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Environment and Communications References Committee
11/04/2013
Extreme weather events

EBURN, Dr Michael Ernest, Private capacity

GLIKSON, Dr Andrew Yoram, Private capacity

HANNA, Dr Elizabeth Gayle, Private capacity

KIEM, Dr Anthony Stuart, Private capacity

[ 0 9:48]

CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you all for taking the time to talk to us today. The committee has received submission no. 2 to the inquiry from Dr Glikson, submission no. 5 from Dr Kiem and submission no. 8 from Dr Eburn. Are there any amendments or alterations to those submissions? In that case, I invite you to make opening statements, noting of course there are four of you appearing and that the committee would like the opportunity to ask questions. Please ensure that your opening statements are appropriately brief and volunteers are sought to go first.

Dr Glikson : I have a few dot points which were distributed to you. I will follow them as quickly as I can. You may be aware of my background in this area. I have more than 40 years experience in earth and palaeoclimatic science, but my evidence is mostly based on the history of the atmosphere and on current events. I am an official reviewer of the IPCC and I am at the ANU and the University of Queensland.

All the evidence I am aware of is pointing to the accelerating series of extreme weather events around the world, which include heatwaves, floods, hurricanes, drought and so on, springing out of the increase in temperature of the oceans and the land. As you get higher degrees of energy, you get stronger evaporation and the water has to go somewhere, and in other areas you have droughts and heatwaves. This is not a gradual trend. There has been the impression that we are looking at a linear development; unfortunately, we are not. When you look at the behaviour of the atmosphere past and present, it reaches tipping points and from a certain degree of energy in the atmosphere you get very rapid events over periods ranging from decades to maybe a century or two. So my main point is that there is no time.

Warming has actually already exceeded two degrees. There is an assumption that the European Union target of two degrees is still to be transcended; it has been transcended—we are at 2.2 degrees. However, sulphur oxide aerosols are mitigating this degree of heating by about 50 per cent. So, in fact, civilisation is already exercising what you could call unintended geoengineering. If sulphur dioxide emissions were to decrease, and they have decreased at other times, the temperature would rise very quickly. What it means is that civilisation is now already dependent on the life-support system of sulphur aerosols, but these aerosols have a very short time of atmospheric residence.

The implications are really what is important. Large-scale agricultural development along river valleys and then in plains, which has allowed the development of cities and civilisation, is now at grave risk because the climate conditions as they are developing now, including heatwaves, floods and so on, and sea-level rise, are endangering the bases on which urban civilisation, cities, are reliant. I certainly wish it was wrong, but this is what the trends are telling us. The implication for civilisation is that it cannot continue business as usual. In fact, as the agricultural food production base is already decreasing and will be decreasing further, small groups of people on farms and in rural areas will have to start growing their own food using a range of techniques. The techniques do exist, but it will be on a smaller scale and it will not provide for the needs of perhaps seven billion people around the globe. The sooner civilisation realises that this is the trend that is going on and starts to take some effective measures, the better it will be for our children and for future generations. I realise I do not have very much time to follow up on this theme.

There are a number of techniques. When our society is developing systems such as the NBN for the fast transfer of information it cannot possibly be looking at the future because what will be needed at the end of the next few decades or century or so are conduit systems to transfer water from where the floods occur in the north to the drying up areas suffering from heat waves. Water will be absolutely essential. It is a water system like the Romans used to develop which needs to be developed for civilisation now, but this has not been realised as yet. I think I better leave it at that point. If you have any questions I welcome them.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Glikson. Do any others wish to make a brief opening remark?

Dr Kiem : Yes. I am a researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle in the faculty of science and IT. I have about 15 years experience in hydrology and climatology working in Australia in both the uni sector and private industry, consulting to federal and state governments and private companies. Plus I also spent three years in Japan working with the UNESCO funded International Centre for Water Hazard and Risk Management, which was largely focused on flood risk in the Asian monsoon region.

My focus is on the drivers and impacts of climate variability and change, with a particular emphasis on water related extremes—droughts, floods, storm surges and so on—as opposed to temperature and heat waves. I just make that distinction. My submission is not really about temperature related extremes; it is about floods and droughts, basically.

My submission centres around the fact that until recently the hydroclimatic risk has been viewed as a static concept where the risk is constant over time with the same risk from one season to the next or one year to the next. But work in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which I have attached to the submission, has shown that this is not true and that flood, drought and bushfire risks vary over time, and there exist in the historical and particularly the paleo pre-instrumental records epochs of elevated or reduced frequency and magnitude of extremes. This intra-annual to multidecadal variability of risk is related to natural cycles like the El Nino Southern Oscillation or the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, which I think have been mentioned a few times.

