Australia: The Attorney-General speaks about natural disasters and climate change

School of Law, James Cook University, Thursday, 6 October 2011


Ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank the James Cook University School of Law and the Law Students' Society for inviting me to speak here tonight.

Tonight, I would like to speak with you about three matters within my areas of responsibility as Attorney General. First, I would like to talk about Natural Disasters and the need to do more to mitigate their impacts. Of course the people of this State sadly know through recent experience the devastating impact of natural disasters.

My view is that we can reduce loss of life and we can reduce cost by investing more up-front in mitigation.

I would then like to speak to a trend we are witnessing in the courts in Australia which are increasingly taking into account the effects of climate change as a basis upon which to make decisions.

And finally to the need to consider climate change in the context of national security.

Allow me to take each in turn.


Many of you would have been here when Tropical Cyclone Yasi made landfall in the early hours of 3 February this year. Although Townsville escaped the worst of Yasi, this town and many communities around it suffered considerable damage. I travelled to Townsville with the Prime Minister the day after Yasi hit and although I experienced only a small fraction of the aftermath, I was taken aback by the howling wind, the sight of trees simply uprooted and tossed on to the ground, and the volume of debris strewn across the streets. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to sit in your homes and wait for this massive force of nature to pass.

Even as we recover from the physical damage caused by Yasi, its impact is still being felt across Far North Queensland both economically and socially. And Yasi follows fairly hot on the heels of Cyclone Larry which hit Far North Queensland in March 2006 with devastating effect on the agricultural industry around Tully and Innisfail.

The good news following Cyclone Yasi was that some disaster mitigation measures put in place after Cyclone Larry – particularly changes to building codes to harden homes and businesses against the effects of cyclones – were instrumental in saving lives and minimising injuries. The bad news coming out of both Cyclone Yasi and the Queensland foods was that we still saw destruction and damage to residential properties and public infrastructure on an unprecedented scale.

It is expected that the total recovery and reconstruction cost to the Commonwealth alone will be more than $6 billion. While the scale of these events was extraordinary, I strongly believe the enormous cost of reconstruction cannot just be attributed to forces of nature outside of our control.

There is a strong argument that the damage bill both here in Queensland and in other parts of the country affected by disaster last summer was exacerbated by a lack of investment in disaster mitigation initiatives and poor planning decisions which have left communities exposed to very signi? cant disaster risk. I find it hard to accept that some households have received Government disaster relief assistance three times over the past 10 years simply because of bad luck. The emergency management community generally accepts that one dollar spent on mitigation can save at least two dollars in recovery costs.

Some even argue that this is a conservative estimate.

Flood mitigation works in Lismore illustrate the return on investment in mitigation and prevention. In 2005, after completing a $19 million levee, Lismore experienced a one-in-ten year food. The levee saved about $15 million in recovery costs on that occasion alone and also played an integral part in minimising ? ooding in Lismore in subsequent years. There are many other examples both here and internationally.

In fact by rethinking our policies and approaches, we can be more resilient when disasters strike. And this is entirely consistent with international law to which I will shortly turn I am pleased that following last year's events all levels of Government – Federal, State and Local – are examining these issues with a renewed sense of purpose.

In February this year the Council of Australian Governments agreed to the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience. 1 The Strategy sets out the priorities of all Australian governments for building disaster resilient communities across the nation. There are three aspects of the Strategy that I would like to emphasise.

First, governments cannot improve resilience alone. The Strategy emphasises that disaster resilience is a shared responsibility for individuals, local communities, businesses, the not-for-pro? t sector and governments.

Second, the Strategy is about providing all Australians with a better understanding of what we need to do about the disaster risks we face. To create a resilient nation, we all need the relevant knowledge, skills and abilities to take appropriate action. We all need to work in partnership with emergency services, local authorities and other bodies to manage risk and to minimise the impacts of disasters. To that end, the Strategy calls for greater individual and community empowerment, rather than relying on post disaster recovery efforts and financial assistance.

Third, and perhaps most important, the high-level objective of the Strategy is to bring about sustained behavioural change. It recognises that disaster resilience is a long-term outcome which will require collaboration and long-term commitment. The clear message is - we all have a role to play and we all have to be in it for the long haul.

The Standing Council on Police and Emergency Management is leading the implementation of the COAG agreed priorities. This includes working with Planning Ministers to ensure that land use zoning and planning decisions integrate consideration of priority hazards.

There are some encouraging signs that we are starting to take the need for disaster mitigation into account in the reconstruction and rebuilding phase following the past disaster season. In particular the decision to relocate the town of Grantham – which was devastated by the inland tsunami that ripped through the Lockyer Valley on the 10th of January –to higher ground, should be applauded.

