Is climate change in Australia leaving our SES, RFS and CFA off guard?


“To deploy nationally positioned forces across the country and mobilize them with the equipment … and the supply and the supply – that you can’t just turn that on and off.

“You will never have an ADF base sitting around the corner in every town.”

Ricketts agrees, but believes successive governments have betrayed Australians by failing to properly plan for the disasters they knew were coming, while failing to recognize climate change.

“This flood not only surpassed the records we had since white settlement began, this flood exceeded it by two and a half meters in one leap,” he says.

“It’s the climate catastrophe. It’s in our faces. It’s what they warned us about.

Ricketts says denying the role of climate change in the disasters faced by communities like his goes beyond political reluctance to reduce emissions. This prevents communities from preparing to save their own lives.

Ricketts isn’t the only person with this view.

A decade ago, Australia was at the forefront of international efforts to prepare communities for the impact of climate change.

The work has been informed by bodies such as CSIRO’s Climate Change Adaptation Flagship, Griffith University’s National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, and the Climate Commission, an independent body established by the federal government in 2011.

All were canceled or removed after Tony Abbott took office in 2013.

Environmentalist and author Tim Flannery, who headed the Climate Commission, recalls receiving a call from then-Environment Minister Greg Hunt hours after the new coalition government was sworn in for him let it be known that the commission had been sacked.

The research he had published on his website was soon removed from the public domain.

Soon after, the CSIRO adaptation’s flagship was also removed. One of its advisory board members, Professor Barbara Norman, said it had been made clear to its members that she too had been a victim of a government that did not want to discuss climate change, let alone fund research on this subject.

Indeed, she recalls a meeting where it was suggested the organization could survive longer if it dropped the word “climate” from its title.

Another former member of the flagship’s advisory board said her frustration with the body’s destruction over the past year had only grown as she watched fires and floods wreak havoc across the country.

While the role of the Climate Commission was to educate the public, the role of the Flagship was to engage with communities to help them prepare for the type of disasters that have occurred with increased frequency over the past years following its funding.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “We continued to put people at risk, to allow people to stay at risk, despite the fact that we had a national leadership program looking at how communities could engage with the science and facts of climate change and start prepare for and adapt to their changing circumstances.

Former NSW fire chief Greg Mullins said the politicization of climate change and the reduction in federally run research and preparedness has left state agencies vulnerable.

“They are organized and resourced to deal with the vagaries of the last century, not this one,” he says.


He believes agencies like the CFA Victoria, NSW RFS and SES remain equipped to protect their communities from many hazards, but not from the disasters we can now expect to occur more often.

Emergency services recognize that they are called upon due to the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

During the 2019-2020 bushfire season, they were weary of battling blazes that raged for months while juggling work demands, prompting questions about the capacity of voluntary organizations.

Former NSW SES deputy chief executive and flood expert Chas Keys said volunteering was an important aspect of Australian life. “[Emergency services] are much better than they were 30 years ago… but anything can be better,” he says.

Keys added that Australia’s emergency management system was good compared to other countries despite its reliance on volunteers.

And emergency services are updating their practices as extreme weather conditions hit.

NSW RFS Deputy Commissioner for Field Operations Peter McKechnie said since the 2019-2020 bushfires the group’s risk management processes have improved to include more scientific input from a new partnership with the University of Melbourne as well as community contributions.

He said the RFS had received more support since the 2019-2020 bushfires, including a large air tanker and 100 extra people dedicated to mitigating and preparing for the fire seasons.

“At each event, we learn something else and other ways of doing things. We are focused on preparing to fight fires as bad or worse than 2019-2020 and we are ready to do a better job next time. We were well equipped to meet this challenge,” says McKechnie.

But he added there was a shared responsibility between community members, government and agencies to invest in mitigation and preparedness.

The Fire and Rescue Service is trying to stop the Gospers Mountain Fire from crossing the Bells Line of Rd in December 2019. Credit:Nick Moire

The federal government rejects criticism that it is still unprepared for climate impacts.

Using unusually blunt language earlier this month, Morrison said: ‘We’re dealing with a different climate than we’ve been dealing with before… I think it’s just an obvious fact that Australia is becoming more more difficult to live with because of these disasters. ”

In October last year, Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced the creation of the National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy and a National Adaptation Office to coordinate work on resilience and climate adaptation between governments.


It has invested $38 million in a new Climate Systems Center to inform climate adaptation solutions. (Early estimates suggest the national cost of the recent floods could exceed $2 billion).

A spokesperson for Ley’s office notes that the funding also goes to other programs, including the Future Drought Fund, Great Barrier Reef programs and the Preparing Australia program to provide disaster risk reduction and long-term resilience.

Mullins joined the Climate Council, which, with private funding, grew out of the remnants of the Climate Commission. He admits to feeling “yellowed” by the federal government’s climate position.

He calls these efforts “government by press release” and says it does not compensate for the lack of national leadership in coordinating all levels of government to prepare for a new climate reality, nor for the removal of bodies that have already been in place.

“The removal of critical disaster research and planning capabilities may have already cost lives and will almost certainly contribute to more deaths in the future,” Mullins said.

Flannery says that even if the new bodies are successful, a crucial decade has already been unnecessarily wasted.

Back in the disaster area, Ricketts says that in the days since the flooding has receded, there has been an eerie beauty in the community’s response.

“I call it the Free State of Lismore. Money does not change hands for anything during the first weeks after a flood. People share the food, they share the work. They bring sandwiches to your door,” he says.

“But it’s not just about Lismore and it’s not just about flooding. It’s about floods, fires, coastal erosion and houses falling into the sea. It’s going to bring everyone down at some point.

“We live in a place with extreme climates and we thumb our noses at it. We say ‘What more can you throw at us?’ Well, it can throw us a lot more.