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By Paul Hardisty, Director CSIRO Land and Water Paul Hardisty, Director CSIRO Land and Water 4 July 2016 5 min read

Image: Angus Veitch/Flickr

For a long time, discussion about climate change has emphasised problems that may arise in the future. Recent events have demonstrated that climate change is already affecting our daily lives: changing rainfall patterns are affecting water supplies; the increasing frequency and severity of extreme events disrupt our economy; higher temperatures and rising sea levels are triggering increased coastal erosion.

These events have exposed problems in our existing approaches to land use planning and development. We continue to build houses and infrastructure in harm’s way, where they are poorly prepared for the flooding or heatwaves that are occurring now, let alone into the future.

The result is a new mood in Australia, a new desire to improve the resilience of our built environments and our communities, and to do so in ways which reduce the current risks but also prepare us better for the future. The question is how do we see this through?

Understanding emergent risks

The first step is to recognise the nature of the risks we are facing. While the direct local effects of climate change are far from trifling – consider the vulnerable people dealing with heatwaves, or property owners seeing their houses wash into the sea – we already know how to ameliorate them, economic challenges and social barriers aside. The new frontier for concern is where many small events or impacts interact to create a significantly more complex problem at much larger scale. These ‘emergent’ effects are far less well understood, and require our urgent attention.

Flow-on effects

During the 2009 Melbourne heatwave, failures in the power grid, disruption to public transport, damage to rail infrastructure, and destruction of local horticultural products were just some of the direct effects. These represented problems in themselves, but when experienced in combination they resulted in people being unable to get to work or to buy local vegetables afterwards. This event had an estimated impact on the Victorian economy in excess of A$1 billion.

The flow-on effect of these disruptions can echo down value and supply chains in our connected world. The severe floods in Thailand in 2011 had immediate local impacts in Bangkok and its surrounds, but because some manufacturers critical to the automotive and electronics industries are located there, these impacts rippled out to affect productivity (and market prices) globally. People were put out of business a world away from where the floods hit.

Fortunately, we are now developing tools to help assist and respond to these value chain risks such as CSIRO’s Climate Chain tool. But there are other types of emergent risk we still don’t address well.

Multiple events

An inevitable outcome of extreme events (like floods and fires), happening more often is the increased likelihood that multiple events occur simultaneously, or otherwise overlap. In 2009, as fires raged in Victoria, north Queensland experienced major floods. This meant that the states could not share emergency services as they so often do. This is happening even at a global scale – as the fire seasons get longer in California and Australia, it ceases to be possible to share equipment. The result is not just a small inconvenience or cost but a step change in the investment needed in local equipment and personnel.

Limited financial capital

Another type of emergent event occurs when there is competition for financial capital as a result of adaptation needs in many places at once. For example, roads are built to a standard height above coastal storm surges. As sea-level rise proceeds, the lowest lying roads will all become exposed to flooding at much the same time. Yet most of these roads are managed at the local government level, where it will be sensible to postpone upgrading them till they are at risk. At that point, of course, there will be a massive call on road building funds which will not be achievable all at once. The solution to this is to manage the whole road network as a portfolio and consider upgrading some of it earlier than is essential. But the same issue will play out in many areas, even globally – many low lying urban regions will need to start thinking more seriously about coastal flood barriers around the same time; yet there is a limited global capacity to deliver the dredging equipment and expertise needed.

System failures

Least well understood but perhaps most worrying are true ‘systemic’ risks, where the system itself breaks down. We know that some complex systems can suffer unexpected and catastrophic breakdown when they are stressed in multiple places at once. Collapses in our global financial system are an example, causing outcomes like levels of financial instability that we have not experienced before. One of the greatest challenges for this decade is to get a better understanding of how these risks emerge from many small impacts, and then to develop solutions to make such systems more resilient through multiple small interventions.

A new focus

These different forms of emergent risk are the real reason why governments should worry about climate change, since they are beyond the realm of individual people or businesses to prevent or manage. The size and potential impact of these risk calls for a new focus in how we address climate change.

Until recently, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, as well as resilience building for disasters, have tended to be separate areas of policy. We are now starting to understand how coordinated action in land resource management and the built environment can deliver benefits across all three areas more cheaply than working in silos. In fact, these benefits can reach into many other sectors too, such as health and employment.

For example, providing farmers with the right incentives to adjust their land use can reduce greenhouse emissions, help biodiversity and clean water, and provide the farmers with an adaptive buffer against declining rainfall, in turn reducing their stress and improving health and wellbeing. Even globally, studies have shown that delivering greenhouse gas emission reductions in the right way can simultaneously deliver access to energy and health benefits at not much more than half the cost of delivering the three outcomes independently. Tools like the Australian National Outlook are helping us to explore these types of synergistic opportunities.

CSIRO has a renewed commitment to finding solutions to climate change – through mitigation and adaptation and building resilience. Our research is actively pursuing opportunities to improve how the nation responds to the great systemic challenges of our time in order to bequeath a better Australia to the next generation.

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