In addition, in August 2011 I approved the first ever application under the betterment provisions of the NDRRA which will see the relocation of the Adelong public swimming pool to an area above the food level. 'Betterment' is available under Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements to allow States and local governments to restore or replace essential public assets to a more disaster resilient standard. In other words, we should avoid rebuilding an asset in a way or in an area where there's a better than even chance it'll be damaged again, if there are alternative options. I understand the Queensland Government is also looking at a number of betterment proposals following last season's events.

Initiatives like these are promising developments. But given the enormous natural disaster recovery and reconstruction bill that Australian taxpayers are being repeatedly asked to shoulder, I believe they are entitled to expect that Governments do more to mitigate the impact of natural disasters.

Without professing to offer commentary on the cause of recent natural disasters there is an unquestionably significant body of scientific research drawing a direct link between climate change and increasingly extreme weather events – including rising sea levels, fooding and mud slides, as well as increasingly prevalent bushfires. The scientific basis for this link is widely supported, including by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the NFCCC), the World Meteorological Organisation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the CSIRO and the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It is interesting that international law has been a motivator for State governments to implement environmental legislation to mitigate the effects of climate change.

In particular, under international law Australia is required to maintain programs and policies containing measures to facilitate adaptation to climate change including taking climate change into account in relevant policies and actions. We see those principles implemented in a range of State legislation including protection of coastal regions from inundation due to rising sea levels. Which brings me to my next topic: the issue of climate change and the courts.


Irrespective of action we can take to improve our approach to disaster mitigation, there is a growing body of case law indicating that courts are willing to take the environmental impacts of climate change into account in their decision making around planning and other issues. As Jacqueline Peel, Associate Professor at the Melbourne Law School, has explained, 'Environmental groups have long used litigation to address environmental problems. Climate change is no different.'

Peel points to an increasing number of cases coming before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal – or VCAT – raising issues of adaptation to future climate change along the Victorian coast following the Gippsland Coastal Board case. The Victorian Government subsequently developed policies on planning for coastal climate change and sea level rise.

Another area of the law where climate change is being considered by the courts is the area of wind farm applications. In these cases the effects of climate change are being used as an argument to ensure something happens rather than to prevent something happening.

This is in contrast to wind farm applications being regularly challenged by local community groups who oppose the development on the grounds of amenity and health concerns.

One example is the NSW Land and Environment Courts' decision in Taralga Landscape Guardians Inc v Minister for Planning and RES Southern Cross Pty Ltd. 2 In that case the judge allowed the development to proceed because of the broader public good associated with 'reducing the cumulative and long-term effects caused by anthropogenic climate change'.

Water extraction rights are also being legally challenged on grounds related to the possible effect of climate change. In Paul v Goulburn Murray Water Corporation & Ors, 3 heard by the VCAT, a landowner challenged the right of two licensees who were permitted to extract groundwater on the applicant's properties. The Tribunal heard evidence about the effect that climate change may have on the hydrology of the area, in particular the Ovens River and whether this uncertainly should lead to the application of the precautionary principle. In the end Member Potts determined that the allocations were sustainable under the range of climate change scenarios presented by the experts.

These cases have focussed on what Peel has termed as 'five common features' of climate change law in Australia.

They are, first, establishing a causal link between certain actions (e.g. mining) and the production of substantial greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in Gray v Minister for Planning ('Anvil Hill Case'), 4 Pain J of the NSW Land and Environment Court considered that

[t]here is a suf? ciently proximate link between the mining of a very substantial reserve of thermal coal in NSW, the only purpose of which is for use as fuel in power stations, and the emission of GHG which contribute to climate change/global warming. 5

Second, the indirect and cumulative impacts of climate change. Third, the role of environmentally sustainable development principles. Fourth, the scientific proof of climate change, and finally, a continuing role for the courts.

Clearly there is a case for governments at all levels to acknowledge these developments with a view to taking a nationally consistent approach to these issues. Accordingly, I intend to raise this growing jurisprudence with my ministerial colleagues at Standing Council on Police and Emergency Management (SCPEM).

I would now like to turn to the final topic this evening: climate change as a potential threat to national security.


As Attorney-General, my responsibilities include the coordination of Australia's response to a broad range of national security threats. From terrorism to natural disasters through to people smuggling and organised crime – the dangers to Australia and its citizens are clear and undeniable.

While the environmental and economic threat of climate change to Australia and the world is well traversed, it is only in the past couple of years that we have begun to properly explore and properly articulate climate change as a clear threat to our national security. Following the 2007 election, the Government commissioned the Garnaut Climate Change Review – led by Professor Ross Garnaut – to conduct an independent study of the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy. Garnaut reported in June 2008 that climate change is metamorphosing from an environmental concern to a core issue for national and international security. He noted that should climate change coincide with other transnational challenges to security, such as terrorism or pandemic diseases, or add to pre-existing ethnic and social tensions, the impact will be magnified.

Garnaut concluded that prudence and sensible risk management suggest that Australia's strategic planners ought to include worse case climate change scenarios in the contingency planning as they do for terrorism, infectious diseases and conventional military challenges to national security.

