Speech to Parliament: Climate inquiry

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Today, I was proud to put forward the Greens’ Notice of Motion for an inquiry into Climate Resilience in Victoria’s Built Environment.

With extreme climate events continuing to devastate people’s lives in Victoria, Australia and around the world, it’s critical that our State is prepared for what lies ahead.

We were thrilled the Government supported the Inquiry and see this as a positive step for Victoria’s preparedness and resilience to a damaging climate.

Speech to Parliament 4 October 2023

2023 has been the hottest year in recorded history. We’ve seen headlines from around the world of extreme weather events wreaking havoc on human life, people’s homes and farms, critical infrastructure, communities and livelihoods.

The climate crisis is here now. It is unrelenting. It is our reality.

Droughts, fires, floods and storms are becoming more severe and frequent, and communities are being left to clean up the damage and rebuild if they can.

Most of them uncertain if their homes, farms, businesses and mental health will survive another damaging climate event. 

If you need evidence that being prepared for the future means building resilience for what we know is coming, and not making our future problems worse – then you have it in abundance.

Here’s a recap on what we’ve seen in 2023  alone:  

  • In February, New Zealand, Vanuatu and parts of Australia were hit by Cyclone Gabrielle. The cyclone was the worst storm to hit New Zealand this century, and following weeks of flooding, it displaced an estimated 10,000 people and affected one third of the country’s five million.
  • The NZ Government estimates it has cost $14.5 billion dollars, the country’s costliest disaster since the Canterbury earthquakes.
  • Also in February and March Tropical Cyclone Freddy, one of the longest-lasting cyclones in human history,  travelled the entire Indian Ocean devastating Southern Africa.
  • At the end of March, a deadly storm system tore through America and the mid-Atlantic bringing with it tornados that left at least 32 dead.
  • July also marked a new milestone. It was the hottest month that’s ever been recorded on planet earth.
  • So it should come as no surprise that in August, wildfires ripped through Lahaina in Hawaii,  killing at least 115 people
  • And that also in August, wildfires burning in Greece destroyed an area larger than New York City, laying waste to the natural environment and people’s homes and lives
  • In the first 11 days of last month, 4 continents experienced catastrophic floods, devastating Libya, Greece, Turkey, Spain, China, the USA, Brazil and Hong Kong.

And the year isn’t over yet.  

My heart goes out to the communities in Eastern Victoria and NSW who in the last couple of days have experienced fires and now floods. The memories of the black summer bushfires and catastrophic floods from last year are still too fresh. It’s scary, and I thank our emergency services for the incredible work they are doing to protect those communities. 

We know it isn’t a case of if, but when, we’ll be adding more unprecedented weather events to this list.

The experts are saying Australia is “primed to burn” this Summer. For the past three years, we’ve experienced wetter than average conditions, with record-breaking rainfall and floods across almost all of our States. This has been followed by the driest September on record.

And it’s this wetter than average build-up to a hot dry summer that makes our fire experts nervous. 

The increase in vegetation growth means there’s simply more fuel to burn, and it’s drying out fast.

We have been warned about what is coming for us this summer. Just as the world has had more than enough warning that the events we’ve seen this year were coming.

We’re no stranger to climate destruction here in Victoria, having lived through some of the most extreme weather events in history in the past decade.

In Victoria, there are communities still traumatised and recovering from what they witnessed and experienced during the floods last year. 

We’ve heard it during the flood inquiry hearings in the retelling of heartbreak and trauma from those who’ve lost everything.

One of those communities struggling to get back on their feet is Rochester. A small town between Bendigo and Echuca, a large portion of their community are still living in caravans and poor conditions.

Residents have spoken publicly about feeling abandoned and a lack of support from this state government in the immediate aftermath of the floods.

Their town is now scarred and scared for the future.

Make no mistake, there will be more towns and more communities like Rochester if we don’t make the changes necessary to prepare our built environment and infrastructure for climate change.

And as we’ve seen, as well as costing the Government billions of dollars, it is those people and families who are already up against it that are hit the hardest by the destruction of extreme weather events.

Those who don’t have savings, who can’t afford insurance, who are already struggling to pay rent and mortgages or who are working night and day to keep a small business or farm from going under.

They deserve better. 

