URGENT action to cope with the impact of rising sea levels needs to start now, including improving evacuation routes for coastal communities during extreme storms and flooding.
As well, a sweeping federal parliamentary report calls for an overhaul of the building code to make homes more resilient and for the legal liability for future property losses to be sorted out.
Warning that ”the time to act is now”, the bipartisan report brought down last night states that thousands of kilometres of coastline have been identified as at risk from the threat of rising sea levels and extreme weather events caused by climate change.
The committee, led by Labor’s Jennie George and with the Liberal Mal Washer as co-chairman, wants the Government to take a far greater role in preparing coastal towns and cities to adapt to the impact of sea level rise.
Their report recommends a new intergovernmental agreement on the coastal zone to be worked out between Canberra, the states and councils to set out actions and guidelines on the enormous coastal challenges from climate change.
“The first clarion call from everybody was the need for national leadership,” Ms George told the Herald. “We have taken up that call”.
Eighty per cent of Australians live in the coastal zone facing major pressures, says the report. The concentration of people and infrastructure makes Australia “particularly vulnerable to the coastal erosion and inundation that will accompany increases in sea level”.
There are about 711,000 addresses within three kilometres of the coast and less than six metres above sea level but government in the coastal zone is described as ”complex and fragmented”.
The committee accepts the United Nations’ scientific findings that sea levels will rise about 80 centimetres globally by 2100, but it says this could be an underestimation if greenhouse gas emissions are not slowed and the polar ice caps melt. It notes each centimetre of sea level rise could push the shoreline back a metre or more.
Sea level rise will also cause a disproportionately large increase in the frequency of flooding and erosion that will come with high tides and storm surges.
More than 200,000 buildings on the NSW coast are likely to be vulnerable. Queensland is most at risk, but every state and territory faces huge challenges, from Darwin Harbour to Fremantle.
Among the committee’s recommendations is for the Surf Life Saving network to be brought into the emergency planning system to deal with the impact of increasing storm hazards.
The report also recommends the Australian Emergency Management Committee examine an improved early warning system for coastal areas in the event of extreme seas, storm surges, major erosion or flooding.
During its 18 months of work, the committee heard pleas from the Torres Strait, where thousands of people face the prospect of losing their homes. It recommends a study into the vulnerability of the area by the CSIRO, the Department of Climate Change and the Queensland Government.
It also wants more research on tropical diseases migrating south, especially dengue fever.
Ms George said one of the most vexed issues before the committee was insurance coverage for home owners close to the beachfront. The report recommends the Productivity Commission begin an inquiry into the impact of climate change on insurance, including gaps that already exist.
Evidence before the committee revealed insurers were already unwilling to cover so-called ”saltwater risks” that included the erosion of beachfront properties or flooding by sea water.
The committee also wants the commission to examine a prohibition on the occupation of land that is extremely vulnerable to sea rise hazards.
The committee will deliver its report to the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, and the Environment Minister, Peter Garrett. It recognises the Government has already begun a series of studies and actions to adapt to climate change. Senator Wong is expected to deliver the first major assessment of the vulnerability of Australia’s coast to sea level rise next month.
But the committee found serious gaps in the planning guidelines, the law, insurance and emergency planning that needed to be addressed.
One of its main recommendations is that the Federal Government consider adopting a nationally consistent benchmark on projected sea level rise as states and local governments struggle to work out their response