This finding that risk changes over time is counter to the existing best practice, which assumes the risk is constant. So, therefore, it is not really adequately accounted for in most planning and infrastructure and disaster preparations. Compounding this is the fact that anthropogenic climate change is projected to alter these atmospheric cycles. Therefore, this also has the potential to change the risk of things like floods and droughts.

The problem is that the climate models are very uncertain about the precipitation. They also do not currently realistically simulate things like the El Nino Southern Oscillation or the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. So, yes, flood risk, drought risk and bushfire risk will change in the future but we cannot really say at this stage whether or not the change will be an increase or a decrease. If it does increase or decrease, we do not really have a handle on where, by how much or when that will happen.

Some recommendations or final points is that I think there is a big need to better communicate what we know in terms of the science, in particular about these multidecadal cycles, and that we do not really have a proper understanding of the existing risk in a lot of places. It is not just what we do know about the science but what we do not know and the areas where we are very uncertain. We need to get out there what has been in academic literature for 10 or more years—that this hydroclimatic risk does change over time; it is not a constant thing.

The terminology is also problematic, not just in the mainstream media. Climate change is a multidisciplinary thing and across the different disciplines of science different words mean different things. That is problematic when it comes to decision makers trying to understand what we are talking about.

The other point is that funding of research into the area of properly understanding the drivers of flood and drought risk in Australia and properly quantifying the existing risk is urgently needed, especially at the local or catchment scale. Then more funding is needed to get into the climate models to try to get some insight into how that risk might change in the future. Then the next step is that we need to work with the decision makers to use that information to make the decisions. Initiatives such as the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative, NCCARF and, prior to that, the Indian Ocean Climate Initiative were all making headway in this. Unfortunately, it seems they are being discontinued, which is a shame.

My last point is about the education and training of the next generation of scientists, particularly in the climate and water space. We know what the research questions and the knowledge gaps are, but we have a lot of trouble finding the people to fill the PhDs, postdocs and technical positions that we need to do this research. There are a few reasons for that. One is the funding, but another one is the poor maths, literacy and science generally of the people coming into university. The other one is that over the last five to 10 years, particularly in Newcastle, we have lost a lot of the good students to the mining industry—the people who would have gone on to be a good PhD students have taken the big dollars and gone to mining. Another point is that the career prospects long term in research are very uncertain; it basically depends on getting lucky with ARC grants. Even if you were to do a PhD, you get a PhD and then what? You are on the endless treadmill of applying for funds, short-term contracts and so on, so it is not very attractive for young students when, on the other hand, they are getting offered careers in the mining industry at 100-plus grand a year.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Kiem. Dr Eburn, do you have an opening statement?

Dr Eburn : Just very briefly. I am a lawyer by training and my submission relates to the legal relationships between the tiers of government—that was my focus. I note that the Productivity Commission's Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation final report has just come out, with a chapter on emergency management which has very similar points of view about the lack of clarity of those relationships. I commend that report to the committee.

My only other comment relates to some questions Senator Milne asked the previous witness about litigation. That was not the subject of my submission, but if there is a chance to do so I might have some comments I could make. Other than that, my submission speaks for itself and I am just happy to answer questions.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Eburn. Dr Hanna?

Dr Hanna : Greetings, and thank you for the invitation to appear. I work at ANU in climate change and human health, so that is my focus, I worked with Tony McMichael. I convened the NCCARF network for human health—until the fact, of course, it is no longer funded—and I am President of the Climate and Health Alliance. I have a background in intensive care, so I work with the Australian College of Nursing and we have developed a disaster nursing faculty, which is specifically to try to boost Australia's capacity to be able to cope with. Your previous witness, Dr Donald, highlighted the fact that it really is a shortfall, particularly as we move forward with the increasing events we are having.

I will not talk about the science; I presume you have read all the submissions and have a fair handle now on how they affect health. There are just a few points I would like to make on my assessment of some of the problems we have in our health system in terms of responding. You will probably have noted the very low number and paucity of submissions that came in from the health sector. DoHA itself was particularly tepid and I think that gets to the core of the problem, in the fact that DoHA is so distant. They are not moving sufficiantly quickly to why we are failing and what we really need to do about this.

As I said, I think what lies at the core is the way we actually respond to environmental health in Australia. We have a huge department called DoHA and they closed their environmental health section recently—it had four people and an operating budget of $1 million. This is just laughable; it is a tick-the-box affair. They argue that environmental health matters are the responsibility of the states and territories, and they are the ones that take leadership in terms of responding to the floods, fires and droughts—and then throw in legionnaire's, bird flu and other events that come a long. We would have hoped that, after these major events, they would have had funding boosts. Instead, in some states who seem to have an allergy to the word 'environment' they have actually closed some of those down. We think this really increases Australia's risk. In their abhorrence of the word 'environment' they have actually presumed that this is hugging trees and being a friend of Christine's. When you consider what the rest of the world has in terms of responding to these events and how they have a federal approach to managing them, Australia has dropped the ball. We also have a major problem in trying to get this into the curriculum and there will need to be a central push forward this to actually happen, because the curricula of all the health providers are full just with the expansion of medical knowledge.

