Ready for disaster?

Communities need to think about climate extremes before they come.

IT’S 2037 in Anglesea, on the Great Ocean Road. Jim Li, a tour operator, is describing the heat waves, bushfire threats and intense storms that interrupt his work, and which have doubled his insurance bills.

“I probably cancel or completely change five trips a summer because of the fire risk,” he explains. “I’m afraid I’ll get a bus caught along the road and we’ll all get cooked like that guide from Lorne did six years ago – and that was in November.”

The scenario comes from a project run by the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, at the University of Melbourne. It is working with two communities, Anglesea and Creswick, to explore the possible impact of climate extremes and the ways residents would best like to adapt.

Along with Jim Li’s account, they presented the fictional stories of a local surfer and a retiring viticulturalist.

Che Biggs, the program’s coordinator, says the scenarios were based on the upper end of projections for climate change within 25 years. “We were trying to translate that hard data so people in the community could really understand what it would mean for their town,” he says.

“It’s not about prediction – we don’t know precisely what the future will be like. But we’ve recently been hit by a number of extreme weather events in Australia and around the world, and with climate change we’re going to see many more.

“Our planning standards and institutions are based on an assumption that the world we live in is fairly stable. Climate change is already re-writing those standards. Uncertainty will be the norm.”

In Anglesea, residents brainstormed over 100 possible responses. Mr Biggs condensed these into several visions, which are open for comment online. They range from a community mentorship program, designed for younger and older people to share skills, to an inland rapid bus system, and flooding the existing coal mine for a lake.

In the second stage of the project, the Eco-Innovation Lab will work with authorities, such as the local council and emergency services, to figure out how they’d implement those adaptation plans – and if not, why not.

“Those scenarios and strategies become our test cases to ask relevant institutions: ‘Can this be put in place? What’s stopping us?’” Mr Biggs says.

“We need to get communities exploring beforehand how they would respond and still maintain their sense of identity. It’s no use just rebuilding things the way they were, because we’ll just become more vulnerable.”

But adaptation isn’t the only answer. A report released last November by the World Bank, called Turn Down the Heat, said our current trends put us on a path to a 4-degree hotter world within the century. That would mean a world stricken by “unprecedented heat waves, severe drought and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services”.

One of the bright ideas from the Anglesea residents is for a green building cooperative, which would retrofit homes and protect them against fires and floods. It’s an example of reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and climate vulnerability.

“Clearly adaptation is only part of the response,” Mr Biggs says. “The level of change involved in a 4-degree hotter world would be untenable for civilisation. We need to cut our carbon emissions while we adapt. The good thing is, the solutions do exist.”

Illustration by Robin Cowcher

Read this article at The Age online

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