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Heat is on to respond to the fury of our forever changing climate

by Assistant Professor Ned Wales, expert in land use development, environmental management, and quantitative research projects

If there’s one thing the Christmas night storm and the heavy rains that followed taught us, it’s that the Gold Coast must build towards a more climate-resilient future.  

Thankfully, it’s something that our local authorities are increasingly becoming aware of as future-proofing our communities against weather extremes gains increasing airtime in top-level town planning discussions.  

But it will all come at a cost that homeowners will need to bear. Let me explain.  

Never has it been more important for town planners, builders, intending homeowners and all levels of government to be singing from the same song sheet - and thankfully it’s all off to a good start.  

The City of Gold Coast’s Climate Resilience and Sustainability Strategy 2022-2033 recognises that the city has a long history of managing weather emergencies and natural hazards.  

It also acknowledges that climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of major storms, heatwaves, flooding, bushfire, and drought, which are all seriously placing our enviable lifestyle at risk.  

We saw it in furious form on Christmas night, and well into the new year with power cut to tens of thousands of homes and businesses, city infrastructure brought down, trees falling on mercifully empty childcare centres and destruction to untold numbers of streets,  

It all makes it much more urgent to look at what we build on our greenfield housing development sites - weatherproofing our construction future so as not to put further strain on ourselves and the city’s emergency and recovery services.  

But the real downside is that sadly, in Australia we still have a surprising number of people that don't believe in climate change, and as a nation we are slow to take on innovation and adapt to the scientific predictions of climate change that have been around for decades.   

The flood modelling for climate change has been available for at least 20 years and yet there has been no political will to address it and make meaningful attempts to mitigate the impacts of serve weather events.  

From a political perspective we have had our head in the sand, thinking that climate change would never happen.

But as the reality slowly hits, all of this of course impacts the offerings of our insurance providers.  

Just last month we were told that one in eight Queensland households are spending a month's wages on home and contents insurance as premiums skyrocket.  

That’s a huge financial strain for people living in the land famously billed as The Sunshine State and it seriously brings into focus what sort of houses we should be building and where we should be putting them.  

It is also abundantly clear that as climate change escalates and coastal populations increase, adaption to ongoing risks to coastal communities due to rising sea levels and storm surges must be reassessed.  

In fact, CoreLogic’s 2022 Coastal Risk Scores for Financial Risk Assessment whitepaper indicates that increasing storm surges and coastal erosion have the potential to impact $25 billion worth of Australian residential coastal property.  

To underline the point, Global reinsurer AXA published a 2022 future risk report that lists climate change as the top threat to society, saying that dangerous storm events could cost coastal urban areas more than US$1 trillion dollars annually by 2050.  

One can only imagine how much this is spooking insurers moving ahead.  

Indeed, the cost of insurance has an impact on housing affordability and has placed some people in a position of no longer holding flood insurance but rather choosing the risk and cost financial impacts of not being insured.   

Bank loans are also affected where some lending institutions are not willing to provide loans to purchase homes in high flood risk areas.

And that’s why proper zoning and what we build where in our urban areas has never been more important.  

We know now that positioning is paramount, as is the proximity to trees large and small, as well as elevation in areas prone to flood.  
And just because a building block has never flooded before, we can hardly count on water not being diverted our way (hopefully unknowingly) by others one day in the future, as has happened many times before.  

We should be looking closer at the effectiveness of our drainage, choosing building designs suitable for the local climate, and encouraging the greening of neighbourhoods.  

We need to look at advanced insulation and ventilation to withstand extreme heat and cold and if there’s one thing we learned on Christmas night, it’s to build with a backup power source and a secure room to provide safety during emergencies.  

The opportunity to mandate sustainable development principles into the land development process happens through Australia's relatively new building code: the National Construction Code of Australia (2022) and state and local government urban planning policy.  

It is a performance-based building code making minimum requirements and asking – yes, asking - the developer to provide innovative solutions based on market demand.   

Although it’s admirable to expect industry to deliver solutions to these issues, it is a false hope as what has proven to work is strict requirements with strong government compliance.  

Within the current system, there is some attempt to address the impacts of climate change, with some sustainable development requirements.  

However, Queensland is running behind Victoria and New South Wales, who have held strict building performance requirements for the past two decades.   

There are also the considerations of freshwater security and infrastructure such as roads, transportation and other major civic projects which must be resilient to weather extremes and protect our increasingly fragile and vulnerable local ecosystems.  

It is also important to recognise that the way Australia pays for infrastructure is a pay-as-you-go approach.   

Generally, we raise tax revenue to repair or build infrastructure as money is available, quite different from, say, the United States, where public funding for infrastructure is paid through market investment via the issuing of government bonds and annuities.   

And in Australia, we have a long history of undercooking the growth expectations.  

This is reinforced with short electoral cycles, and demonstrated in the fact that master-planning of future growth was only beginning to be addressed in the state's regional plans 15 years ago.

So sadly, here we find ourselves a long way from the great Australian dream that for generations was a suburban fortress of our own, a red brick house on a quarter acre block in the suburbs with a veranda out the front and clothesline out the back.  
Now in these unpredictable climatic times, the fortress part of the dream takes on fresh meaning as our lifestyle and livelihoods compete much more often with nature’s angriest forces.  

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