Opinion || Emergency plans need to factor in climate risk

With climate change worsening extreme weather events, there have been suggestions that some places are simply too risky to live, and that people should not be allowed to return after a fire or a flood.

The Victorian Government rejected the recommendation of the 2009 Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires calling for “a resettlement strategy for existing developments in areas of unacceptably high bushfire risk.”

But after another high-risk bushfire season knocking on doorsteps in almost every state across the country, the question remains about the role of governments and councils in managing the increased fire risk through stricter controls.

As a law professor who specialises in natural disaster risk, I believe that this would be a heavy-handed approach.

People must be allowed to make decisions that governments may consider to be unwise, a principle that has been affirmed in Australian law.

What government can do is ensure that people have correct and current information on which to base their decisions.

This includes fire and flood maps that reflect the increased risk of extreme weather events driven by our rapidly changing climate.

Councils have reported a reluctance to update or release hazard data out of fear that this may lead to liability if the new information affects property prices in the region. This fear is misplaced.  

Even if that were not the case, the potentially life-threatening consequences of allowing people to build or rebuild without knowledge of the risk from extreme weather events would make it a small price to pay.

But even when armed with up-to-date climate risk information, people may still choose to live in these high-risk areas.

But even when armed with up-to-date climate risk information, people may still choose to live in these high-risk areas.

Our bushland and coasts are beautiful, and home to hundreds of thousands of Australians.

Herein lies a need for local governments to increase their community’s resilience by providing comprehensive local information about hazards and risks, taking actions to mitigate this risk and developing plans on how to respond should a bushfire or flood occur.

As climate change worsens, the risks and those impacted by them will grow.

This reality must be built into Australia’s disaster resilience policy, from the national level right down to local government so that enduring and recovering from disaster is more manageable.

Michael Eburn is an Associate Professor at ANU College of Law