The vanishing homes on our floodplains

The village of my childhood comprised a dozen or so company houses on the main road, our family home on the hillside above and the farmhouse of my father’s youth down on the river flats – and a newsprint mill along the riverbank.

The great fire that swept down the Derwent Valley on a scorching February day in 1967 burned down the old farmhouse and killed my father’s sister, one of over 60 Tasmanian deaths on that day, but no-one else in the village lost their home or their lives.

Corporate decision-makers did what fire had failed to do. Within 25 years the mill had removed all those homes, those props for old memories, so it could expand. All that now remains is a pattern of driveways and house footings. That’s progress.

Weeks after those fires I moved to Brisbane, where in the wake of the devastating 2022 floods something similar is now happening. Authorities in this “city with a river problem”, as Margaret Cook described it in her history of Brisbane floods, are now helping owners to relocate to higher ground by buying vulnerable homes and demolishing them.

With an annual rainfall double that of either Hobart or Melbourne, the Brisbane River’s catchment is six times bigger than the Yarra’s and half the size of Tasmania. Brisbane’s intense recent flood events have laid bare its vulnerability. 

In an essay in the May issue of The Monthly, novelist Ashley Hay wrote of her surreal experience walking the dog in her riverside suburb of Fairfield, named for the bountiful soils of the floodplain on which it was built. Houses keep disappearing, to be replaced by grass.

As Hay explains, as of mid-March this year, 100 properties in her council ward and hundreds more across Brisbane have been demolished or removed under a voluntary home buyback scheme offered by the state’s Reconstruction Authority in the wake of the 2021-22 floods, out of a total of 678 offers across southeast Queensland. 

In Lismore and nearby centres in northern NSW hit by unprecedented flood disasters in 2020 and 2022, that state’s Reconstruction Authority has bought hundreds of properties. While owners decide whether they can afford to relocate their vacated homes to higher ground, a group of homeless locals and itinerants called Relaim Our Recovery is occupying them and resisting official attempts to evict them.

The process of recovery and reconstruction is fraught with complex, competing needs, as authorities are now discovering. We don’t know if Lismore or Brisbane – or Latrobe in Tasmania or Windsor in NSW or Shepparton in Victoria or numberless other low-lying towns across the country – will suffer a deluge this year or next or any time. We just hope that they don’t.

But as a nation we have to look at at places most vulnerable to flood – or for that matter coastal storm surge, or fire, or drought – and work out how to mitigate damage and heartache when the big events inevitably happen. This month the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions released a report which pushes hard for a national strategy for relocating communities facing an escalating risk as a result of climate change.

The report finds that on top of the 250,000-odd Australians internally displaced by fire, flood and drought since 2008, over coming decades an increasing number of communities living on river floodplains and low-lying coasts and in places susceptible to bushfire and extreme heat will be forced to move to safer locations.

The institute’s head of disaster solutions, Roslyn Prinsley, told ABC Radio National this month that research led by the Climate Council indicated that by 2030 river flooding will see one in 25 homes across the country become uninsurable as a result of river flooding.

In the most affected regions, that figure rises to one home in 10: “So what we’re thinking is that those people should be moved now, pre-emptively, rather than wait till they’re in that situation,” Prinsley said. Hence the empty blocks in Hay’s riverside Brisbane suburb and the vacated Lismore homes waiting to be moved, or to fall down.

The residents of flood-prone homes don’t know when the next deluge will force them to flee, any more than I in my Hobart forest retreat can know when the next fire will come. But there is a trend, measured year on year by rising home insurance premiums. In the case of some floodplain dwellers these are already unpayable.

The ANU study is a good guide for authorities as to which settlements are likely candidates for wholesale relocation. Whatever the cost nationally, estimated to be hundreds of billions of dollars, it will be cheap compared to the cost of repeated disasters.

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Peter Dutton’s high-risk nuclear gambit

How does this work? The Coalition lost the 2022 election in large part because its decades-old climate policy of pretence, denial and delay hit a wall. Now it’s heading for another poll promising more of the same while it experiments with nuclear energy.

This makes no sense without one key factor. Certain influential people in the Coalition – mainly but not entirely in the Nationals part of it – have always believed that the science of greenhouse warming is at best wrong and at worst a cult, or a conspiracy to make us all poor. 

Barnaby Joyce MP and Senator Matt Canavan are leading examplars but far from alone. While pretending to remain committed to a net-zero 2050 target their leader, Peter Dutton, has now placed their climate denialism on centre stage for all to see.

These people have never taken seriously what the entire gamut of relevant sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, you name it – has been saying for decades with increasing unanimity. That is, that human carbon emissions are causing the climate to get warmer and wilder, that the threat is mounting rapidly, and that the only solution is for rich nations to eliminate carbon from their energy mix, quickly.

As if it’s just gossip or a scary fairy tale, Peter Dutton has let all this wash over him. In offering nuclear as an alternative to Labor’s all-out solar and wind rollout he’s kicking the can down the road for short term gain, counting on the near-term pain of rising living costs eclipsing all other concerns until after the next election.

The rise of populism in this month’s European elections suggests this tactic might work for him, just as it might work for Donald Trump in November’s US presidential elections. That bleak scenario would see climate action gone from the US agenda and the prospect of the same happening here.

The 2022 election promised to be a turning-point for fossil fuel fortunes. But coal and gas, supported as exports by the Albanese government, will both be buoyed by a Coalition energy manifesto requiring that old power stations keep going until nuclear is ready to plug into their transmission lines.

