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October 2013

OK, let’s get this right. Trying to pinpoint the cause of last week’s bushfires in the Blue Mountains near Sydney to climate change is really barking up the wrong tree.

The main source of the problem is not that it has become marginally hotter, and drier, and earlier in the year. The problem is that too many of us are leaving in places that are prone to natural disasters, including bushfires. Climate change is likely to cause favorable conditions for development of large fires more frequently in the future. But with or without climate change, human societies are more exposed than ever to disasters. We build residences on flood plains, near the coast, and into the bush, which makes us vulnerable to floods, see level rise and hurricanes, as well as to bushfires.

The incentives to do so are all there: these are environmentally appealing areas often away enough from large metropolitan centers to be affordable, yet close enough to allow commuting. In addition, local councils have for many years encouraged development driven by own incentives to increase rate-paying base. Changing climate is going to increase the risk to these communities, but even without climate change, we are already under extraordinarily large risks in these natural-disaster prone areas. These risks pertain to life and wellbeing of an ever-increasing number of people living in such areas. But also, and notably so, there is heightened risk to property whose value seems to be ever-increasing. Both of those have systemic impacts throughout the economy in the form of the cost of disaster relief and sharply increasing insurance premiums across the board.

The solution to this problem is not going to coincide with the solution to the problem of climate change. Society needs to find ways to limit exposure to natural disaster risk. One way is to be very, very careful when approving residential developments in areas that are prone to such risks. For instance, the Blue Mountains Council recognizes this, and has therefore limited the population growth forecast, specifically citing bushfire hazard as a limiting factor. Other councils should follow suit. In addition, measures should be taken to alleviate exposure in the existing communities. Such measures should be wide ranging, and should include physical and engineering works, but also should consider the possibility of ‘buying-back’ or ‘retiring’ residential developments that are most exposed to natural hazards. The cost of these preventive measures will be lower than the cost sustained when natural disasters hit.

It is tempting to link last week’s fires to climate change. While climate change is likely to worsen society’s increased exposure to natural disasters, it is not the original source of the problem. Unless we find ways how to stop the residential sprawl in disaster prone areas, and to alleviate risks in existing residential developments, we will continue to be at high danger from natural disasters, with or without climate change.