Victoria’s Climate Adaptation Plan: The Devil is in the Appendix

By Michael Green

Michael Green lifts the lid on the Victorian government’s ‘good news’ approach to climate change. ‘Gradual changes in temperature potentially enable industries to transition and develop,’ says the new Climate Adaptation Plan. But studies show that climate change comes in abrupt steps, not a gradual shift. And that spells disaster … which you’ll know if you look for the fine print in the appendix to the plan.

Here it is at last, the good news climate story we’ve been waiting for: the synthetic turf industry is about to boom – a happy consequence of our inability to grow grass.

So says the Victorian government’s Climate Adaptation Plan, released last month. Sweet reprieve! Providence still smiles upon the (artificial) garden state!

Chris Simpson, from TigerTurf in Campbellfield, confirms the speculation: yes, he anticipates bumper growth in a hotter, drier future. ‘I would expect the industry will more than double each ten years from here on,’ he says. In Victoria now, there are about 250 people working with synthetic grass at least one day per week, he estimates. Out of town, farmers could benefit too, the government says. Where it no longer rains, those lucky landowners can take advantage of the opportunity to ‘switch to different enterprises or production systems’. Drought and dust bowl? Bah! Salad days!

Artificial turf: an industry set to boom when we can no longer grow grass.

Artificial turf: an industry set to boom when we can no longer grow grass.

The adaptation plan is a long document. Prudently, the government emphasises the ‘new opportunities’ right up front. The risks? ‘Further details of the risks are provided in Appendix 1.’ Way back there, if you make it, you’ll find eight pages of frightening, cascading consequences: buckling train tracks, flooding of ports, algal blooms, water-borne illnesses, sewer failure, destruction of businesses’ assets, more pests and diseases in agriculture and fisheries, less farm output and income, pressure on ecosystems and threatened species, and more injuries, deaths and mental illness from bushfires, floods and heat waves. All health risks disproportionately afflict the vulnerable among us.

Never mind that. Our leaders will manifest a productive climate future by way of positive messaging: ‘In particular,’ the plan says, ‘gradual changes in temperature potentially enable industries to transition and develop’.

Climate change happens in ‘abrupt’ steps, not gradually

On 30 November last year, only weeks before the legislated deadline for the adaptation plan, Professor Roger Jones and his colleagues held a workshop at Victoria University, in Melbourne. It was called ‘Beyond the mean: valuing adaptation under rapid change’.

Jones is a climate scientist at the university – he used to work at CSIRO, and is a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report, due in October. His work challenges the idea that we face only gradual changes in temperature. Years ago, while studying the climate history of the crater lakes in Western Victoria, he found something puzzling. ‘The only way I could get the model to fit the history was to switch climate – to make the climate changes instantaneous. If I changed it gradually it wouldn’t work,’ he says.

He researched past climate data from elsewhere around the world, and found similar ‘abrupt changes’.

Then, during the worst of the recent drought, he began analysing temperature and rainfall across south-eastern Australia. After adjusting for natural variability, the temperature set showed a jump in 1997: ‘It took this step change,’ Jones explains. Sea-surface temperatures and ocean heat content, too, tracked ‘like a staircase’.

’Only policy can prepare for extremes’

A paper he published last year shows that most of Australia’s warming is anthropogenic and occurred in two blips, one around the late 1960s to early 1970s, and the other around 1997 and 1998.

‘I’ve come to the conclusion that in climate modelling, smooth lines of best fit are an approximation,’ he says.

‘They’re a good way to describe how the climate will change over a century or so. If you’re interested in shorter time scales you need to look at the variation – and the variation is not random.’

Here’s an example: at Laverton, west of Melbourne, before 1997 there were an average of 8 days per year above 35 degrees. Since then, the average has been 12. ‘Fire danger in Victoria over the same period has gone up by about 30 to 40 per cent,’ Jones says.

The working paper for the ‘Beyond the mean’ workshop, co-written by Jones, directly contested the narrative of ‘gradualism’.

Step-changes, it concluded, ‘will produce clusters of extreme events… that are more frequent and larger than the statistics of gradual change would suggest’. In this scenario, the consequences and costs of climate change look very different: ‘extreme events can cause knock-on effects through several systems, leading to system failure and disaster.’

Given a jolting climate, adaptation is a matter of urgency, says Jones. ‘If the consequences are unknown, but you tell yourself change is gradual, then it’s okay – it makes it psychologically remote. Whereas, if it can change quickly and you need to respond, the threat is much closer.’ Most of the attendees were policy-makers, both state and federal. They discussed the other corollary of a step-changing climate: adaptation must be led by policy, not left to the market. Only policy can prepare for extremes, Jones says.

‘If those increases ratchet above our critical thresholds, things change very quickly. If you have a sudden shift in heat waves, with a more exposed or growing population, the number of heat stress cases can jump significantly.’

‘You find what we had in the summer of 2009 – our capacity to handle the sick or the dying gets stretched to the point where we’re putting bodies in freezers.’

Climate Change Adaptation Plan not tied to budget

In its final months in office, the Brumby government passed the Climate Change Act 2010. It set a target for the state to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020 (from 2000 levels) and required government to take emissions and climate impacts into account when making various decisions. It also required a climate change adaptation plan be produced every four years. Before long, the new Liberal government ordered a review of the act; based on the recommendations; it scrapped the emissions target, but kept the adaptation plan.

After delaying as long as possible, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Ryan Smith, finally released the plan in mid-March. The headline announcement was a reframed agreement with the state’s 79 local councils, called the Victorian Adaptation and Sustainability Partnership. It carries the only new funding on offer: $6 million. Two days earlier, Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen had crossed the line in the Melbourne Grand Prix, a big carbon-burnout subsidised by $57 million.

