Implications of Climate Change for Emergency Services Operations - Insights from The Literature

Lauren Rickards, Adriana Keating

Research output: Book/ReportOther ReportResearch


Greenhouse gas emissions to date and existing pledges for emissions reduction from national governments suggest that the world is tracking a medium emissions future at best, and possibly a high emission one. This report consolidates available knowledge of the potential impacts of climate change on key issues that influence the (emergency management services (EMS) in Australia and New Zealand, through a systematic review of the literature (both peer reviewed and grey literature) combined with an analysis of relevant inquiries. It is an output of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC project entitled Preparing emergency services for a climate-challenged world.

For the EMS, one of the most immediate and visceral impacts of climate change is increasing frequency and severity of disaster-inducing natural hazards. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this is the extent of the challenge: interacting climatic, social, demographic and economic trends will result in transformations in our societies and way of life. For the EMS, the climate change adaptation challenge is more than just ‘more of the same’. The increasingly significant impacts that climate change is having on the natural and human systems that support livelihoods and wellbeing in Australia and New Zealand present a profound challenge for all communities, businesses and services.

In the decades ahead, Australia is expected to experience increased warming across the whole of the continent with rainfall declines over much of the southern parts of the country very likely. These changes are not unfolding linearly. Already it is clear that the climate has altered over recent decades through a serious of step changes or ‘breaks’. This means that current rates of change are an unreliable indicator of future rates of change.

Similarly, New Zealand is already registering warming and changing rainfall in some regions. These trends are expected to continue and include increasing average temperatures and more hot days for norther areas, significant shifts in rainfall patterns and more extreme rainfall, and profound increases in the time spent in drought by 2040. Sea level rise is also a major concern for the island nation, with sea level rise around New Zealand projected to be up to 10% higher than the global average.

For Australia and New Zealand, climate change means more heatwaves, more extreme precipitation events, more bushfire weather, more storms, fewer but more intense cyclones, and more landslides. It also means more compound events and cascading impacts, where multiple extreme events occur simultaneously – as was seen in Black Summer, where bushfires, heatwaves and floods were experienced during a long-term drought. Climate change is also increasing the risk that second and third order impacts of disasters, such as a disease outbreak following a flood, themselves cascade into another event of equal or greater severity.

Increasing frequency and severity of climatic hazards are intersecting with growing exposure and changing vulnerability patterns to drive disaster risk. Some of the desirable features of contemporary lifestyles – such as high levels of consumption and technology-dependent, centralised systems – are further increasing disaster risk. A no-regrets approach to climate change adaptation is to build ‘adaptive capacity’, which is made up of five interlinked domains: assets, flexibility, social organisation, learning, and agency. Building adaptive capacity/reducing vulnerability requires looking beyond direct climate change impacts (e.g. managing heat) to address structural and systemic constraints on the ability of people and ecosystems to adapt to ongoing change, such as social inequalities, low environmental sustainability and poor governance.

Climate change adaptation incorporates a range of objectives and areas of effort. While it necessarily involves “coping” at any moment in time, it also extends far beyond just coping to also better “fit” emerging conditions and to proactively adjust to, and help positively shape, the future. Criteria of success of a climate change adaptation initiative include effectiveness, efficiency, equity, accounting for externalities, and having an extended time horizon. The inverse of good adaptation is maladaptation: actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate related outcomes, increased vulnerability to climate change, or diminished welfare, now or in the future.

Adaptation faces limits and barriers. As climate change worsens, it is likely impacts will exceed some systems’ and groups’ capacity to manage them. Uneven structural vulnerabilities and engrained issues such as downplaying climate change risks means some groups are continually or regularly unable to cope or adapt well. One of the risks of the “shared responsibility” paradigm of disaster risk management in Australia is that ‘communities often are left to manage residual risks shifted towards individuals, whether or not they have the financial, physical, mental, or social capacity to manage them’. It is often assumed that a lack of climate change information or adaptation knowledge is the main barrier to effective and timely adaptation action. While knowledge and information are important, analysis of barriers to adaptation suggests that institutional barriers (e.g. lack of clear mandate, roles, responsibilities, willingness to act) are often more significant.

One of the enablers of good climate change adaptation is systems thinking – appreciating systemic relationships and how to manage them. When it comes to the EMS, a systems-based approach widens our understanding of the sector and the many implications of climate change for it. This report presents two frameworks that are useful for contextualising the EMS in a wider context, identifying how climate change might influence various elements of this system, and where the EMS can direct different types of adaptation strategies.

The academic literature provides some valuable insights into the drivers at work in the EMS context. However, very little research addresses the “question of the future” per se and that which does, does not do so in a comprehensive manner that incorporates climate change or challenges the assumption that existing trends will unfold linearly. We therefore need to bring together different insights in order to piece together what the future may entail for the EMS. One useful way to begin this process is to systematically consider the ‘STEEP drivers’ - that is, insights into Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic and Policy/Political drivers – and to then start thinking through how they may interact with climate change. In response to input from the scenarios team (the other part of this project), we have included a sixth category – legal – into the framework. This report provides examples of the types of changes and uncertainties the EMS may need to consider as it encounters the climate change adaptation undertaking.

We draw on the literature review to present analysis provided to the scenarios process. This includes a summary of biophysical impacts of climate change to 2035, including a plausible (but not predictive) climate hazard event map. We then summarise the likely flow-on effects to 2035 and finally the likely implications of those flow-on effects for water and environment, agriculture and aquaculture, infrastructure, human health and wellbeing, and society in general. Finally, we explore what adaptive capacity might look like under the four plausible futures developed by the scenarios team. In this way, the EMS has a comprehensive picture of what climate change impacts might influence them and what resources they might have to manage them.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationMelbourne Vic Australia
PublisherBushfire and Natural Hazards CRC
Number of pages70
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes

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