hazards are coming far too slow.

Looking at the Australian government’s 2023–24 budget and the midterm review of progress under the internationally agreed Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, it’s fair to wonder whether we have given up on protecting Australia from the impacts of climate change. Are we satisfied that all we can hope for is more efficient recovery from disasters?

Even if greenhouse-gas emissions stop tomorrow, the impacts of climate change will continue to increase due to past emissions. Under a relatively optimistic low-emissions scenario, the cost of natural disasters in Australia is estimated to grow to $73 billion per year by 2060.

With every new bushfire and flood, Australia is spending more on disaster recovery. Now, we need to learn how to prepare for—and not just recover from—natural disasters.

We urgently need transformational solutions that stop disasters in their tracks. Such solutions would prevent deaths and destruction, protect biodiversity and improve air quality. They would also vastly reduce the costs of disaster management.

Last month, the UN General Assembly held a high-level meeting on the midterm review of the Sendai Framework. The framework is driving a shift from managing disasters after they occur to proactively understanding and managing disaster risks. It is the global blueprint for building the world’s resilience to disasters, aiming to substantially reduce global disaster mortality by 2030. And it’s the framework that guides Australia’s approach to disaster risk reduction.

The review found that considerable progress has been made at a global scale. Governments and stakeholders now have a better understanding of the risks with which they are confronted, putting them in a better position to reduce or manage those risks.

Nevertheless, the scale and intensity of disasters continues to increase, with more people affected by disasters in the past nine years than in the nine before that. The review found that, despite increases in the direct and indirect economic impacts of disasters, investments in reducing the risk of disaster remain inadequate.

At the opening of the review, the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mami Mizutori, warned: ‘We cannot choose a path of timidity, maintaining business as usual. To do so presents us with threats that not only jeopardise sustainable development, but also our very existence.’

She reminded us: ‘The science is clear. It is less costly to take action before a disaster devastates than to wait until destruction is done and respond after it has happened.’

Yet, in Australia, 98% of the $24.5 billion in federal funding spent on disasters between 2005 and 2022 went towards recovery and relief rather than building resilience.

Australia’s financial services regulator, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, says that the country must spend $3.5 billion each year to limit the damage from climate-related natural hazards. Responding to bushfires, storms and cyclones after the fact is likely to cost 11 times more.

Last year, nearly 70% of Australians were affected by storms, floods, cyclones and bushfires. The Australian government is taking notice—investing in risk reduction and coordination of all-hazard preparedness, response and recovery.

The 2023–24 budget delivers investments in emergency management, building on last year’s establishment of the National Emergency Management Agency and the $1 billion Disaster Ready Fund. The funding will go towards better emergency readiness, communication and supplies, as well as a framework for mental health care and improved wellbeing following a disaster.

These investments are important,. We will have more and worse disasters and we need to make sure that we can keep people safe. Yet, these are incremental approaches and they won’t keep up with the spiralling increase in disasters caused by climate change. Warning people about a disaster so that they can get out of the way saves lives but doesn’t prevent major damage and loss. It is not sustainable and the government cannot expect people to continue like this.

More than a year after the Lismore floods, many people still can’t return to their houses. Many who have returned don’t have electricity or water, and they still have many repairs to make. Two and a half years after the 2019 bushfire in Mallacoota, just 15 of the 120 homes that were destroyed have been rebuilt, leaving many of the town’s residents without a place to live. It is only going to get worse.

Disasters have lasting environmental as well as human impacts. The Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20 incinerated 17 million hectares of land—an area roughly the size of Belgium—killed or displaced at least 3 billion animals, doubled the country’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions and seriously damaged the ozone layer. Warning people about fires may save their lives, but it does nothing to address the devastating environmental impacts.

Australians need to take a step back and look at prioritising our nation’s research, expenditure and response. Policies should aim to prevent disasters where possible and reduce their intensity when they are inevitable. Research programs like the Australian National University’s Cyclone Intervention Initiative and the ANU–Optus Bushfire Research Centre of Excellence show that transformational solutions to disasters can be developed in our own backyard.

Technology that can prevent and minimise the risk of disasters is achievable, but it needs to be treated, and funded, for what it really is—defending Australia. People are fighting for their lives and homes right now. Why is it that Australia has the strategic foresight to commit $368 billion to acquiring submarines to be delivered in the 2050s but not to commit more than $1 billion over five years for disaster prevention?

Governments supported the development of the Covid-19 vaccine in record time. This was facilitated through a sense of urgency spurring strong public–private partnerships. Australia’s next budget should bring that same urgency to addressing climate-fuelled disasters and support for large, collaborative research missions to develop these technologies quickly. That will take us further down the path of contributing to achieving the goals of the Sendai Framework and truly building the world’s resilience to disasters.