It is week nine of the current bushfire crisis; almost 20 people are dead, over 1,000 homes have been lost, half a billion animals have been killed and a land area twice the size of Belgium has been burned. Countless lives have been affected and we know there is more to come.
The most important thing right now is to protect as much life and property as possible.
But looking beyond the immediate crisis, we need to start an honest discussion about something none of us want to admit – that these unprecedented, catastrophic fires may indeed mark the beginning of Australia’s new normal.
As the world and Australia fail to make meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that we are entering the next phase of climate change – that is, increasingly frequent and severe weather events, occurring in places that have never been affected before.
It’s a scary and confronting reality to reckon with; perhaps that’s why some of us find it easier to write off scientists and bushfire survivors speaking hard truths as part of a “climate cult”.
Thankfully, our emergency services have chosen not to shy away from the truth, preparing themselves for a horror summer while knowing that they did not have enough personnel, volunteers, equipment or funding to deal with the scale of the crisis.
Influential figures in our financial system have also confronted the issue head-on.
With worsening extreme weather events sending premiums soaring to the point that some regions are effectively uninsurable, the insurance industry is reviewing whether traditional insurance models can remain tenable.
Meanwhile, banks such as NAB are developing “resilience investment” products to assist local governments to build infrastructure such as emergency centres and seawalls. This is encouraging, given the scale of the work needed to ensure local food, energy, water, transportation and communications systems can withstand extreme and prolonged weather events and recover quickly with minimal external assistance.
But while some are facing the crisis, there has been a glaring lack of leadership from the federal government on a coordinated plan to support the growing numbers of families, business owners and communities affected by extreme weather.
The announcement by the prime minister of a new National Bushfire Recovery Agency and a $2bn package to assist those affected by the bushfire crisis is a step in the right direction. But focusing on relief for this crisis alone misses the bigger picture – this is not a one-off event. We can no longer afford to react to each emergency by drawing on national and state budgets in an ad hoc way. What will happen when the next cyclone hits? Or the next major flood event? And what about the worsening drought?
As increasing numbers of people become displaced from regions that are no longer inhabitable, there is an inescapable need for a systematic approach to not only disaster preparation and recovery, but also to building more climate-resilient regions. And to do this, we need much more than reactive measures from government that are propped up by generous donations from the public.
Without a doubt, adaptation will be expensive. But not as expensive as the cost of inaction.
Of course the billion-dollar question remains: where will the money come from?
An obvious place to start the search is at the doorstep of the industry that is the most responsible for climate change: the fossil fuel industry. It is unconscionable that as Australia burns, the taxpayer subsidises this industry to the tune of $1,728 per person per year.
What if instead we channelled the $41.8bn worth of fossil fuel subsidies into a transitions fund, to support not only disaster preparedness and relief, but also workers and communities to transition to new jobs and industries?
A second option is found in the Australia Institute’s calls for a national climate disaster fund to be established. The Australia Institute’s modelling shows that a levy of $1 per tonne of embodied emissions from all coal, oil and gas mined in Australia would raise approximately $1.5bn per year.
Both approaches would go a long way towards addressing the needs of the victims of this climate crisis, while also stopping it from getting worse in the future.
What is notable about both approaches is that they place the primary responsibility for funding recovery and adaptation efforts on our elected leaders and the public purse. This crucial process, which will determine our future safety and wellbeing, should not be left to private, debt-driven investment or market forces.
To be sure, there is a debate to be had about how much of the cost of climate resilience should be public versus privately funded. Getting the balance right is critical, but we already have existing models such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to turn to for inspiration.
But however we fund it, the one truth that cuts through the (literal) smoke and mirrors is the fact that we need careful, long-term planning and coordination to ensure that we invest in the systems we need to keep our people, planet and economies safe even as Australia is battered by worsening climate impacts.
If our government can show some leadership by listening to the experts and working with different industries to find a way forward, maybe we will come to see climate adaptation as less of a cost and more of an investment in a liveable future.