Australian governments: more of the same

Australia’s political consideration of adaptation issues has, to date, also focused mainly on cataloguing risks and promoting further research, with little tangible development over almost two decades of practical policy frameworks for implementing adaptation responses.

On 11 October 1990, the Minister for Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories, Ros Kelly, and the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, John Kerin, jointly announced that the Commonwealth Government had adopted an interim planning target to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 20 per cent by the year 2005. The two ministers also announced that a referral had been made to the Industry Commission to prepare a report on the cost-benefit implications for Australian industry of such a target, and that Ecologically Sustainable Development working groups would be established to report to the Government on a range of greenhouse-gas-related measures. However, there was no reference to adaptation issues in the announcement itself.

The Industry Commission (1991:2) report commented that the state of scientific knowledge at the time did ‘not allow any reasonable estimate to be made of the impacts that would be avoided by a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions’ but refers only in passing to the possibility of adaptation measures. The Ecologically Sustainable Development working groups issued various sectoral reports in 1991 but do not appear to have covered directly issues related to adaptation to climate change. Nor does the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (Commonwealth of Australia 1992b) — an outcome of the working group process — deal with adaptation.

The first Special Premiers’ Conference, held in October 1990, issued a communiqué announcing an intention to develop an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE), and Prime Minister Paul Keating’s One Nation statement of 26 February 1992 announced that agreement had been reached on this. Schedule 5 of the IGAE provided for the development of a National Greenhouse Response Strategy (Commonwealth of Australia, 1992a), which was published in December 1992 with the endorsement of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

Adaptation does feature, however, in both of the main parts of the National Greenhouse Response Strategy (NGRS): ‘Specific Sectoral Strategies’ and ‘Measures Already Underway’. Its objective is stated as being to ‘protect Australia’s natural, human and built environment from the potential impacts of the enhanced greenhouse effect’ (Commonwealth of Australia 1992a). Strategies for achieving this aim include:

Some of the measures identified as being already under way (Commonwealth of Australia 1992a: 60–1) included research by the CSIRO, various monitoring activities to assess the extent and impact of climate change, expert workshops, and the development by ‘some State and Territory Governments and local councils [of] ... new planning regimes in recognition of the potential for changes in sea level, flooding and storm surges’.

Apart from a reformulation of the NGRS into the 1998 National Greenhouse Strategy (NGS) following a review initiated in 1996 (Productivity Commission 1999: 227), COAG appears to have given little or no active attention to the issue of adaptation for more than a decade after it endorsed the NGRS. It was only in February 2006 that COAG agreed to a Climate Change Plan of Action ( that included development of a national adaptation framework, and the April 2007 meeting of COAG endorsed a National Climate Change Adaptation Framework.

The new National Climate Change Adaptation Framework reveals little conceptual progress from the content of the 1992 NGRS. It proposes the establishment of an Australian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation (since established at Griffith University) and identifies additional risks such as fires, mosquito-borne infections, heatwaves, and the spread of invasive species. Overall, however, it is at least arguable that it does little more in essence than the NGRS in calling for more research, identification and assessment of risks and vulnerabilities, and their incorporation into decision-making in sectoral areas of concern.

State governments have separately issued various reports and action plans. The Victorian Government has published a comprehensive climate-change adaptation program that includes risk assessments and publications such as State of Victoria (2007). Other states have similar plans and publications, and non-governmental organisations such as the Agriculture and Land Management Working Group (2003) and Engineers Australia (2004) have also addressed issues of risk and adaptation. However, the review of likely health impacts of climate change by the Department of Health of Western Australia (2007) is unusual in that the Executive Summary recognises explicitly that ‘the lack of detailed knowledge of future climatic conditions in Western Australia ... did not allow for a comprehensive and quantitative assessment of health impacts’.