THE sky was black on February 4, 2011, and by late afternoon, Melbourne was teeming with rain. Over the clatter of the storm, John Richardson noticed the wail of car alarms and sirens.
Richardson – who leads Red Cross’s disaster preparedness program – had only just returned from Brisbane, where he’d been doing recovery work in the aftermath of the devastating floods. He had returned to his home in Elwood so he could drop off his daughters that morning, the first day of school.
At 7.30 pm, Richardson and his family walked into their street, which runs parallel to the Elwood Canal, and saw water rising toward them, up the road. They learned from a neighbour that high tide was due at 2 am, and that more thunderstorms were predicted before then.
They decided to evacuate. Richardson asked his daughters what they wanted to take: his older daughter chose a blanket she’d had since she was a baby, the younger one picked her skateboard and a giant teddy bear. As they were leaving, she burst into tears and asked, “Are we going to see our house again?”
Forget driverless electric vehicles, forget telecommuting from arty cafes, forget idyllic renderings by landscape architects. Forget vertical gardens.
In 2080, Melbourne’s future is in Leeton, western New South Wales.
Leeton is 550 kilometres west of Sydney, and the climate there is hot and dry – it’s about 4 degrees hotter than Melbourne on average, and it receives a third less rain.
This is CSIRO’s “analogue township model”: a way for people to understand immediately how our climate could change. But the analogy only goes so far. Lower rainfall and hotter days are just the unpleasant backdrops for the biggest risks we face: droughts, heat waves and bushfires; floods, storm surges and rising tides.
Last December, the state Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Professor Kate Auty, issued her Climate Change Foundation Paper, in preparation for the State of the Environment Report, to be released this year.
Here are a few points: global emissions are tracking higher than the worst-case scenario in the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report; each decade since the 1950s has been warmer than the last; and disaster relief and recovery cost Victorians nearly five times as much between 2009 and 2012 than it did a decade earlier.
“In Australia we are vulnerable,” Auty concluded. “In Victoria our seaboard, our biodiversity, our infrastructure are all at risk. Native species and agricultural production are both exposed. The risk of extreme events is elevated.
“Impacts cascade and compound… To read them is to be deeply concerned.”
An intense storm can cut off communications, release sewage, and damage roads and houses. And in turn, it can send businesses broke, and render people sick and stuck at home. During heat waves, we can lose power – and therefore, air conditioning, refrigeration and phones – and that causes food spoilage, heat stroke and premature deaths.
The paper notes that if “the Eureka Tower in Melbourne lasts as long as the Royal Exhibition Building (1880) has already, it will have to deal with the climate of the year 2144”.
Planning for a city’s future involves many interconnected things: our food, water, power, waste and transport, our offices, homes, parks and gardens. Most broadly, it considers health and equity – the distribution of our ghettos and our Grollos.
It is not possible anymore to consider these things – to consider the present or future – without considering climate change. If we don’t prepare well, people will die. At the moment, we are not preparing well.
The Victorian government last year scrapped a requirement to plan for 0.8 metres sea level rise by the end of the century (except for new “greenfields” developments). The Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, described his measure as “based on common sense”.
The previous government’s “extreme controls” had “locked many towns out of being able to grow sensibly,” he said.
Professor Barbara Norman, chair of urban and regional planning at University of Canberra, says all three eastern states have weakened their controls on planning for climate change.
“If you have flexibility in policy and flexibility in process then you really don’t have planning at all,” she says. “In the context of climate change, it means you open the door too widely for development on land that could be subject to environmental risks: to coastal inundation, extreme fire risk and floods.”
One of the biggest risks, Norman says, is a “coincidence of events”. In this year’s Brisbane flood, rising rivers combined with a king tide to create a disastrous inundation.
“We are not managing the impacts of current weather now, let alone being prepared for what climate change might bring,” she says.
“We need better discussions between scientists, planners and the emergency services to analyse those scenarios. What could be the consequences? What does that mean for planning today, and the next five years?”
Within the next two weeks, the Victorian government will table its climate adaptation plan in parliament. If its update on climate science – released in March 2012 – is any guide, we shouldn’t expect much. That document devoted only two-and-a-half pages to climate modelling and to the state’s future climate, and drew largely on the IPCC’s now outdated 2007 report.
A more up-to-date appraisal would have looked like the World Bank’s report from late last year, called Turn down the heat, which combined a review of recent climate science with analysis of the likely risks and impacts.
It stated that even if all nations fulfil their pledges to reduce emissions, we’re still on track for 3.5 to 4˚C warming by the end of the century. “The longer those pledges go unmet, the more likely a 4˚C world becomes”, it said.
And exactly what does a 4˚C world mean? “Extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” All of which adds up to this: “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4˚C world is possible”.