Those are the key points but I am happy to talk about all manner of things, particularly the funding for research into how Australia is to adapt and the fact that there was a decision for that to be no longer funded. All I can think of is that the Australian public are really going to hold the government and our bureaucrats to account, because this is a risk that we can foresee, and there has been a decision to not pick up that ball and ride with it. It is very complex but I am happy to go through questions as you wish.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you Dr Hanna. Thank you all, for those statements.

Senator MILNE: I would like to start where you have just finished and get a comment from you all in relation to the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. All the witnesses we have heard—including Dr Donald, just a moment ago, local government and so on—have said that what it comes down to is being able to assess the local risk and vulnerability of the existing level of warming that is built in, and anticipate, on the basis of the latest science, how much more severe that is going to be, and then localise that information to disaster planning preparedness and so on. My understanding is that what NCCARF was trying to do was to have an interdisciplinary approach which interpreted the climate models in a way that was useable information right down to the local level.

I am personally alarmed that NCCARF is going, because there will be a big vacuum. One of the things that has come out is that we are now going to have an insurance affordability council, which will determine how money is spent on mitigation, which is completely unrelated to the real risk assessment that I am talking about. I am just interested in your perceptions of NCCARF—whether it has been useful. In its absence, what have we got?

Dr Hanna : Certainly it was useful. Most of the heavy lifting was done via the networks. It was literally a network of researchers, and that is where the powerhouse of strength was. They did all of the research. The way it worked for health was a little bit different, because the funding that was supposed to come through NCCARF to fund research projects in health took a totally different model. I think this was a decision that was made in the upper echelons—heavens knows where or how—because NCCARF tell me that they were not part of it. The NHMRC say, 'We're the ones with the expertise in assessing and reviewing grants so we'll kick in $3 million and we'll take your $3 million. We'll take that whole $6 million and we'll do it.'

After four years of funding they could only get half of that $6 million out of the door. Again, it is because it is a totally wrong model, because they favour a biomedical model and they wanted to get up on the world stage with patents and such, which is not what we need in Australia. We need adaptation research that would suit Tasmania, which is vastly different to what they need at the Top End. NHMRC could not get over that.

So the health model of funding the research project was wrong from the start. There were some good projects funded. I got to lead one of them, so I am pretty happy but that model did not answer the needs. So we need a different model and I would say that it should not be assessed by the NHMRC, because they do not do policy, they do not do regional stuff and they certainly were not into the adaptation mode.

Has far as the whole NCCARF and network model was concerned I thought that was excellent. Having the overarching NCCARF, with some funding that went along with that—even though I think they probably should have distributed more to the networks to do the research—was very good because, as you would no doubt have picked up, everything is related to everything else. In human health we are totally dependent on the emergency management team and on the primary industries being able to provide us food and water. So we have so many areas of intersect. Having the NCCARF model actually allowed all these networks to work in and do this stuff together. We were too late in addressing this problem and we really did need a kick start. So I think it is an excellent model and it should be continued.

Senator MILNE: Dr Eburn, you made a very clear statement that we are well organised for responding to a major terrorist attack, but we are not well organised when it comes to responding to extreme weather events, which we are already experiencing and we are going to experience more of and in greater intensity. You have put forward a recommendation to clarify the legal responsibilities and who has responsibility to do what. Could you speak to that a little bit? Also, I would welcome your comments about this issue as more and more people are held accountable and the overall lack of planning is not accountable.

Dr Eburn : I will try to address the two questions in turn. The Commonwealth suffers from a lack of having any sort of counter-disaster legislation to define any role of the Commonwealth—also in responding to natural hazards. That is also similar with respect to terrorism. There is an overarching act in that respect, other than the Defence Act, which has various provisions to call out the defence forces to protect the Commonwealth. That is a clear constitutional power of the Commonwealth. I refer you to the latest version of the Productivity Commission's report which says that it is much better to plan in advance what you are going to do rather than leave it. What the Commonwealth may or may not do is not all that clear. Certainly the basis upon which the Commonwealth would purport to do it is not clear.

