Re-examining residential risk as climate change intensifies

While stories about the stoic community response to the devastating Queensland and New South Wales floods might be inspiring, according to University of Adelaide researcher in geography, environment and population, Associate Professor Douglas Bardsley, the reality of global warming requires that we confront the human and economic costs head-on.

“The notion of the once in 100-year flood or fire has to be seriously questioned in a rapidly changing climate,” Associate Professor Bardsley says.

“We have an expansion of tropical conditions in northern Australia, more frequent monsoonal air flows, warmer ocean currents and a greater chance of heavy rain being held in place by blocking high pressure cells.

“We can expect more flood-producing weather systems more frequently, just as we can expect hotter and drier summers in the south of the country and more ferocious bushfires.”

“Climate change will alter much of what we consider ‘normal’, so we need to re-examine how society interacts with the environment, not only in relation to how often we will experience severe flooding or bushfires, but how we engage with environmental risk in general.” Associate Professor Doug Bardsley.

Associate Professor Bardsley, member of the Environment Institute says the recent floods and the 2019 fires should be seen as important triggers for action and innovation, so that the real risks of climate change are communicated clearly, and communities can make more informed contributions to future planning.

“We have been ingenious in the way we have managed modern urban development – by building dams, altering catchments, and diverting waterflows, but in doing so we have created new risks because more and more communities are exposed to environmental hazards when the flood mitigation measures are insufficient or fail,” he says.

“Residents and planners have relied on the conventional odds, truisms that may have been accurate in the 1970s and 1980s when there was far less development in flood prone regions.

“Climate change will alter much of what we consider ‘normal’, so we need to re-examine how society interacts with the environment, not only in relation to how often we will experience severe flooding or bushfires, but how we engage with environmental risk in general.”

He says the current model for managing these risks with its heavy reliance on insurers to fund community recovery, is not adequately helping the people experiencing floods or fires.

Associate Professor Bardsley says all levels of government, and individuals themselves, can’t keep putting off the tough questions around what kinds of development will be safe and sustainable as the climate continues to change.

“The urban planning risks tied to floods, fires and coastal inundation are all in flux as the impacts of climate change become more intense,” he says.

“The options presented by planned retreat from vulnerable locations can be politically explosive and expensive, but the alternative will mean more of what we have seen in Queensland and NSW in the past fortnight.”

Early estimates on insurance claims for loss and damage from the recent flood events are more than $1 billion and as state and federal governments reveal disaster assistance packages, millions more will be spent on relief and recovery.

“The question is not just economic, but also how do communities cope with the human toll – loss of lives and the mental health consequences of fire, flood and rising seas. We need to deliberate on environmental risk in a more open manner to develop collective solutions,” Associate Professor Bardsley says.

He says there are best practice examples from around the world, where communities are grappling with the need to adapt to climate change and new ideas of ‘normal’ environments, to retreat from the impacts of risk.

“Venice has evacuated the ground floor level of many buildings as flooding has shifted from being an occasional event to an expected norm, and state governments here are investigating opportunities to support buy-back schemes of properties deemed to be in vulnerable areas. But that process is very expensive and will require a new type of political dialogue about risk,” he says.

“Only by engaging with communities, laying out the new facts about what we can expect as the climate changes, can people make better decisions about where they live and how they will manage risk.

“Governments will need to be supported to be brave enough to lead communities towards a sustainable future rather than one where we are regularly dealing with failures in planning and preparedness.”

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