Climate change is not simply an environmental problem. A heating planet will affect the socio-economic fabric of communities across Australia and the world — including how we manage, respond to and pay for disasters.
In Australia, climate change has already breached our ability to successfully manage emergencies. The 2022 Lismore floods and the 2019–2020 Black Summer bushfires pushed under-resourced emergency management to breaking point. These life-threatening events will become more frequent and less manageable as climate change intensifies, with emergencies taking place in multiple locations simultaneously. Ignoring climate change is to set ourselves up for emergency failure.
Traditionally, philanthropy has focused on alleviating the impacts of extreme events once they’ve occurred. We desperately need to prevent and minimise extreme events by acting on climate change now.
In the coming decade, the world will invest trillions of dollars in new housing, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. Climate resilience and disaster risk reduction must be central to this investment.
— UN Secretary-General António Guterres
Relevant Sustainable Development Goals
Greater scale and magnitude
The sheer scale of Australian climate disasters has already overpowered the strength of our emergency services. The NSW parliamentary inquiry into the 2022 Lismore floods found State Emergency Services and related agencies were overwhelmed by and illprepared to respond to disasters of this magnitude. The inquiry found that the NSW Government “failed to comprehend the scale of the floods and treated the disaster response as a ‘nine to five’ business operation – when it was one of the greatest natural disasters in generations”.
Cascading, compounding disasters
The emergency management sector has long dealt with the impacts of extreme weather. However, the higher global temperatures rise, the worse extreme weather events are becoming. In fact, each degree of further warming is set to double the frequency of intense rainfall events globally. In Australia, what is currently considered a “one-in-100-year flood event” could happen “several times a year”.
The Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council states that climate change is an urgent, significant challenge for its members; “one that amplifies the physical, legal, transitional, social and environmental risks and obligations now and into the future”. The increased scale, intensity, longevity and frequency of climate-driven emergencies will put enormous strain on an already stretched emergency sector.
Growing economic costs
Australia’s disasters are expected to exceed $1.2 trillion in cumulative costs over the next 40 years. When disaster strikes, evacuations, temporary housing, food, water and deploying emergency services all cost money. The aftermath sees seismic clean-up costs, where people’s homes, schools and businesses need to be rebuilt, and public infrastructure like roads and hospitals repaired.
Who will foot the bill and how? The worst drought in living memory (2017 to 2019) caused $53 billion in economic losses for Australia. As climate change warms our oceans, coastal communities will bear the brunt of cost increases, as they weather more tropical cyclones and flooding.
In early 2023, the Kimberley region in Western Australia was reeling from ex-Tropical Cyclone Ellie and subsequent flooding. The clean-up is expected to take more than 12 months, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese telling Perth radio 6PR, “Quite clearly, there’s going to be massive infrastructure investment required.” The economic cost of climate change is simply not worth it.
What funders can do
- Support organisations that provide emergency housing and accommodation to prepare for responding to climate impacts like heatwaves and floods — for example, by providing emergency shelter at scale.
- Ensure disaster recovery funding considers climate projections, rather than re-builds based on past conditions, for example, are flood levies increased as rainfall patterns change, or bushfire zones mapped to future risks.
- Commission research into the outcomes of disaster response initiatives, making sure the scope includes considering climate change and the recommendations incorporate projected future climate impacts.
- Ensure that programs replacing white goods after disasters apply minimum energy efficiency ratings to reduce electricity costs as well as carbon emissions.
- Provide funding to low-income community representative organisations to conduct climate resilience planning and implementation so that the impacts of climate disasters are lessened.
- Ask organisations you already fund how climate change is affecting (or will affect) them and if they need support to adapt.