Handling the ‘pariah’ policy of climate change

By Verona Burgess

Wednesday March 13, 2019

Many agencies integrate disaster and climate “resilience” into their policies, programs and asset management. But that doesn’t mean Australia is any closer to deciding on let alone committing to a long-term policy for handling climate change, says Verona Burgess.

After Labor won the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd found the Australian Public Service cupboard looking decidedly bare when it came to producing strategic, evidence-based and innovative policies.

Now, as the Morrison government scrambles for the lifeboats, its own policy cupboard already appears nearly empty. Much of what is left is a political mess.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the “pariah” policy of climate change, whose ideology has taken such a toll on successive governments.

This was underlined on Tuesday when the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Guy Debelle, delivered a stinging speech to the Centre for Policy Development on the effects of climate change on the economy.

The coalition missed another chance on climate change last May when the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade references committee report, Implications of Climate Change for Australia’s National Security, was tabled.

Chaired by Labor’s Alex Gallacher, the inquiry navigated a cascade of evidence from submissions, witnesses and reports (including the US Department of Defense, the United Nations, the NATO group of 7, NASA and many more) that altogether identified climate change as “a current and existential national security risk”.

“…by November, Bill Shorten was describing climate change as no longer an emergency but a ‘disaster'”.

You might think the coalition, so keen on the politics of fear, would jump for joy, especially since the 2016 Defence white paper and 2017 Foreign Policy white paper had acknowledged climate security threats. But alas, if climate change, particularly anthropomorphic climate change, is “crap”, according to coalition hardliners, how can it be a security threat?

There was no dissenting report, but predictable additional comments: coalition senators saying the government was already doing enough, and the greens the opposite. Labor did not make additional comments. However, by November, Bill Shorten was describing climate change as no longer an emergency but a “disaster”.

The 11 recommendations lack the sense of urgency of the report itself. Nevertheless, they sketch a potential approach to policy, not least in recommending ongoing “adequate” funding for climate and science research, and a climate security white paper “or similar planning document” to guide a coordinated whole-of-government response to climate-change risks.

A lot of knowledge about climate security is already effectively hiding in plain sight inside the public service, and not always where you might imagine.

Many agencies are integrating disaster and climate “resilience”, as the euphemism goes, into policies, programs and asset management. The Department of the Environment and Energy hosts the Australian Government Disaster and Climate Resilience Reference Group that spans some 22 entities.

And the government has certainly shelled out funding for climate modelling, even though much more is evidently needed: $23.9 million over six years in the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub of the National Environmental Science Program; $37 million over 10 years for the CSIRO; $30 million over seven years for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes to research past and present climate extremes and build capacity to predict them; and $6.1 million over three years as part of the response to the Finkel review of the national electricity market.

Defence and Home Affairs are also both right up there in climate security, abetted by think tanks such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which told the inquiry Australian agencies should consider the potentially devastating climate change impacts on lives and property as a significant national security threat.

Defence does its own (classified) modelling, including into the effects of climate risks on the Defence estate. It also collaborates with other bodies, as then Air Vice Marshal Mel Hupfeld (now Air Marshal and Chief of Joint Operations) explained:

“We’re using simulation modelling and testing to assess the scenarios and the work to try and answer the questions that you’re asking…and we use the terms ‘most likely’ and ‘most dangerous’. ‘Most dangerous’ is 1½-to-two degrees. We’re still looking at three degrees; I think there’s more work to be done on that …. We actually put some of these scenarios in front of the secretaries of the departments to assess their response.”

We need hardly mention that PM&C secretary Martin Parkinson once headed the former Department of Climate Change. Or that climate security expert Sherri Goodman, who is a former US Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense (Environmental Security) where she oversaw an annual budget of $US5 billion, told the inquiry a rise of three degrees “would have national security consequences so severe that some nations would cease to exist and the viability of many others would be severely challenged.”

Emergency Management Australia, which leads federal planning for disasters and emergencies and is also involved in modelling, is now a division of Home Affairs. It manages, among others, the National Catastrophic Natural Disaster Plan.

Last April, the government announced Home Affairs would also host a National Resilience Taskforce, headed by the former director-general of EMA, Mark Crosweller (whose expert evidence is sprinkled throughout the Senate report.)

The taskforce would lead national reforms to reduce the impact and financial burden of disasters estimated to have cost the Australian economy on average more than $18 billion a year for the previous decade.
No mention of “climate security” or “existential risks”. The last National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, by the way, was adopted by the Council of Australian Governments back in 2011.

This week, a Home Affairs spokesperson said the taskforce had developed a National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework for government consideration (i.e. not a public document) and was finalising a report profiling Australia’s vulnerability, among other things.

It consulted widely and was working closely with government agencies including PM&C; Environment; Infrastructure; Industry; the CSIRO; the BOM; Geoscience Australia and the Infrastructure and Project Financing Agency.

Its work is due to wrap up in June. Not bad timing when you think about it.

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