They deserve a Government that learns from their devastation so that it is not in vain, recognises it is just a taste of what’s coming, and acts.

To its credit, the Victorian Labor Government has started addressing the enormous, existential climate change crisis.

Last year, we saw the official start of 7 Adaptation Action Plans, or AAPs, for climate resilience.

AAPs focus on the Built Environment; Education and Training; Health and Human Services; Natural Environment; Primary Production; Transport and the Water Cycle.

These plans have been designed to run across 5 yearly schedules, so 2022–2026 to begin with, and identify existing and key priority plans.

AAPs are also complemented by Regional Climate Change Adaptation Strategies for Victoria’s 6 regions, and which have been, crucially, developed communities in those 6 regions.

But despite what are genuinely solid plans and strategies, in the hottest year on record there are legitimately questions about which climate resilience policies have actually been acted upon, both by this government and previous governments, and how effectively.

Namely, while the Built Environment Adaptation Action Plan prioritises updating building standards to better account for climate emergencies, Victoria has never had a climate trigger in its planning laws.

Historically, Victoria’s lack of any requirement to consider climate impacts when making planning decisions means we have seen too many developments that are either not fit-for-purpose in a hotter world, built in areas that are prone to impacts of weather events, or that actually make the climate crisis worse.

This is how we ended up with a racecourse on a flood plain protected by a flood wall, which protected the racecourse but directed flood waters straight into people’s homes and businesses.

People who needed to be rescued in rubber dinghies while the racetrack stayed pristine and green.

As reported in The Age in October last year, the head of Racing Victoria Andrew Jones said the Victoria Racing Club had been ‘entitled’ to build a flood wall around the Flemington racecourse to protect the Spring Carnival and the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

I’ll let that sink in.

Imagine hearing that if you were one of the hundreds of people whose lives were turned upside down as their homes and possessions were destroyed in October last year.

Imagine living through the devastation of a climate change weather event and learning there is currently no intersection between planning and climate at all in Victoria. 

And discovering that while we have select environmental protections in this State, we have no requirement for major road, building or infrastructure projects to consider their impacts or adaptability to climate change events. 

We’ve also heard from countless rural councils about their frustration that they only receive funding to replace like with like after a natural disaster, for example when roads need rebuilding.

While there has been some recent limited recognition of the need to fund betterment, this needs to become the norm. 

Otherwise we get stuck in an expensive cycle of continually replacing infrastructure that might be in the wrong place or that needs significant improvement to withstand future disasters.

We can, and must do better. That is why we are pushing for this Inquiry today – to know how fast and how far this Government is acting on adapting our built environment, and how much further it still has to go.

Because without factoring climate change into our existing planning laws, everything else this Government is doing – whether it’s gradually implementing those Adaptation Action Plans or the day-to-day building of roads – could be folly.

Because it’s not just fires and floods we need to prepare for, it’s periods of prolonged heat that can be mitigated by urban heat islands, tree canopy and making sure our transport infrastructure is heat resilient. 

The Adaptation Action Plans acknowledge solutions like these, but to what extent are they being acted upon? 

Is the Government quietly implementing the whole-of-society adaptation this climate requires, or is it just planting a few dozen trees in the CBD?

We know this Government is making progress, but we also can and we must do everything we can to ensure Victorians are protected from the devastating impacts of climate change.

There are questions we hope this Inquiry will help us answer:

  • Would a  climate trigger in our planning laws ensure multi-million dollar developers consider the climate consequences of projects?
  • Can we and should we legislate to ensure projects do not contribute unnecessarily to climate change through excess pollution, reduction in open space or reduction in green spaces?
  • Can we and should we ensure projects are climate-sensitive: that they can be assessed against disaster risk, and cannot exacerbate the impact of events on the surrounding area. They just need the political will to do it.
  • How do coastal zone planning regulations allow for expected impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels, storm surges and extreme weather events?
  • What is the insurance sector’s response to climate change-driven catastrophe and what role does the State Government need to play?

Whatever this inquiry determines, it is clear climate change must be at the heart of our decisions and planning if we want our State to not just survive in a changing climate, but to continue to thrive.

That is why we’re calling for this inquiry and why we urge you to support it. As we’ve seen, business as usual will no longer cut it. It’s time to get prepared. 

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