In my submission I have said that there are two heads of power for the Commonwealth. One is about all the various powers it has to do things: it has to keep providing Commonwealth services, so it has to plan for how Centrelink, Medicare and all those people are going to keep operating in a disaster and how they are going to deliver the disaster services. But that does not give the Commonwealth any particular authority. Whether it has authority is a different question, but it does not explain at all its role as a coordinating agency or what it might do over and above those sorts of things. That is where I argue that we would be assisted by having some sort of overarching Commonwealth disaster legislation.

The Canadian model is probably a very good example of providing for a minister for emergency management. That title was created recently in our government, but it is still not quite clear what the Minister for Emergency Management does. It has gone back to being the Attorney-General and emergency management rather than it being two offices, so in that sense it has just gone back to being the Attorney-General. Of course, the Attorney-General has lots of other things to deal with. Like everybody, this may not be the most pressing thing. These are the sorts of things that will happen one day, but in the meantime they have all the other things to do.

So the Commonwealth would benefit from some legislation that says what the Commonwealth is going to do and what its powers are and defines some key roles and responsibilities—something like a principal federal officer or a federal coordinating officer who is going to be the person who can be the go-to person for the entire Commonwealth. To give an example, when I was writing my PhD on this, I created a fairly fictional example. My example said: 'Assume there were some disaster in Australia and we needed to fly in a supply of medication that had not gone through the therapeutic goods assessment process but needed urgent clearance, and it was going to be flown into Sydney airport outside the curfew hours.' I think there were 11 separate emergency declarations that had to be made by different ministers declaring that this was an emergency, rather than having the ability of the Commonwealth to declare: 'This is an emergency. All these things will come into play.'

I am not sure whether I am answering your question anymore, but I think it is a critical failing that the Commonwealth does not have that sort of overarching structure that says, 'This is what our role is and this is what we're going to do.' Does that address your question?

Senator MILNE: Yes, that does. And there is the liability issue.

Dr Eburn : Thank you for that, because that is not in my submission. That is some of the stuff we did some research on. We think it is horribly overstated. We were funded by the Bushfire CRC, so I will grant you that our research was limited to fires. We traced back as far as we could go—that was to about 1860—and the number of cases where people were sued over these things was pretty low when you think about the number of events we have had. We could see trends that showed that neighbours sued neighbours for a long time. So, when the fire started, you sued your neighbour for not doing something to put it out. Then there was a long period when the principal defendants were the railway authorities, for the obvious reason that steam trains cause fires. Then it became the electrical authorities. Only very recently it has started to become land management and fire agencies. When you think about how many times they turn out, they are hardly ever sued. We are beginning to see that, when we have the catastrophic events—the Canberras, the Black Saturdays—litigation starts. So far, as against the fire agencies, they have not been found liable for their actions for a whole lot of reasons. But what happens when you speak to them and, in particular, speak to firefighters? They are terrified that they are going to be sued and held personally to account.

We had trouble understanding what that fear is. They will not be personally held to account. They are part of a big agency, so the legal actions are always against the states. So far they all have been. It is always against the ACT, against New South Wales, against the Queensland government. It is not against individuals. But what we really discovered is that what they are afraid of is not so much being sued; it is the royal commission process. It is, with respect, a process like this. If you have been a volunteer firefighter and given up three days of your life to go fight fires, then spend the next six years appearing before various inquiries—and after the 2003 Canberra bushfires there were a phenomenal number of inquiries, including one in the House of Representatives. I am reading between the lines now, but it seemed basically at the House of Representatives inquiry that the fire agencies said: 'We're not coming. We've been to so many of these. We've got nothing more to say.' And that led to a very distorted view, because people come in and give evidence that may or may not be legitimate.

In the House of Representatives report they had a whole heading on legal liability that failed to talk about legal liability. What it talked about was bad press, bad feelings and things like that. In our study we got into some records of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, and one that I found particularly interesting was about an incident that had happened with a bushfire in the Snowy Mountains. There had been a complaint about the conduct of the service. It had been investigated and letters had been written. The firefighters obviously had been interviewed multiple times. At the end of the day, nobody sued anybody. The Rural Fire Service stuck to its guns and said to the complainant, 'We did nothing wrong, we are not liable and we are not paying you any money,' and that is ultimately where the matter ended, but it took five years of investigating and letter writing. When you speak to people, that is what they call litigation. 'We're going to be sued.' As a lawyer I say, 'That's not being sued; that's the process of inquiries, and that's go to happen and that's painful.' But that is actually what they are terrified of. And they are terrified of royal commissions. The firefighters I have spoken to about the Black Saturday royal commission, and then of course the Queensland floods and those engineers who were referred to the Crime and Misconduct Commission—again, no action ultimately taken. It is that process. They label that as litigation.

If you actually look at how often litigation occurs it is incredibly rare and, so far, liability has not been established against these agencies, because the courts recognise they are making tough decisions in tough times in imperfect situations.

