FALLING concern about global warming has prompted a drop in the proportion of companies assessing their vulnerability to climate change, while government policies to manage the risks remain fragmented and unco-ordinated, a study released by the Climate Institute has found.
The report found a widespread belief that because taking steps to limit the risks to long-lived assets such as the energy industry and railways is "expensive, extensive, time-consuming and difficult", "no action is often seen as the easiest path".
Such inaction, though, may carry costs of its own. A separate report out last week by Baker & McKenzie and the Asset Owners Disclosure Project, argued that trustees in charge of Australia's $1.4 trillion in superannuation who failed to consider climate change risk may be in breach of their fiduciary duties.
"A rapidly changing climate drives not just warmer but wilder weather," the Climate Institute report said. "For our infrastructure economic, social and natural this means that the past is no longer a good guide to the future."
Munich Re, the world's biggest re-insurer, told BusinessDay that Australia's weather-related losses rose more than fourfold in the 1980-2011 period, a pace only exceeded among the continents by North America.
Australia makes up less than 2 per cent of the global reinsurance market but over the past five years the country has accounted for more than 6 per cent of global losses, the risk report said.
Two surveys by the CSIRO of more than 400 public and private sector organisations found the proportion taking into account risks had fallen from almost 60 per cent in 2008 to less than 47 per cent two years later. Just over a third had taken steps, or planned to, in response to the assessments, the report found.
The unco-ordinated response of governments is perhaps best illustrated by the varying state-based land-use planning policies related to expected sea-level rises and storm surges along the nation's coastline.
South Australia tips one-metre rises. Tasmania doesn't provide a projection while New South Wales recently dropped its projections.
Port operators, though, are factoring in increases anyway. The proposal for a fourth coal terminal at the Port of Newcastle, for instance, assumes a rise of 90 centimetres.
Surf Lifesaving Australia is one not-for-profit organisation not waiting for a national consensus before taking action, and is examining the risk to its members and properties. Some two-thirds of its 309 separately incorporated clubs scattered around the coastline are located in "zones of potential instability", the report said.
In its report, Superannuation Trustees and Climate Change, Baker & McKenzie and AODP found "a general reluctance by asset managers and fund managers to disclose the climate-associated risks of their investment portfolios".
The report argued that super trustees could face future litigation if they fail to take appropriate steps to protect the values of their long-lived assets. "Trustees have a clear duty to consider climate change risks and relevant laws and policies in making investment decisions where such matters prove to be material," the report said. "To fail to do so would be negligent and a breach of their duties."