June 9, 2022

It’s a Disaster. How can we deliver on Disaster Risk Reduction & Resilience as climate change accelerates?

The climate is warming and whilst the new Government is indicating a drastic change of mood, is it too late to be talking Disaster Risk Reduction (and Resilience)? We ask the experts for their frank opinions on where Australia’s efforts should be at home and abroad when it comes to the climate crisis.

Dr Robert Glasser
Head of Climate and Security Policy Centre, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Frankly, it will be impossible to deliver on DRR - at least in terms of reducing current levels of disaster risk - if the climate warms by 1.5 degrees or more. This is now likely. Climate change is already rapidly amplifying natural hazards and undermining societal resilience. Significant further warming will overwhelm global efforts to reduce disaster risk. The single most urgent priority to “deliver on DRR” is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally as deeply and rapidly as possible.

But this disturbing reality doesn’t mean we should just give up on DRR. It may be impossible to reduce current levels of disaster risk in an environment of increasingly destructive climate-driven disasters, but we can still make marginal improvements that save lives and reduce economic losses. And as disasters become more frequent, governments will be under increasing political pressure to reduce the risks in ways that today seem politically impossible. This will include coordinating ‘managed retreats’ from areas of increasingly chronic crisis, shifting the focus from rebuilding after disasters to buying out properties in highly exposed locations, and subsidising relocations and land swaps.

Ultimately, in this worsening environment, the key DRR objective of ensuring that all social and economic planning and investments incorporate climate and disaster risk is likely to be realised. But that will only be an accomplishment worth celebrating if it has been preceded by far more ambitious action to prevent dangerous climate change.

Robert is formerly the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction. It’s a privilege to have him back in Canberra setting the agenda with his research and engagement on climate debate. At the Lab, we particularly admire Robert for his ability to connect thinkers and practitioners across siloes of Government, civil society, security, sustainability, and the environment. He is one of Canberra’s most smart, generous, and practical professionals: a unique combination.

Natasha Chabbra
Humanitarian Policy Advisor, Australian Council for International Development

Climate change has the potential to undo decades of development progress. Mitigation needs to be a key priority for the future, as without more ambitious action, efforts to address climate change through our development assistance program will be undermined. And with it, our diplomatic relationships, international relations, and our influence. 

One tool we can – and should – harness is that of DRR, a systematic approach to identifying, assessing, and reducing the risks of disaster. It is a preventative approach that has proven impact. Bushfire-resilient building design? That’s DRR. Drought-resistant crops? More water storage, emergency buttons, first aid kits in classrooms – all of this is DRR in action. 

How can we apply DRR principles then to mitigating climate change? One example is a change to town planning processes that would see dwellings less exposed to flood plains, which would reduce the risk of flooding. 

We must also focus on, and be led by, local communities who have been at the forefront of leadership on climate change, often combining traditional practices and cutting-edge science. We have a lot to learn from these communities. 

In this context, delivering on DRR in the face of accelerating climate change cannot be viewed as optional. It is a vital tool in ensuring that development efforts do not backslide, and poverty levels do not rise back up. It also builds resilience.

Natasha is a perfect example of the young talent that the Australian development sector attracts. She spent her high school years in Jakarta and watched on as the Asian Ocean Tsunami caused devastation in the region. Since then, she has worked on domestic Disaster Risk Reduction in Government before joining the Australian Council for International Development last year. At the Lab, we know Natasha best for having a laugh and injecting evidence into hot humanitarian debates.

Dermot O’Gorman
Visiting Scholar, Stanford University

In the last decade Australia learnt the hard way that climate change is a disaster for our country.  Where DRR should have been our public policy blueprint, instead our heads have been in the sand when it comes to building communities capable of regenerating after climate-related events. 

Let’s check our recent track record.  A prolonged drought in 2018/19, devastating bushfires in 2019/20, record-breaking floods in 2022. All were predicted. But we failed as a nation to prevent or reduce damage. This is because of a policy choice. Instead of following first principles risk management – reducing the likelihood of the event taking place at all – we chose to defend our trade risks on fossil fuel exports. Australians have peered through a window into the climate future and been greeted by the havoc that nobody wanted. The election result has shown that Australians are no longer happy to accept the cost of inaction.

So, what can we take from these tough lessons? First up, unusual collaborations are fertile ground for DRR and resilience building. A good example of this was the establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency in January 2020 (now the National Recovery and Resilience Agency) – a fresh approach to DRR in practice by the Federal Government with state and local government, the Australian Armed Forces, NGOs like the Australian Red Cross and World Wildlife Fund plus philanthropic organisations like the Minderoo and Paul Ramsay Foundation. Second, what happens at home matters abroad. The decline in our standing with our closest neighbors and friends in the Pacific and our isolation in the global community has taken a hit in recent years and will take time to reverse. And third, with every crisis comes an opportunity. Australia’s opportunity is to become – as Matt Kean MP referenced back in 2020 – a global renewable energy superpower. Resilience, including mitigation, ought to be the central organising principle of our approach on climate.

As CEO of WWF Australia, Dermot is a seasoned leader of the development sector who blends a unique passion for the environment and humanity with the skills and ambition to embrace disruption and innovation in sustainability. For the Lab, that makes Dermot an exciting collaborator and we’ll be watching closely what he brings home from his Fulbright experience at Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab.

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