Senator MILNE: You are linking that to your first point. If you had a clearly defined set of responsibilities and the flow through of who is responsible for what, that might eliminate a lot of that finger-pointing through the process because there would be clear lines of responsibility.

Dr Eburn : I think that is true. I am not sure how true that is at a Commonwealth level, though I certainly think that is an implication out of the 2009 Black Saturday inquiry. Right down to the chief officers of those agencies, people were unclear on what their responsibility was. That comes down to the state legislation. I think state disaster plans are, despite their best efforts, very unclear about who is in charge of what and, in particular, about where the police sit against everybody else. That leads to a lot of confusion.

Senator MILNE: Thank you. I want to come back to the point of my moving for this inquiry, which was to enable us to identify the gaps. We have heard that one of the gaps is lines of responsibility and drawing up of Commonwealth overall responsibility. We have just heard from Dr Donald about the need for a clinical response team which would be part of that filtering-down process. We have heard from Dr Glikson and from you about the need for the science. One of the problems we have is that everybody talking about the level of uncertainty as to what you can predict, vulnerability and so on is an excuse for delay. The point is that we are way behind where we need to be in disaster preparedness and anticipation. It is going to happen. It is not if; it is a matter of when.

My concern about the ongoing talk on the need for more PhD students—I do not deny that: we need to be doing the science—is that we actually need the practical adaptation of the science we now know and get things started. Then we can add to that in terms of severity and so on, but at least let's get things started. My concern is: this is an excuse now, and if you read the submission we had yesterday from the insurance industry, they are relying on old reports that say that you cannot link climate change with extreme weather currently. You may be able to do that in the future but you cannot now. Now that is the insurance industry. How on earth are we going to move forward while the insurance industry continues to say that sort of thing? What I am asking you now is: what do you see as the most urgent gaps in preparedness that are inhibiting our ability to save lives, let alone ecosystems, property and anything else? I am interested in you identifying, as you see it, gaps in preparedness for extreme weather events.

Dr Kiem : This comes back to the whole NCCARF issue. I was involved in co-leading a project with NCCARF that we just finished this year which was titled Decision making under uncertainty. That project had some really good outcomes, because we collaborated with a whole heap of end users—local councils, water authorities and so on—getting them to understand that 'Yes, there is uncertainty in the climate science, but just because there is uncertainty that does not mean that you sit back and do nothing.'

Senator MILNE: Exactly.

Dr Kiem : There are still things that you can do, even though there is uncertainty there. There is a whole lot of research going on internationally where they are moving away from what they call predict and plan methodology, because almost inevitably what you plan for does not eventuate, because there is so much uncertainty. What they are going towards is—whatever the industry might be: what are the important decisions that you have to make, how does climate feature in those decisions and then what are your options? Optimising those options under a range of plausible scenarios is the sort of road that we have to go down, given that this uncertainty is not going to go away. So it comes back to an education and communication issue, but by the end of that project we had convinced people that it is possible to make decisions under uncertainty—and, in fact, they do it all the time. It is not an excuse. People get married and people do all sorts of things. That is a decision made under uncertainty, but it is really disappointing that that is one reason that NCCARF is not continuing, because that project came up with a series of recommendations which would have been good to follow through, but unfortunately—

Senator MILNE: What sort of recommendations?

Dr Kiem : The recommendations were quantifying what that uncertainty is: actually listing out the range of what is plausible, what is likely, what is less likely and what is more likely. Once you reach those different scenarios, what are the options that various industries have under those options?

Senator MILNE: I think you were here when Dr Donald gave his evidence, so I want to apply this to the template proposition that Dr Donald put up that we discussed a minute ago. How could that research from NCCARF link with the notion of a template? Are you suggesting that NCCARF recommendations could then inform a template, so that the template might say: the first thing is you need to determine the threat and vulnerability, and you need to do that by now going to NCCARF and saying, 'Give me the threatened and vulnerability data for Bundaberg, Cairns or Hobart'? So the requirement on the template would be to get it, but get it from NCCARF or one of the institutions such as that so that you get consistency across the country in terms of the quality of the data that would then apply to whatever that scenario is. You heard that proposition of the template. What is your immediate response to that in light of the recommendations from NCCARF?

Dr Kiem : Yes, that would be something that would be really good—not only consistency in the data but consistency in the terminology and communication—

Senator MILNE: The methodology.

Dr Kiem : And the methodology and transparency and what is being done—a consistency in the communication of what we mean when we say 'uncertainty'—all of these things, and whatever the end use might be, as long as the methodology is robust and consistent on establishing the risk initially. Obviously the decisions that are made depend on what industry you are talking about, but as long as the methodology for establishing those templates initially is robust, transparent and consistent, then we would be in a much better situation. And I do not see how that can be done unless there is some sort of national initiative.

