Without climate adaptation research, Australia can expect significantly higher infrastructure damage and repair costs, more death and disease, and more frequent disruption to services.
The 2017 federal budget has axed funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), an agency that provides information to decision-makers on how best to manage the risks of climate change and sea level rise.
The NCCARF received A$50 million in 2008 to coordinate Australia's national research effort into climate adaptation measures. That was reduced in 2014 to just under A$9 million.
For 2017-18, a mere A$600,000 will be spread between CSIRO and NCCARF to support existing online platforms only. From 2018, funding is axed entirely.
Despite a growing global impetus to address the risks of climate change, there is evidence that Australia is being hampered by policy inertia.
A review of 79 submissions to the Productivity Commission's inquiry on Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation, published in 2014, found that "adaptation first and foremost requires clear governance, and appropriate policy and legislation to implement change."
'Lives and money will be saved by strong climate adaptation measures'
Earlier this year the World Economic Forum listed "failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation" as one of the top five risks to the world, in terms of its potential impact. Meanwhile, in Australia, local governments, professionals and community groups have consistently called for more national policy guidance on how best to adapt to climate risks.
The government's decision to slash funding for climate adaptation research is therefore at odds with the growing urgency of the problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent major assessment report, pointed out that Australia can benefit significantly from taking adaptation action in highly vulnerable sectors.
These areas of vulnerability include: the risk of more frequent and intense floods; water shortages in southern regions; deaths and infrastructure damage caused by heatwaves; bushfires; and impacts on low-lying coastal communities.
To put it simply, lives and money will be saved by strong climate adaptation measures.
Australia needs a coherent policy approach that goes beyond the current focus on energy policy, although climate adaptation is indeed an important issue for our electricity grid as well as for many other elements of our infrastructure. A coherent, whole-of-government, approach to climate risk is the economical and sensible approach in the long term.
Federal government should do its job
Like it or not, the federal government has to take a leading role in climate adaptation. This includes the ongoing need to address existing knowledge gaps through well-funded research.
The federal government is the major funder of leading research in Australia, delivered through CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Cooperative Reserach Centres, the Australian Research Council and universities. This role should not be divested.
Without climate adaptation research, Australia can expect significantly higher infrastructure damage and repair costs, more death and disease, and more frequent disruption to services - much of which would be avoidable with the right knowledge and preparation.
The damage bill from the 2010-11 Queensland floods alone exceeded A$6 billion. Since 2009, natural disasters have cost the Australian government more than A$12 billion, and the private sector has begun trying in earnest to reduce its risk exposure.
In response to these known risks, there is demand for robust policy guidance. Effective partnerships between government, industry and the community are crucial. One such example led by the NCCARF is CoastAdapt, an online tool that collates details of climate risks and potential costs in coastal areas.
For projects like this, success hinges on full engagement with all relevant spheres of government, industry, research, and the community. There is more to be done, and it needs leadership at the highest level.
Tayanah O'Donnell is Research Fellow, University of Canberra.
Josephine Mummery is Research Fellow and PhD Candidate, climate change policy, University of Canberra.