I spoke to Professor Barbara Norman, chair of urban and regional planning at University of Canberra, both before and after the plan came out. Beforehand, she explained that unless planning documents are tied to budget, nothing happens. Afterwards, she noted that this plan wasn’t tied to budget.

The $6 million? ‘It’s going to require a lot more money than that.’

Even so, Norman praises its regional approach, its delineation of the roles of different tiers of government and its recognition of adverse health impacts. But besides the lack of money, she says, there other gaps between the rubber and the road.

The biggest: there’s no obligation to consider the climate change impacts of planning decisions. ‘There are a number of acts listed where they must have regard to climate change,’ Norman explains, ‘but notably, the one missing is the Planning and Environment Act 1987.’

‘This plan should also bind state government on major infrastructure developments – they must be required to demonstrate the impact in terms of climate adaptation, energy efficiency and water-sensitive urban design,’ she says.

Many submissions to the review of the Climate Change Act argued the same thing: planning, infrastructure and transport decisions must be subject to climate considerations. But to no avail: the review noted that additional obligations ‘may impose further costs on decision makers and affected parties’. The next review will be held in 2015 – by which time billions of dollars may have been buried in the East-West Tunnel.

Smith, the environment minister, was not available to be interviewed for this article. His spokesperson said the planning system ‘already takes climate change into account in many ways’, such as zones and overlays.

But we already have evidence that the system isn’t doing enough. There’s an easy way to tell: the price of insurance has gone through the roof.

Rocketing insurance costs tell of real risks

In February, the Age reported that a resident in South Caulfield had been denied insurance because of the risk of inundation and that some residents in Frankston had been asked to pay at least $5000 more for flood cover.

Throughout March and early April, the Municipal Association of Victoria has been consulting its regions: the cost of flood insurance has been a flashpoint in several meetings. ‘People are finding either they can’t get insurance or they’re facing massive premium increases,’ says Bill McArthur, the association’s president and a councillor from Golden Plains shire, north west of Geelong.

Karl Sullivan, the risk and disaster manager at the Insurance Council of Australia, agrees: ‘In some regions we’ve seen some classes of insurance go up by 30 per cent or more in a year.’ This issue – the availability and affordability of insurance under climate change – is being examined by a Senate inquiry into our preparedness for extreme weather. (It will report in June.)

But in its submission, the Insurance Council said the current price hikes aren’t yet due to changing climate extremes. Largely, they are due to bad planning: most of the properties flooded in Queensland and Victoria in 2011 were located in high-risk zones on flood maps.

Building ‘the wrong homes in the wrong places’

To limit the financial risk of a big disaster, insurance companies buy their own insurance from huge global ‘re-insurers’. Until recently, those rates have been low. Not anymore, Sullivan says. ‘The rest of the world has woken up and said, “Australia has a systemic problem – they’re building more expensively in more hazardous locations in a more brittle way”.’

The Insurance Council argues for a national agreement on land use planning, together with better risk protection – levies or firebreaks, for example – and minimum durability standards for buildings.

Suncorp, the largest general insurance group in the country, was even more blunt: ‘As a basic concept, new homes and infrastructure should not be built in areas of high risk.’

‘For some reason,’ Sullivan says, ‘we lost our collective minds at some point, and started building these things in flood plains, on the ground.’

In other words, even now our planning system is allowing us to build the wrong homes in the wrong places. The extremes of climate change, abrupt and unexpected, only worsen our vulnerability.

Victorian government committed to ‘maximising the opportunities’ for brown coal

Aside from the missing links to planning, infrastructure and budget, and beyond the distorted emphasis on the ‘opportunities’ of climate change, there’s another reason it’s hard to believe the adaptation plan will beget action.

In the coming months, the state government will make an announcement about a tender for new brown coal allocations in the Latrobe Valley. In December, then Minister for Energy and Resources, Michael O’Brien, said the state had one of ‘the world’s great brown coal deposits’ and that the government was ‘committed to maximising the opportunities’ to develop it.

Victoria has one of 'the world's great brown coal deposits'; the government is 'committed to maximising the opportunities' to develop it.

Victoria has one of 'the world's great brown coal deposits'; the government is 'committed to maximising the opportunities' to develop it.

Last year, the International Energy Agency said the world must leave two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground, if we want a 50-50 chance of keeping global warming to 2 degrees. Other analysts say four-fifths must go untouched.

Mitigating global warming and adapting to it are inseparable: if we don’t reduce emissions, the World Bank warned recently, ‘there is no certainty that adaptation… is possible’.

Yet the adaptation plan makes only one passing reference to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Greenhouse gas reduction is ‘addressed primarily through the national carbon pricing mechanism’. That’s the same mechanism the federal Liberal party has promised to repeal, if it wins the election in September.

The thing about a step-change in climate is that we don’t know when it will shift. This year our record-breaking Angry Summer continued into mad March, in which Melbourne had nine days over 32 degrees. Then the old premier lost his job.

In Denis Napthine’s ministerial reshuffle, Nick Kotsiras took over the energy portfolio. The government has said that in deciding to allocate the brown coal, it ‘will be guided by the potential to secure long-term economic development, investment and employment benefits’.

Before he makes up his mind, the new minister would do well to refer to Appendix 1.

Portrait of Michael Green

Michael Green is a journalist in Melbourne. He has written about environmental and social issues for the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Nature, Nautilus, Smith Journal, Right Now and Overland, among others. He is the coordinator of Behind the Wire, and has been working on a book of people’s stories from detention called They Cannot Take the Sky, which will be published in March 2017 by Allen & Unwin. He is also producing an exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum based on the stories in the book, which will open on 17 March 2017.