Senator MILNE: Okay, thank you.

Dr Kiem : Also, I meant to jump in before. I also want to second that NCCARF were a good thing. One of the other things that was very good was their support of early career researchers. They did things like PhD top-ups, PhD workshops where the PhDs from all the different universities got together once or twice a year. It gives them a sense that they are actually part of something bigger. Rather than being locked in an office for two or three years doing their PhD, they get to come together and talk to other PhD students, talk to industry leaders and talk to senior researchers. Without something like NCCARF, I agree that there will be a big vacuum.

The other point as well is that the sort of work that is needed, and the sort of work that NCCARF did, is not really the sort of work that you can get funding for from NHMRC or the ARC. The ARC and so on are about big science, not really the sort of participatory industry linkage—

Senator MILNE: Local government.

Dr Kiem : Local government. You do not really get funded for that through the ARC, so if there is nothing like NCCARF there is a big gap there—to do things like producing this template. Where will the money come from if it is not NCCARF?

Senator MILNE: Precisely.

Senator CAMERON: I am not sure, Dr Glikson, whether you had a different view on what Dr Kiem was saying. I noticed you were shaking your head at times. You have a similar position on that last response?

Dr Glikson : I would like to say a word about uncertainty. Ninety-nine point five per cent of the peer-reviewed literature on which science is based agrees about the effect of greenhouse gases. Humanity has emitted 560 gigatonnes, billion tonnes, of carbon into the atmosphere through direct emission and land clearing, which is almost the same as the original amount of carbon in the atmosphere. All the world's climate research organisations—you go from Hadley, Met, to NASA and NOAA's NCDC; to Potsdam; to the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia—as well as the world's academies of science agree on the role of greenhouse gases, and the evidence is now as robust as that for gravity, I would say, and evolution. This uncertainty notion is a myth.

What we are looking at—if I can bring an analogy from medical science when I am not a doctor—is like this. A gene is identified in a patient which says the patient is in danger of developing a dangerous disease. A few years later, the patient's blood composition is showing signs that the red to white corpuscles have changed. A few years later, the patient starts to develop fever and starts to develop symptoms of shaking and so on. This is a close analogy to what happens with the climate. The principles were established already in the 19th century. The rise in greenhouse gases has been observed from about the middle of last century, and now we come to a stage which has been predicted and is consistent with the basic laws of physics and chemistry of the atmosphere: the increase in temperature is causing extreme weather events, heat waves, increased evaporation in the oceans—and the water has to come down somewhere.

The uncertainty which has been expressed is more political, I have to say, than it is scientific. You will have evidence later on from people from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. We insure ourselves against invasion by foreign powers. We insure ourselves in case our house gets burned or our car gets stolen. But here is an instance in which the entire world's climate science community are telling governments that what they already started to foresee and predict 30 or 40 years ago is now actually happening, and there is no time to put up barricades about uncertainties. As far as scientists are concerned, the role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—which is now almost doubled, and half of it goes into the ocean and acidifies the ocean—is now certain. Thank you.

Senator CAMERON: So the Climate Commission view that you can allocate some responsibility for some of these extreme weather events to the rising ocean temperature, the increased vapour in the atmosphere, that is a legitimate concern? So climate change is actually contributing to some of the extreme weather events now?

Dr Glikson : The incidence of extreme weather events has tripled over the last 20 years or so. This comes from the Munich Re insurance company and other sources. It is basic physics. You increase the temperature of the oceans and of the land, more water evaporates, more water has to come down somewhere. You increase the temperature of the deserts and other regions and you get heatwaves, and they arrive at the more fertile areas. You increase the temperature of the ocean, which has increased by 0.4 degrees, and that is enough to start the melting of ice in the poles. This is a self-amplifying, runaway effect: as we know a bit of water on top of the ice, over the margin of the ice, the more ice melts, the water absorbs the infrared, the infrared warms the water and the warmer water melts more ice.

Right through the history of the atmosphere, which is my particular field, this is precisely what we are looking at. We are looking at runaway effects, amplifying effects. Whether it is warming or whether it is cooling, they are not gradual effects. You can look at any chart of development in the atmosphere, especially the ice ages, and you will not see anything gradual; what you will see are jagged curves. Their forcing, which we are now looking at, which is 3.2 watts per square metres, is half the amount of forcing which was brought up to the deglaciation to the end of the last glacier period. This was purely solar, but this resulted in amplifying feedback effects of CO2 released in the oceans and the ice-albedo flip, which I was talking about.

