By Kalinga Seneviratne
Australia’s new Labour Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, has been criticised on Twitter and some media for secretly making a trip to Ukraine to meet Vladimir Zelensky and pledge $100 million of military aid. At the same time, thousands of families across Australia were being evacuated from rising flood waters, with emergency services seemingly underfunded. Some families have evacuated their homes for the second or third time this year.
“Australia is under-prepared. Only a small fraction of disaster spending is committed to preparedness and resilience building. We would expect to see a big shift in this ratio to see a much bigger focus on preparedness given the escalating risk of climate-fuelled disasters,” argues Greg Mullins, leader of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) group in a statement released on July 4 by the Climate Council, Australia’s leading community-funded climate change communications organisation.
“There is absolutely no doubt extreme weather events are being intensified because of climate change. The science is very clear that we’re seeing wild fluctuations between periods of flood and fire because of warming. In the last 18 months, we’ve had four major floods on the east coast of Australia. Our thoughts are with everyone affected by this flooding, particularly those who are going through it for the second or third time this year,” he pointed out, adding, “unfortunately, communities have less time to recover between events and they’re coming hard and fast”.
In March this year, while declaring a national emergency during major flooding on the east coast of Australia (the same areas that are being evacuated currently) the then Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded that climatic change is making Australia a much more difficult place to live.
Yet, as Climate Council points out, nothing much has been done to mitigate this, even though there were 80 recommendations in the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements report that was presented to the government in October 2020 and the Climate Council has also presented a six-point plan for preparedness, response and management of such disasters.
Among the recommendations of the Royal Commission was an enhanced capability for Australian Defense Forced (ADF) to provide quick response and assistance to communities that are impacted by such natural disasters as floods and bush fires. It also recommended identifying critical infrastructure development to protect communities from such events as flooding.
In its six-point plan, the Climate Council also recommended the increased use of the ADF in responding quickly to such “climatic change-induced” disasters and even suggested creating a new disaster response force to reduce dependency on the ADF. They pointed out that the Australian government need to provide additional ongoing funding to both state and territory governments to increase the size and capabilities of both volunteer and career emergency services.
In an interview with local radio station 2GB, Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor accused the Australian Prime Minister of being more concerned with his reputation on the global stage than the thousands of Australians currently struggling in the flood crisis. He pointed out that it took the PM 48 hours to pick up a phone and call the NSW State Premier to inquire about the flooding. Taylor’s criticisms came after Albanese visited war-ravaged Ukraine to see the damage for himself.
In a Twitter message, Albanese said, “my visit to Ukraine sends a clear message that democratic nations like Australia will stand with the Ukrainian people in their time of need”. PM’s office said Albanese could not contact people back home because of a media blackout over his secret visit, which was made by a train journey across from Poland.
Opposition National Party leader David Littleproud slammed the PM for his 48-hour silence in a media interview. “There’s a difference between a media blackout and whether you can pick a phone up and whether that puts you in harm’s way,” argues Littleproud. “Let’s understand, the (Australian flood) victims have to be the core of this.”
The 6th assessment report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation released in February this year warned that Australia is facing real risk from climate change, with impacts worsening, future risks high, and wide-ranging adaptation needed.
“Australia lost a critical decade of preparation under a former federal government that repeatedly failed to heed the advice of scientists and experts. We are now in a position where we’re ill-equipped to get ahead of disasters and nowhere near where we should be to address the climate crisis,” argues Mullins.
“The past disasters were fewer and further between and a lot more predictable. We often hear politicians refer to ‘natural disasters. There is nothing natural about what we’re going through now, and perhaps it’s time for us to be instead calling them unnatural disasters”, he said in an opinion piece published by The Guardian this week.
In recent years, Australia has created a government agency for recovery and resilience, a disaster risk reduction framework and national adaptation guidance. States and territories have introduced climate adaptation strategies, with some evidence of implementation. Local governments, regions, communities and associated alliances are becoming more active in adaptation.
“We will all have to learn to live with this, and this means adapting, preparing communities to be on the front foot, and having a much better-resourced emergency sector ready to respond and help communities recover” (Mullins).