In 2007, the then Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty APM described climate change as 'the security issue of the 21st century'. 6 Mr Keelty also referred to the prospect of large scale civil unrest resulting from climate change and its implications for law enforcement within Australia

Given these comments and the findings of the Garnaut Report, this Government clearly identified the security implications of climate change in Australia's first National Security Statement made by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. 7 The Statement recognised that over the long term, climate change represents a fundamental national security challenge for the long term future. It also observed that less attention had so far been given to the potential threat of climate change compared with other traditional security threats. Finally, it stated this area of emerging consequences will require the formal incorporation of climate change within Australia's national security policy and analysis process.

Consistent with that approach, the 2009 Defence White Paper also identi? ed climate change and resource security as new security risks. 8 The White Paper referred to the potential for future tensions over the supply of energy, food and water. It noted these issues are likely to exacerbate already significant population, infrastructure and governance problems in developing countries, straining their capacity to adapt.

Importantly, Australia and this Government are not alone in identifying the national security threat of climate change and the belief that action is necessary to address this threat. These views are shared by international organisations such as the United Nations and the Governments of our closest allies – both on the left and right of the political divide.

United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki Moon, has made several statements highlighting the security implications of climate change.

In his 2009 Report the Secretary-General identifiedfive channels through which climate change could affect security. 9 These are vulnerability (climate change threatens food security and human health, and increases human exposure to extreme events), development (if climate change results in slowing down or reversing the development process, this will exacerbate vulnerability and could undermine the capacity of States to maintain stability), coping and security (migration, competition over natural resources and other coping responses of households and communities faced with climate-related threats could increase the risk of domestic con? ict as well as have international repercussions), statelessness (there are implications for rights, security, and sovereignty of the loss of statehood because of the disappearance of territory), and international conflict (there may be implications for international cooperation from climate change's impact on shared or un-demarcated international resources).

The UN Secretary-General has also reflected on how the environmental effects of climate change in one country, can compound existing political, economic and social fragility which may in turn effect neighbouring countries and ultimately the entire international community.

The potential security threats of climate change for the United States are unequivocally highlighted in President Barrack Obama's May 2010 National Security Strategy. 10

It says:

The danger from climate change is real, urgent, and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new con? icts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe.

Similarly, the National Security Strategy issued by the Conservative Cameron Government in October 2010 notes that the security of the United Kingdom is: 'vulnerable to the effects of climate change and its impact on food and water supply'. 11

Finally, I note that the Pentagon in its January 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review addressed climate change for the first time. In the review, Pentagon officials concluded that climate change will act as an 'accelerant of instability and con? ict', ultimately placing a burden on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. 12

There are some people who remain to be convinced by the science on climate change.

But I think it is very instructive that an institution as traditionally conservative as the Pentagon is recognising that the risk of climate change is a sufficient basis for the United States to act.

The concept of climate change as a national security risk is now well and truly accepted internationally, across the political spectrum. Which makes it all the more an imperative for countries to work in concert consistently with international law to mitigate the effects of climate change.


In many respects, the implications of climate change for Australia and our region are clear. But it is sometimes dif? cult to grapple with the long term nature of the challenge and the less obvious potential impacts. Many of the decisions necessary to prevent or reduce these effects must be made now.

Australia stands ready to play its full and fair part in global efforts to tackle climate change. We have begun to incorporate the security implications of climate change into our national security contingency plans. We are working hard to ensure that we have coordinated and integrated capabilities, at both the domestic and international levels, to address this risk. And we are starting to seriously rethink the way we approach natural disaster prevention, preparation and mitigation. Failure to act now on the potential implications of climate change will exacerbate risks in the future. That is why the Government is so determined to take action. Thankyou.


1 National Emergency Management Committee, 'National Strategy for Disaster Resilience: Building our nation's resilience to disasters' (Report, Canberra, 7th December 2009) < HTTP://WWW.COAG.GOV.AU/COAG_MEETING_ OUTCOMES/2011-02-13/DOCS/NATIONAL_STRATEGY_DISASTER_RESILIENCE.PDF >.
2 [2007] NSWLEC 59.
3 [2010] VCAT 1755.
4 (2006) 152 LGERA 258.
5 Ibid, 288.
6 Mick Keelty, 'AFP in the new national security environment' (Speech delivered at the 2007 Inaugural Ray Whitrod Oration, Adelaide Convention Centre, 24th September 2007), [50].
7 Kevin Rudd, 'First National Security Statement' (Speech delivered at Federal Parliament, Canberra, 4th December 2008).
8 Department of Defence, 'Defending Australia in the Asia Paci? c Century: Force 2030' (White Paper, Canberra, 2nd May 2009).
9 United Nations, Climate Change and its Possible Security Implications, September 2009.
10 United States, National Security Strategy, May 2010.
11 United Kingdom, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy, October 2010, 6.
12 United States, Quadrennial Defence Review, February 2010, 107.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.