Monday, April 21, 2008

Climate-proofing the cities

While I have posted at length on adaptation policies for dealing with climate change impacts on agriculture and biodiversity resources (also here) I have said nothing about the cities where most Australians live. Indeed COAG have recently moved to establish a Climate Change Adaptation Framework which includes in its brief analysis of these issues. Climate change impacts on cities and urban areas are the subject of this informative Age article by Peter Fisher.

Cities and urban areas are subject to (i) potentially huge damage from both long-term impacts of climate change (increased temperatures, water shortages, rising sea levels) that might ‘creep up’ on inhabitants and (ii) from increasing climatic variability that can produce impacts such as severe heat waves, storms, floods, bushfires and high winds that hit with unexpected, sudden fury.

Melbourne was battered by severe winds only a few weeks ago and two people died. The prospect is that these types of catastrophic events may become nmore frequent and more intense.

Governments need to introduce policies that will facilitate adaptation to such problems and to promote adaptive responses by the private sector.

A primary concern is that citizens do not choose unsafe locations to reside. Houses built in low-lying areas that are subject to flood or houses in waterfront locations or locations where exposure to high winds and bushfires is a problem that can be partly addressed by government zoning regulation and partly by private insurance markets. Where services such as fire protection are now borne by the community some attempt should be made to shift extra costs towards those living in vulnerable areas to foster private incentives to more sensibly make residential choices.

Builders should face market and regulatory incentives to protect the residents of homes from climatic extremes such as heat stress (which killed thousands of elderly people in the Paris heat wave of August 2003) and to foster use if materials to protect against things such as large hail damage. In addition incentives for facilitating retrofit programs are needed to guard against heat stress, retain run-off from heavy rain and direct high winds away from high population areas.

Victoria needs to plan for potentially catastrophic events such as the destruction of the Thomson water catchment by bushfire, damage to desalination facilities by sea level changes or even the prospect of being hit by a cyclone. This isn’t science fiction – it is simply recognising that the environment is a variable that will increasingly come to pressure our lives.

I've just started thinking about these issues so these comments are provisional. Comments welcome.


Spiros said...

Very sensible Harry, though a cyclone in Victoria?

It's not easy however to make people responsible for their locational choices. The Byron council in the NSW north coast has a policy that it won't stop houses that are built right on the water's edge from falling into the sea as the edge becomes increasingly eroded. So if people build or buy there, that's their problem (or their insurer's problem).

Needless to say the council is being threatened with a mountain of legal action. Because the houses are owned by the super rich (entry level price is $5 million) this is a credible threat.

People expect the government to fix things, and to bail them out personally, including bailing them out of their own stupid decisions.

hc said...

Spiros, I don't know about cyclones. The author of The Age article claims they are heading further south. Of course the standard argument works - even if they are very low probability events their costs would be huge so if there is even a remote chance take action.

I agree with your other comments. Its tough to get people to take care of their own interests. But making a gesture is worthwhile.

conrad said...

I'll be interested in hearing how one can actually plan for these types of events -- the Thomson Dam example is a really good one that I've never heard mentioned before. Perhaps I should go and buy a water tank in case.

Incidentally, I always wonder to what extent that these are really economics problems. It seems to me that trying to understand them properly also gets into others like philosophy and psychology.