Thursday, August 8, 2013

Extreme weather likely to increase and intensify, Senate report finds

Peter Hannam, Carbon economy editor   
The Age, August 7, 2013 

Note: A second Senate Inquiry Report, Effectiveness of threatened species and ecological communities' protection in Australia has also been released

The extreme weather events that have hit Australia in recent years are likely to increase in frequency and potentially intensify in the future as a result of climate change, a Senate inquiry has found.

The inquiry, Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events, recommended increased co-ordination across governments and many sectors of society to prepare for and limit the impact of such events.

The Senate committee report also called for "credible and reliable flood mapping" to assist landowners of potential risks and to better inform land-use planning laws.

The report will likely be welcomed by the insurance industry in particular, which had been calling for many of the changes it recommends. These include toughening building codes to "account for foreseeable risks", and removing disincentives for taking up insurance, such as state taxes.

The cost of so-called catastrophe claims from floods, cyclones, bush fires and other such events was $8.8 billion in the three years to March 2013, according to the Insurance Council of Australia. The sum included $5.4 billion in 2011 alone.

"These events are becoming more expensive," the ICA spokesman said. "The driver of this is that more and bigger homes are being built in disaster-prone areas, such as flood plains." "Much of [the cost] could have been avoided if the damaged properties had been built to be resilient to the risks."

Hot times
Some of the report's submissions were made in the first weeks of 2013, the country's hottest period on record. January, for instance, broke records for the hottest average maximum temperature nationwide, the hottest single month on record, and was part of Australia's hottest summer.

The report's release Wednesday also comes after the US released its State of the Climate report for 2012, which found last year to be the eighth or ninth hottest in data series going back to 1850. It noted many other signals of a warming planet, including record low Arctic ice cover and the 22nd consecutive year of shrinking glacier mass.

The Greens jumped on the Senate committee's findings, saying it was time Labor and the Coalition acknowledged Australia "is unprepared for a significant increase in natural disasters as a result of climate change".

"It's time Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott stopped treating natural disasters as one-off events," Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne said. "Australia needs to prepare for a permanent state of extreme weather."

The Greens have proposed lifting annual spending mitigation efforts to prepare for floods, droughts and other extreme events seven-fold to $350 million, with the plan to be funded by a $2-per-tonne levy on exports of coal burnt in power stations.

"We will obviously consider an extensive report carefully," said Greg Hunt, the Coalition's spokesman for climate change.

Mr Hunt singled out the inquiry's recommendations that the government work closely with the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology to step up research into early warning of extreme events and also the links between weather events and climate trends.

"I have a deep respect for and belief in the work of both the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO," Mr Hunt said. "We therefore strongly support continued and extended research by both into climatic trends, weather events and climate change."

Fairfax Media has sought a response from Mark Butler, the Minister for Climate Change. 

Insurer support
The report found that Australia's exposure to extreme events is increasing not just from climate change but also because of the spread of population and investments into vulnerable areas.

The attention to those threats has been welcomed by insurers.

"Today's report is another voice that strongly says we need a comprehensive and more sustainable approach to managing natural disasters in Australia to keep people safe," said Mike Wilkins, chief executive of IAG, one of Australia's biggest insurers.

"Every Australian is impacted by natural disasters and extreme weather," Mr Wilkins said. "Whether it be through personal devastation in losing loved ones or property, whether it be through billions of their taxpayer dollars spent on recovery, the creation of special flood levies, or through higher insurance premiums, we all pay the price when we fail to make where we live as safe as possible."

Beyond science
Mark Stafford Smith, from CSIRO's Climate Adaptation Flagship, said the strongest signals of climate change affecting Australia included hotter temperatures and rising sea levels.

Heat records for maximums, for instance, were falling at three times the rate for those involving cold temperatures over the past decade or so. New minimum temperature records were five times as likely to be for warmth as for cold conditions.

"If nothing was happening, you'd expect them to be roughly equal," Dr Stafford Smith said.

Rising temperatures were also contributing to ''a significant increase'' in bushfire danger, he said.

While other signals were less clear, such as the frequency of heavy rainfall events, ''responsible managers'', including governments, would be looking to reduce risks and improve the resilience of infrastructure, he said. Political leaders and the wider community would have to make a call on the right balance, a tough challenge given that some of the science of climate change will remain uncertain.

"How much do we want to invest today for future generations as opposed to putting it into our own well-being?" Dr Stafford Smith said. ''That's a genuine societal value trade-off that no science can answer.''

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