Last year I wrote that while Australia was right to focus on wind and solar, nuclear energy could not be ruled out long-term. CSIRO’s GenCost report last month advised that as the technology now stands nuclear power would be as much as twice the cost of wind and solar with batteries (a lot more if we go for much-touted small modular reactors or SMRs), and that the first reactor could not be up and running before 2040.

A current commercial move to extend operation of a Hunter Valley coal mine to 2050 has been described by the NSW Environment Protection Authority as the state’s “largest coal mining proposal ever”. The coal is intended for export, but a guaranteed long-term supply would fit neatly into the Coalition’s nuclear plans.

The impact on Australian carbon emissions of the Coalition’s coal-to-nuclear plan would be catastrophic. The desperately tight timetable for meeting Australia’s legislated 2030 emissions target of 43 per cent below 2005 levels would be gone (requiring new legislation) along with our recently-acquired reputation as a nation that cares about climate change. And we would effectively be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which expressly forbids weakening interim targets.

The diminishing number of city-based Liberals know all about the potential electoral cost of so carelessly reversing that target and the reputational gain that came with it. You could see and hear it on the airwaves last week, in their tense, glum expressions and trigger-happy responses to interview questions. 

They went through the motions of trotting out the Coalition talking points – the impact on power prices of Labor’s impossible 2030 emissions and renewables targets, exaggerated costs of carbon-free nuclear, their continuing commitment to Paris and net-zero by 2050 – but there can be no denying that they are deeply worried.

No such concern was evident from their leader, nor from leading proponents of the Coalition’s crash-and-burn policy shift, the likes of Joyce and Canavan and energy spokesman Ted O’Brien. They continue to pay lip-service to the science where convenient while patently rejecting or ignoring those parts that don’t fit. Their demeanour conveys the absolute conviction of a new-age Spanish Inquisition.

There’s a dark cloud hanging over Peter Dutton’s new energy narrative in the form of persistent questioning about the location of nuclear plants. Nuclear risks are doubtless being exaggerated, but given the Coalition’s record of misinformation about renewables and climate change, their leader is in no position to complain. 

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Is there a bias in our land carbon reporting?

How is Australia tracking towards its commitment to cut carbon emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050, and how much faith can ordinary citizens have in the answers they get? These are the questions for our age.

Since it began quarterly greenhouse reporting to the UN in 1991, Australia has been refining its methods of measuring emissions, using national inventory data and other sources covering manufacturing, energy use, transport, population, agriculture and weather.

Serving as a check against this “bottom up” approach are CSIRO “top-down” measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations at Cape Grim and Darwin, complemented by ancient air samples extracted from Antarctic ice.

Our reports are said to be well-regarded by the UN, but there remains a high level of uncertainty in one critical category, land use, taking in the huge quantity of carbon flowing in and out of soils and trees. It’s important to keep this under review because trees taking up carbon are the basis of most offsetting schemes – without which the world’s 2050 net-zero targets, including ours, would be unachievable.

Ketan Joshi, an Australian data analyst and writer now living in Norway, took a forensic look at Australia’s land-use emissions data in a post in Giles Parkinson’s Renew Economy last week. His focus was the parameters we use to determine which information is admissible and which isn’t, and how those parameters have been adjusted over the years.

Joshi began with an analogy from NSW public transport: “I remember the time that NSW solved the problems of late trains by changing the definition of late. It didn’t make our lives as commuters any easier, but hey: it did result in fewer late trains. Our problem was not solved. Their problem was.”

A similar mindset, where perceived success is more important than actual success, said Joshi, appears to be influencing the way Australia accounts for its land carbon. He got to work on the emissions data over the decade to last December, and came to the conclusion some sort of political influence was being brought to bear on the way successive Australian governments account for land carbon. 

There’s genuine scientific value in coming to grips with how land carbon works, and Australia is a prominent contributor to this work in gathering historical data and using models to refine that record in periodic revisions. But a trend in the effect of those revisions, previously noted in 2019 by policy analyst Michael Mazengarb and climate scientist Bill Hare, is starting to look disturbing. 

A fortnight ago, Hare observed that “every time the government recalculates how much carbon the land use sector is storing, the less work it has to do on actually cutting emissions from fossil fuels and industry sectors… 24 per cent by 2030, rather than 32 per cent. These changes to land use accounting may sound arcane, but they have very real consequences.”

Joshi commented: “You can see how this is a sort of pincer movement of adjustments: base year goes up to weaken the target, and recent years go down, to further narrow the gap of reductions required.” Adjusting 2005 emissions allowed scope for millions more tonnes of emissions to be released in the year 2030: “roughly equivalent to keeping one of the country’s biggest coal plants open. How lovely.”

“And how gloriously auspicious that every revision to Australia’s emissions accounting method results in the numbers tilting specifically up in the base year, and tilting specifically down in recent years.”

Just hours after Hare’s article was posted the Australian government published its latest emissions report, revealing, as Joshi described it, land use emissions dropping by about six million tonnes per quarter for the past three years – “the most significant downwards revision of recent history of emissions data ever.”

The 2005 baseline adjustments were the subject of some lively email discussion among members of Climate Tasmania last week. Scientists in the group advised that the revisions were part of the normal process of refining models and warned against inferring that there had been political conspiracy. 

We need to have enough faith in scientific processes and safeguards to discard any notion that the Albanese government or any of its predecessors have cooked the books. There is no conceivable avenue for direct political interference in that process – certainly not in Australia.

But governments face immense pressure to show policies succeeding and emissions declining (a pressure increased further by the Coalition’s new policy to defy the Paris Agreement and dump Labor’s 2030 target). In these circumstances bias – conscious or unconscious – is unavoidable.

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