Climate science and paleoclimate science are now extremely well-established disciplines. I do not do future modelling because every model inherently involves assumptions. I do not work on assumptions; I look at the recent history of the earth at the ice cores, essentially, and before that and I look at the basic laws of physics. I am prepared—I think the world's science communities have now, for many years, presented the evidence which is hard evidence against which no objection can be sustained any longer. Having said that, I would have been the first one who would have been delighted if we were proved wrong because the implications of what we are looking at are serious.

Dr Hanna : I want to respond to Christine's question about what are the gaps. One of the main issues, and others have touched on it, is that mindset—that is, the willingness to approach it and to respond to it. It is almost as if no-one has carriage of responsibility for this, so it all lies in somebody else's department. And it is also the fact that we say Australia has always had extreme events rather than really coming to terms with the fact of the increased number that are happening and the intensity with which they are happening now. In 2009 Australia really was at breaking point. Our systems are designed to respond to an isolated, rare, single event; we send in forces from the other states. But in 2009 we had mayhem up and down the eastern seaboard, and we can only expect this is going to happen again and we have not built our capacity in response to that.

As Dr Donald was suggesting, we need that capacity not just in central locations that can fly in because there is not going to be—they are going to be busy elsewhere. It is like in the floods, people were expecting someone to come to their door; with the fires, when half of Victoria was on fire, people still thought a truck was going to land at their door. It needs drilling all the way down to the community level. We need to have an enormous amount of community education in how to respond to fires so that they can have the good sense to protect themselves and look out for each other. A lot of this transfers, whether it be floods or fires et cetera: it is about having that emergency pack that you need in your house, having the plan to go along with it; teaching the kids in schools as to what they need to do and basic communications so that they can let people know where others are; and up-skilling the ground force, the people who are in these various services, including the health sector, as to what to do and how to mobilise.

I have a previous history of working at the Alfred Hospital where we had emergency plans. We used to do this practice field thing where we would put out fires and have drills, dragging patients down corridors. As Alex was saying, all this is needed and it needs to be at a national level. Somebody needs to take carriage of it. It has to be intersectoral and, for Pete's sake, health has to be involved. You cannot even find climate change on the DoHA website. They say they are doing this but they are not. It is a matter of realising, without being human centric, although we need to be, that it all boils down to keeping people alive and protecting them.

Senator CAMERON: We are really getting lots of evidence and I think Dr Glikson and Dr Kiem have nailed the anthropogenic climate change thing. I want to go to some of the issues raised by Dr Eburn because he has had legislative issues.

Dr Kiem : Can I clarify that I agree totally with what Dr Glikson has said. The uncertainty I am talking about is not whether the temperature is rising or whether humans are responsible for that—and the physics where they say with the warmer world we get increased water vapour and so on, and that is accepted science. I guess I am guilty of my own recommendations about the terminology—there are different types of uncertainty. What I am talking about is that some proportion of those extreme events was anthropogenically influenced but there is uncertainty about how much was natural and how much was anthropogenic. There is also uncertainty about the specifics. In the future in a warmer world how will extreme events change: where will they change, when will they change and what will be the combination? Will we continue to have floods in Queensland at the same time as in Victoria and in south-east Australia? There is uncertainty about that. Will we continue to have drought in south-west Western Australia at the same time as in South-East Australia? That is the uncertainty I am talking about. It is uncertainty about the impacts not the science.

Senator CAMERON: This goes to the issue of weather versus climate. That is the issue, is it not?

Dr Kiem : Yes. I read the submission from Neville Nicholls on that and I think he summed it up pretty well.

Senator CAMERON: I am not a climate change sceptic but I am a Productivity Commission sceptic I must say.

Dr Eburn : Are you talking about the interim report?

Senator CAMERON: Yes.

Dr Eburn : I thought the interim report had some—

Senator CAMERON: The Productivity Commission, in their recommendation to government on the barriers to effective climate change adaptation, say that we should ensure that regulatory and policy frameworks do not impede private risk management. This is the bias of the Productivity Commission towards the private sector—that the government should be minimised, that the government cannot do it properly, that the private sector is the only way to go. This goes directly against the evidence we have had here today from Dr Donald that the private sector—that is, people in the local area—just cannot do it by themselves, that they need the government overview. It comes back to the recommendations you are making in your submission that state governments should expressly set out the role of local government in emergency response and articulate the relationship between state agencies and local governments.

I have put the position to Dr Donald that I think you need local input because locals know what is happening. There is a limitation to what governments can do in terms of a set framework in my view but I do not go to the argument that the Productivity Commission do, that you cannot impede the private sector. The private sector needs leadership, I think, on many occasions. What is your view about taking this forward legislatively? How do we legislate to deal with the issues you put forward in your submissions 1 and 2?