For citizens and governments alike, mitigating global warming – reducing carbon dioxide emissions – is inseparable from adaptation, because adaptation alone is not feasible. “The focus absolutely has to be on mitigation,” Norman says, “because we are not going to be able to survive in a four-degree world, so far as I can tell”.
And yet, Minister Guy’s recent 111-page discussion paper Melbourne – let’s talk about the future includes the word “climate” only four times. It refers vaguely to “a changing climate”, but not to climate change. This document will feed into our new metropolitan planning strategy.
“In Victoria, climate change is missing in action,” Norman says. “Whatever your views are, the solution is not to sweep it under the carpet. We have to deal with it, and we have to plan for it.”
Good planning, she adds, requires transparency and accountability, but also, a link to budgets.
Given the seriousness of the issue – one where many lives are at stake, here and now – a good adaptation plan will include specific measures, costings and timelines. It will set about strengthening natural barriers, investing intelligently in engineered systems, buying back the land most at risk, and empowering citizens to deal with some risks themselves.
It will focus on measures that mitigate climate change while also adapting: low-energy retrofits for low-income households; expanded public transport for the outer suburbs; more shade and open spaces to reduce the heat trapped in our city. It will steer away from maladaptations, such as desalination plants and the spread of air conditioning, which give temporary comfort at the cost of future pain. And it will do these things immediately.
If only we could rely on the Minister’s common sense.
On the night of February 4, 2011, the forecast second wave of thunderstorms passed over Melbourne. The floodwaters receded before they reached the Richardsons’ home. While thousands of residents nearby weren’t so lucky, the full coincidence of events, as Norman puts it, did not coincide – this time.
Even so, the storm resulted in insurance claims of $384 million across the city. This year, after another summer of flooding and extreme weather, insurers have hiked their Australian premiums, driven by higher costs for reinsurance. Last week, The Age reported “some residents of Frankston, bordering Carrum Swamp to the east, have been asked to pay at least $5000 more for flood coverage”.
Elwood was built on the Southern Swamp. The construction of the canal began in 1889, but before long, the developers’ dreams of a Venetian waterway had been replaced by a muddy, smelly “plague canal”.
If the tide is coming in, a rush of water has no place to go. The land is low-lying – vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surges and flash flooding.
It is also vulnerable to infill development and poor planning. “In the past when it has flooded, the catchment has been fairly permeable,” Richardson says. “Now as more and more houses are bowled over and flats and apartments put on them, that is decreasing the permeability. And that only increases the potential for flooding.”
On the night of the floods, once his wife and daughters had evacuated, Richardson went out into the street. He checked on his neighbour Pat, who is in her eighties. “It’s a reasonably tight-knit community – we run street parties and stuff like that – which is really good because we knew who was here and who might need some help,” he says.
The next day, he went door-to-door and handed out information on flood recovery. A few weeks later, he and his neighbours held a barbeque for people from surrounding streets.
In the months that followed, residents established the Elwood Floods Action Group. The members meet once a month at the St Kilda RSL. They held a large community forum and attend local fetes. The group’s website includes local history and safety information, as well as a compilation of citizens’ suggestions for flood mitigation. There is a map with projections of the flooding risk associated with sea level rise and storm surges.
If our governments were to take climate adaptation seriously, this is the kind of neighbourhood they would be encouraging. American sociologist Eric Klinenberg studied the impacts of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago – the natural disaster that has killed the most people in the country’s history. In a recent article for the New Yorker, he described Englewood and Auburn Gresham, adjacent suburbs on the “hyper-segregated South Side of Chicago”. Both had similar proportions of elderly residents and high rates of poverty, crime and unemployment. But during the heat wave Englewood had one of the highest death rates, and Auburn Gresham, one of the lowest.
Auburn Gresham, it turned out, was the kind of place where “residents walked to diners and grocery stores. They knew their neighbours. They participated in block clubs and church groups,” he wrote. As the heat wore on, people knocked on each other’s doors. In Englewood, older folks were apprehensive about leaving home.
“During the severe heat waves that are likely to hit Chicago and other cities in the near future,” Klinenberg said, “living in a neighbourhood like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in every room.”
Richardson says many Elwood locals have been calling for new drainage infrastructure and investment, to cope with more intense deluges. “That’s all well and good for the long term. But what happens if it floods again tomorrow?”
We are already experiencing weather extremes more often, and on a warming planet, they will only get worse. Left alone, this is the future of Melbourne. If our urban planning system does anything at all, it should be doing something about this.
“We’re looking at a completely new climate paradigm,” Richardson says. “We used to seriously flood here once every 25 years. If that’s changing, what does that mean for people?”
Read this article on the Wheeler Centre’s website.
Or this related article about scenario planning in Anglesea and Creswick.