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On hazards and climate

By Chas Keys - posted Monday, 7 July 2014

Let me make a confession. As a neophyte academic at the University of Wollongong in the late 1970s, I greatly admired Don Aitkin's work when he was Professor of Politics at Macquarie University. In particular I always read his weekly column in the National Times, a wonderfully refreshing newspaper now long gone. Don's compass was broad, and he was an acute observer of Australian life and society who brought to bear the insights of the historian, the economist, the sociologist and the political scientist. Periodically I quoted his observations approvingly to my students in lectures. I even read his novel about university life, The Second Chair, but I never met the man behind the words.

So I was pleased to find that Don became in retirement an insightful and prolific contributor to On Line Opinion. Judging from the usually positive responses to his pieces, which range at least as widely as he did in the National Times, his writings have stimulated and challenged many in recent times. I am one who has found his contributions to be interesting, thought-provoking and generally highly worthwhile.

But I have had some reservations. Especially these have arisen when Don has ventured into natural hazards and climate change. Hazard management is a field in which I have been a practitioner, and in my own retirement I have written frequently about floods and their management and occasionally about climate change, in OLO and elsewhere. So what I have to say is from one contributor to OLO to another.


I have four points to make, two about simple facts and two about interpretations and judgements. In Extreme weather in  Australia (OLO, 19 October 2012), a piece about floods, cyclones, droughts, storms and bush fires, Don says twice in quick succession that "We don't have tornadoes in Australia." But we do! Tornadoes have been noted here since 1795 and there have almost certainly been at least 20 fatalities as a direct result of them. In 1976, a Volkswagen with two occupants in it was picked up by a tornado in Victoria and hurled to the ground: both the driver and the passenger died.

And there has been much damage done over the years to houses, sheds, caravans and other constructions. Not a few people have been admitted to hospital recently with injuries due to  tornado strikes.

Of course our tornado problem is vastly less severe than it is in the USA, where substantial numbers of people die as a result of tornadoes and great damage is done each year. More of the tornadoes appear to be severe in the US, and the areas in which they typically occur are generally more highly populated with the result that more people are exposed.

And naturally tornadoes do far less damage in Australia and kill fewer people than tropical cyclones, floods and bush fires.

Don's not knowing of the existence of tornadoes in this country is part of a wider tendency amongst Australians to deny the severity of the agents of natural disaster. Years ago, the leaders of the Australian skiing fraternity were vehement in denying that avalanches occurred in the Australian Alps. But then in 1956 one happened, and a death resulted. A myth was debunked, and for the first time people started to think about the avalanche risk when they skied off piste or built mountain huts.

These are instances of our failure to understand hazards or to take them as seriously as we should. Too often we build in locations that are bound to see floods or bush fires. Our history is one of minimising the threats which nature poses. Either from ignorance or laziness, we deny the threats or become complacent about them and we discourage governments from confronting them. Thus we do not increase our resilience. Opinion leaders need to ensure that they do not fall prey to carelessness in these matters.


A second factual inaccuracy arose in Don's piece The IPCC now says it's OK to adapt to climate change (OLO 11 April 2014). Here the author quotes, approvingly, the view of geologist Bob Carter that Australia should adopt the New Zealand civil defence management system which is built around the '4 Rs' ─ reduction, readiness, response and recovery. But we already have this system, now subsumed within a broader risk management framework, though we use 'prevention' in place of reduction and 'preparedness' instead of readiness.

I happen to prefer the NZ words, but the system is the same in the two countries. 'PPRR' has been central to the education of Australia's emergency management fraternity (in the State and Territory Emergency Services, the fire agencies and local, state and federal government) for at least a quarter of a century. It has been part of the teaching of the Australian Emergency Management Institute, the nation's 'college' of emergency management in Mount Macedon.

PPRR summarises the ways in which we 'treat' the problems brought by natural hazards. In the context of flooding we seek to reduce the intensity or impacts of events (by building mitigation dams and levees and raising dwellings or removing them from floodplains), to prepare for them (by engaging people at risk of flooding about how they should react and by ensuring that the SESs plan how to warn and evacuate people), to respond to them when they occur (by rescuing and evacuating people, providing real-time information on a developing flood and its impacts and supplying farm animals with fodder and isolated communities with day-to-day necessities, amongst many other things) and  to recover from them afterwards (for example by providing financial and other assistance to those who have been hit by floods and fixing the infrastructural damage that has been caused). In my view we should do more of most of these things.

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About the Author

Chas Keys is a flood consultant, an Honorary Associate of Risk Frontiers at Macquarie University and a former Deputy Director-General of the NSW State Emergency Service.

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