When Jo Groves bought her property in Lismore, she worked hard to make it her own and thought she would grow old in it.
Now, she’s unsure when she’ll be able to return and, even then, she’s apprehensive about it.
“I have to come back in the short term,” she said.
“But in the longer term, I’ll get out as soon as I can.”
Ms Groves is one of many Australians on the east coast — and in Lismore in particular — who have been displaced after two years of record rainfall and widespread flooding.
When she bought her home in late 2016 she knew flooding was a risk.
“But I’m a low income earner and my choices were limited in terms of affordable housing in Lismore,” she said.
In 2017, just months after she finished renovating and moved in, Lismore was hit with its worst floods in 40 years.
A foot of water gushed through her newly renovated home.
Mitigation not enough
After the flooding event, Jo did everything she could to make her home flood safe.
With the help of a government grant, she even elevated her home four metres off the ground.
She said it was as high as was legally allowed, and it put her floor 80cm above what was known as Lismore’s crucial “one in 100 year flood” level.
It is a marker used by state governments and local councils around the country to determine “flood planning levels” — the level above which new houses must be built.
“I believed that raising the house would make it flood safe,” Ms Groves said.
But in February this year, another unprecedented flood swept through the town.
Ms Groves ended up with 1.25m of water through her home — a flood more than two metres above the one-in-100-year-flood level.
Emergency responders ‘flying blind’
Around Australia, statistical measures like the “one-in-100-year flood” level are used by authorities to determine safe building standards, allocate rescue resources and determine emergency response plans.
Homes in bushfire prone areas are built to withstand certain fires, based on the “accumulated fire danger index” for the area.
Likewise, homes in cyclone-prone areas are built to withstand the category of cyclone expected for the area.
The thing most of these measures have in common is that they’re based on the historical record.
David Karoly, one of Australia’s leading climate scientists, said the impact of climate change meant these measures were now “essentially worthless”.
“Information about climate extremes has in the past been based on datasets and available observations up to about the 1980s and 1990s,” he said.
“But information about the past is not a good guide to what’s going to happen now, in the 2030s, the 2050s, and later.”
Greg Mullins is a former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and has been a firefighter for about 50 years.
He said climate change meant these days he was “flying blind”.
“Throughout my firefighting career, we pretty well knew what the risks were; what to expect in a bushfire season,” he said.
“That started to change from the late ’90s. Now, we really have no idea.”
This summer’s flooding was not the first time concerns have been raised about Australia’s preparedness for climate change impacts. Or, as Greg Mullins puts it: “taking the blindfold off our emergency responders”.
Climate change projections ‘save lives’
Figuring out how frequent extreme weather events were likely to be in a hotter climate was a recommendation of the royal commission that followed the black summer bushfires of 2019-2020.
It recommended the Commonwealth work with the state and territory governments to develop what are called “downscaled climate projections”.
The projections take the global climate models and run them at much higher resolution, producing projections about how frequent and likely devastating fire weather, extreme rainfall and other extreme weather phenomena will be.
Greg Mullins, who is also a former head of the group Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, said this sort of work was essential for emergency managers, planning authorities and the general public.
“The royal commission overtly said that [in the future] we need to work on the basis of data that is currently outside the realms of expectation and reduce that lack of knowledge,” he says.
“These days we fly blind on the worst days because we’ve never had conditions like 2019 or early 2020.”
David Karoly agreed.
“What we need — [and ] it’s what we needed five years ago — is new climate change projections for Australia based on the most recent global and regional climate change information,” he said.
To produce those regional and local projections — the downscaled climate projections — the Australian government would need to invest in the order of $100 million to run climate models at very high resolution on supercomputers, according to Professor Karoly.
Robert Glasser is the head of the Climate and Science Policy Centre, within the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Previously, he was the UN’s Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Dr Glasser said getting up to date information about natural disasters and climate change would save lives.
“It’s important to understand these things,” he said.
“Because if we want to prepare for them — if we want to be sure that when these events happen, that we’re able to survive, and ideally thrive as opposed to suffer destruction, loss of life, economic losses — then we have to understand how often they happen.”
Australian Climate Service funding ‘not adequate’
Last year, the federal government set aside $210 million to create the Australian Climate Service (ACS), set up, in part, to satisfy the need for regional and local climate projections in Australia.
According to the government’s website, the service is designed to bring together expertise and information to help local communities build resilience to climate change.
The ACS came about following the Bushfire Royal Commission’s recommendation for downscaled projections, which the commission said should be done in collaboration with the federal, state and territory governments.
Instead, the ACS is answerable to two federal agencies, both of which report to the Commonwealth’s Department of Home Affairs — a move Mr Mullins said was “quite bizarre”, since it is the states and territories that are responsible for almost all emergency response and preparation.
“During the bushfires. Scott Morrison justified his trip to Hawaii at the height of the fires by saying it’s a state territory responsibility, ‘not my job’,” Mr Mullins said.
“Well, my job’s to try and work out what’s happening with these fires, and if I don’t have the data — if that’s held in a government department that’s not responsible for doing that — what good is it?”
David Karoly’s work at the CSIRO was used by the bushfire royal commission to help formulate its recommendation.
In his former roles, he worked closely with those involved in the ACS, until he retired this year.
He believed the big investment needed to produce valuable projections was being siphoned away to other projects.
“Unfortunately, the funding for regional climate projections appears to have been very substantially cut and what had been planned as an $80 million new generation climate projections for Australia appears to have been significantly reallocated to other activities within the Australian Climate Service,” he says.
“It appears now that there’s only going to be $40 million, which is still a significant funding, but will not be adequate.”
The ABC asked the Australian Climate Service (ACS) how much money was being spent on implementing the Bushfire Royal Commission’s recommendation for downscaled climate projections, but didn’t receive a specific answer.
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said the ACS was playing a “key role” in producing the downscaled climate projections called for by the Royal Commission.
“The projections will enable assessments of future natural disaster risks and will inform a national risk assessment,” the spokeswoman said.
The ABC also asked the Morrison government about the alleged cut to spending on local and regional climate projections but didn’t receive an answer.
In a written statement, a Morrison government spokesperson said the investment in the ACS strengthens Australia’s leadership in anticipating the impacts of climate change. They also said the investment was part of a wider set of investments helping Australia respond to extreme weather events.
The spokesperson said: “Data collection and sharing cannot be done by the Commonwealth alone. As the royal commission found, it is critical that states and territories also participate in the collection and sharing of data to inform better decision making in times of natural disaster.”
The spokesperson said National Cabinet had already agreed that all Australian and all state and territory governments would work together to share data and disaster risk information.
But the government couldn’t clarify when and how that data would be shared.
A spokesperson for the environment department said it was preparing a Climate Projections Roadmap for Australia, which would “ensure the projections community meet the needs of a growing number of users of climate information and services”.
Disasters happening ‘frequently’
In 2014, the Productivity Commission — which gives independent research and advice to the government — estimated that about 97 per cent of disaster funding went into cleaning up after events,and only three per cent goes into mitigating the impacts before they occur.
“I think that distribution is a recipe for disaster,” Dr Glasser said.
“With climate change increasing the pace of these extreme hazard events, if all we do is spend [the] lion’s share of our money responding after they strike, we’re never going to get ahead of this.”
He said improved climate projections were an important investment, which would lower the cost of disasters when they occurred.
“Disasters are happening frequently now,” he said.
“The resilience of communities is eroding because how many times can you rebuild your business and the costs? The price tag is just skyrocketing for the government as well.”