Local government weighs climate risks

There’s no place like home. That’s why local government is a key to a successful climate strategy. [13 August 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Coastal inundation: flood tide and storm swell at Kingston Beach. PHOTO KATRINA GRAHAM

An unfortunate casualty of Kevin Rudd’s decision to go to an election on 7 September was a referendum that if passed would have seen local government recognised in the national constitution.

Given the negative record of stand-alone referendums, it’s odds-on that Australians won’t get another chance to bring this about for at least another three years, when the next federal election comes around.

The vote was looking shaky anyway. History shows that without strong bipartisan support referendum proposals don’t stand much chance. Most national MPs and senators said they supported the proposal, but opposition leader Tony Abbott’s endorsement was at best lukewarm.

Parliament’s approval of the referendum in late June allowed it to be held on Julia Gillard’s chosen election date, 14 September, but not before. But a local government referendum was a complexity that an embattled Rudd didn’t want, and may even have determined his decision to go early.

This was an opportunity missed. International, national and state politics dominate our public discourse, but the things that really matter in our lives are the people, networks and infrastructures that make up our local communities. They deserve a place in our constitution.

Social networking technology and cheap air fares, by enabling us to keep in touch with people in distant places, create the illusion of a world getting smaller. Last week I wrote about the Marshall Islands, thousands of kilometres away, as if they were next door. But believe it or not, the world is as big as it ever was. When we’re hit with trouble of any kind, distant places and people aren’t much help. It’s families, neighbours and friends living nearby who can do most to help us. When all’s said and done, this is what it’s all about. It’s home. It’s also the basis of our wealth. There are business people, like politicians, whose purview is the nation or the whole world, but they’d be nothing without the handshake across a table, the local wheeling and dealing that’s the wellspring of all business.

National and global agreements have figured prominently in the discussion around what we should do about our changing climate, but these are mere talk unless there’s physical action right here on the ground. That’s where local government comes in, and hence the climate adaptation strategy of the Southern Tasmanian Councils Authority (STCA) and its agents, Katrina Graham, who is the Hobart City Council’s environment and climate change officer, Graham Green (Southern Midlands Council) and Oliver Heyward (Brighton Council). The project has been years in the making. Sharing a concern about how a changing climate might affect the communities they worked for, Graham, Heyward and Green got together in 2010 with a view to persuading local authorities that climate change represented real risks to their business.

This is no simple task. Practical outcomes mean everything to local government. My own dealings with councils have left me with the sense that many of their people see climate change as highbrow nonsense, a matter for higher levels of government, if not for the fairies.

With federal funding and a grant from the Hobart City Council, David Hunn and David Lovell, then the joint CEOs of STCA, brought together representatives of their 12 member councils to establish a working group called the Regional Climate Change Initiative. Out of this came the “Regional Councils Climate Change Adaptation Strategy” for the southern councils, launched earlier this year by climate change minister Cassy O’Connor.

Founded on the principle that climate change is a global issue requiring local solutions, this is a milestone in the effort to ensure that Tasmanians are alert to climate risks in their local area and as prepared as possible to deal with extreme events or evolving change. The strategy drew heavily on the highly-detailed output of Climate Futures Tasmania, a University of Tasmania research group which for four years from 2007 developed climate projections for the 21st century for different parts of Tasmania, down to a world-leading 14 km grid resolution.

Graham, Heyward and Green have travelled far and wide to alert local authorities to the risks that they need to prepare for, including legal liability from making decisions that fail to account for climate change, and to help them develop management strategies for their municipal area. The strategy identifies major risks to people, agriculture, infrastructure and natural systems from a rising incidence of heat waves, coastal inundation, extreme rainfall, flooding, drought and bushfire. All these elements carry significant risk throughout the state, but the big one for southern Tasmania is bushfire. Modelling by the Parks and Wildlife Service showed a rising bushfire risk on the Central Plateau and to the west of southern population centres over the decades to 2100.

Southern Tasmania was the focus of the initial effort, but with support from their councils and the STCA the team has also travelled farther afield to meet with representatives of most remaining Tasmanian councils, with the ultimate aim of strategies that cover the whole state.

Council people have been persuaded to support adaptation regardless of what they think is causing climate to change. As Hobart Lord Mayor Damon Thomas wrote in the foreword to the southern strategy, climate change “will affect every aspect of function and services of local government”.

Facilitating a smoother transition to a different future is an obvious aim of regional adaptation strategies, but there will also be spin-off benefits. In adopting the strategies Tasmanian councils accept a responsibility to be alert to changes in their local climate. Doing this will raise their awareness of the damage a destabilised climate can do to infrastructures, food production and the health of people, communities and the natural environment.

Effective adaptation practices will also bring home to councils the rewards that flow from lower demands on fossil fuels and other natural resources — if they’re not already convinced of that by rising community disquiet at Petrogas’s exploration plans for the southern Midlands.

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