Dr Eburn : I think I have addressed why the Commonwealth should have some power. I do not do think that the states should. If you look at various emergency management legislation and local government acts about the role of local government in emergency management, you see that it is almost non-existent. For a long time local government has been the provider of resources to state agencies. Whatever the combat agency is, whether it is the fire agency or the SES, they would contact the local council and say, 'We need a bulldozer,' and that was pretty much the extent of their involvement. I think the critical thing for local government—and it was a comment I was going to make in response to Senator's Milne's question too—is that you have to make some decisions on a local level about what is the acceptable level of risk. When we have these discussions about how we need to adapt and deal with these future events, the reality is that we have always had bushfires, as Dr Hanna said, and we are still going to have them. We are going to have cyclones. People are still going to live on the coast because it is actually really nice, and they are going to live in the hillsides behind Melbourne because it is really nice, and fires are going to come through there and, I am sorry to say, people are going to die. But I am not sure that that is always a failure. What we have to try to determine is what the acceptable level of risk is, and this is where I think that local government is critically important as to who decides what the acceptable level of risk is.

I am a bit all over the place, I will grant you, but I really think a tragedy out of the 2009 bushfires royal commission—and to come back to something that Dr Hanna just said—was that it quite rightly out of compassion for the community said that it was going to focus the 173 people who died. They completely failed to tell the stories of the people who did not die and what those people did right. So we get a picture that people are not adapting and are not prepared and able to cope without the fire trucks coming. But they know what to do. People do, and they survive, but their stories do not get told. I think the critical issue—to come back to your question—is for local governments and authorities to be the ones to decide what the acceptable level of risk is. Local governments should be able to decide whether they are going to let people live in a really nice place where they will be able to get a ratepayer base because people are going to come in, but equally, they should recognise there is a risk. If you have a residual risk, just because it happens does not mean that anybody failed. I think that is the critical role for local government.

When we come back to the private sector, I agree with what you said about the Productivity Commission. If we do not want to interfere with people's private choices to make their own defensive decisions, then the classic problem arises. I am not a water scientist, obviously, but my understanding is that if you let people build their own coastal protections or whatever, you are just shifting problems. You are just allowing them to pass the problem to someone else. Somewhere someone has to be the decision-maker about what is an acceptable level of risk. It seems to me that that is critically a local government issue.

That is also consistent with the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience. We want resilient communities. Let communities make these sorts of decisions. That is the balance, I think, because then that enables a decision to be made that says to the private sector or, more importantly, the private individual, 'You just cannot do that. You cannot just build your seawall to protect your property because all you are doing is damaging someone else's,' or 'You cannot decide that in this beautiful bush block that we are all living in, you are going to concrete yours because it will be fireproof,' but it actually destroys our amenity. Equally, to other people you can say, 'You cannot let your bush block become an overgrown natural wilderness because, yes, it is really nice, but actually you are putting everyone at risk.' Someone needs to be taking that line: how do we manage this risk and what is the acceptable level of risk? I think that local government is the critical group to do that.

That will lead to inconsistencies, but surely that is what communities are for. Do they have to be consistent? That is why we have states. The basic principle is that they are not the same and they are allowed to make different decisions and experiment, and you can then learn from that—this one did it this way and that one did it that way so which is the better way? I am not sure that that is an answer to your question, but I think that local governments are key players here but they are given very little authority. In the legislation they are given very little authority. The economists, I think, will tell you that they are also given very few resources.

Senator CAMERON: One of the submissions we had just prior to your coming in was local government and they argued that they are suffering because of lack of resources. The risk is being pushed back to local government from state government without appropriate resources. Has anyone got any views on that?

Dr Eburn : That is certainly what you hear. It is not a field of my research so I cannot comment on it, but certainly that is what they say. Legislatively, I can say that they have virtually no power in any of the local government acts or emergency management acts to do anything particularly—

Senator CAMERON: What role should COAG play in bringing about appropriate legislative change at all levels of government to bring about what you are proposing?

Dr Eburn : COAG can really only ever play a guiding overall policy principle role. I think that COAG has written the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience which is a good high-level document. It has limited translation. But that really is the role of COAG, I would have thought: to set that high level policy and to then encourage and work with the states, who then have to encourage and work with their local governments to give it effect and teeth. But it has to also be different, because local communities are different across the country—which would go against that template model, because they are different.

CHAIR: Can I thank each of you very much for the time you have taken where submissions have been presented and the time you have taken in addressing the committee today. It is genuinely appreciated by all of us, and we thank you for your participation in the inquiry.

The committee will now take a brief suspension.

Proceedings suspended from 10:45 to 11:04