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Op-ed: We need to talk about Australia's "UnNatural disasters"

27 April 2022
In this op-ed, Rosemary Lyster, Professor of Climate and Environmental Law calls for greater accountability for unnatural disasters.

We must stop talking about Australia’s ‘natural disasters’ and start talking about our ‘UnNatural’ disasters. Natural disasters ignores the fact that our flood and bushfire disasters have been fuelled by human-induced climate change. Calling these disasters natural disasters lets governments off the hook, and has the dangerous effect of lulling the community into thinking there’s an inevitability about them. This is not true.

As the ‘Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters’ report from the World Bank states, most disasters are really UnNatural. They occur when governments, the market and social institutions fail to work well together. To work well, interventions are needed across the three intersecting components of a disaster – the hazards (extreme weather events), vulnerability and exposure.

My research focuses on all stages of the disaster cycle – prevention, response, recovery, and compensation. Despite the hundreds of government inquiries including the 2020 Royal Commission in National Natural Disaster Arrangements, Australian governments have a terrible track record of policies for disaster prevention, preparedness and response.

The Royal Commission recommended that the Federal government adopt ‘big country thinking’ and ‘a national response’, and called on the Prime Minister to give his attention to ‘national strategic leadership’. The most recent floods will cost $6 billion over four years, while a 2021 report estimates disasters will cost Australia $73 billion per year by 2060 and $94 billion a year where emissions are high - with climate change contributing 31% to floods. Yet, I’m struggling to find a truly integrated ‘national response’ from the Prime Minister and the National Recovery and Resilience Agency.

We now live in an era of rapid climate disruption and disasters are coming thick and fast. Governments cannot wave a magic wand to make these disappear, but they could take urgent action to prevent disasters becoming worse. The Australian Security Leaders Climate Group recently reminded the Australian government that its first duty is to protect people from climate risks, and to discharge this duty Australia should be a leader not a laggard in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that ‘the extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger’ than previously estimated. Yet Australian governments continue to make an outsized contribution to climate change by failing to adopt science-based emissions targets at home and by exporting emissions abroad by approving fossil fuel projects that are literally having an impact on planetary climate stability. In 2019–20, Australia was the world’s largest exporter of metallurgical coal and the second largest exporter of thermal coal. The Green Future Index 2022 ranks Australia 52nd in the world, just behind Saudi Arabia, for being a ‘climate laggard’. And now the Federal government is spending $100.2 million to fast track more coal and gas projects, labelling this environmental ‘reform’.

If Australia is making an outsized global contribution to a swathe of new unnatural disasters then one would think that the least it could do would be to have world-class policies reducing disaster risk at home. After all the Australian government is legally bound by the Paris Agreement, and has made pledges under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, to engage in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction (DRR).

The National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy 2021- 2025 contains broad statements such as relying on ‘shared responsibility, partnerships and investment’. Highlighting the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan as an example of Federal government resilience building raises a quizzical eyebrow given the critical condition of the Reef. The National Disaster Risk Reduction Strategy 2018 and 2020 First National Action Plan say all the right things but when they will be implemented? Funding for DRR, including flood infrastructure solutions, is also woefully inadequate.

The Preparing Australia Program provides only $600 million over six years from 2021-2027 and the National Flood Mitigation Infrastructure Program delivered only $100 million in 2020-2022. Given that 1 million homes could be at risk of flooding by 2030, these figures are paltry - especially considering the Federal government $660 million spend on car parks, to shore up their electoral fortunes, was not merit based. This raises serious questions about where the government’s funding priorities lie and the integrity of government expenditure. Do we now need an audit of which communities have been awarded funding for DRR and why?

Turning to the response phase, although it is now easier under new laws for the Prime Minister to declare a national emergency and call in the ADF, Federal governance of the flood response was too slow. There is still no national warning system. In Lismore, people were told to return home only for the evacuation alert to be reinstated 10 hours later. There are claims that between Resilience NSW and the SES someone ‘dropped the ball’ as citizens were forced to rescue stranded residents and pay for private helicopters.

Moving to recovery, in 2012 the Productivity Commission said that land use planning is ‘the most potent policy lever for influencing the level of future disaster risk’. Yet the NSW Planning Minister has just abandoned planning principles to manage climate risk citing developer costs and the need for new affordable housing supply. The Commission also called for an independent public inquiry into existing settlements ‘to assess the community’s acceptable levels of risk for public and private assets.’ This never happened so a decade later questions about rebuilding in flood prone land, relocations and buybacks remain unresolved. Meanwhile, research has revealed that local councils are ‘underfunded and undermined’ in their resilience-building efforts.

This brings us to compensation where the curious notion of ‘moral hazard’ suggests that if government and insurers foot the post-disaster bill, individuals will take no responsibility to minimise their exposure to disaster. Government compensation is shockingly inadequate and there’ve been concerns about the Prime Minister’s politicisation of flood relief funding. Insurers have tried to signal the risk by increasing premiums in flood prone areas but then insurance becomes unaffordable. So the market fails as well. Prime Minister Julia Gillard established a $50 million National Insurance Affordability Council after the 2010-11 Queensland floods. This was abolished by her successor Tony Abbott – another wasted decade of important policy work. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has a 25 year public/private re-insurance partnership for catastrophic floods.

As I said, ‘UnNatural’ flood disasters occur when governments, the market and social institutions fail to work well together. In these most recent floods it seems that only the social institutions – individuals, community groups and charities – functioned as they should while governments went missing.


Rosemary Lyster is the Professor of Climate and Environmental Law in the University of Sydney Law School and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law. Rosemary’s special area of research expertise is Climate Justice and Disaster Law.

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