Senate panel warns over climate change

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A bipartisan warning over the dangers of climate change has pierced the electioneering, with a Senate committee pointing to the rising threat posed by extreme weather events and former Liberal leader John Hewson forecasting severe financial pain from unchecked carbon emissions.

The Senate committee's report highlighted scientific evidence showing a link between climate change and more frequent weather events such as heatwaves and storm surges.

The Senate panel, which includes Labor, Coalition and Greens members, recommended that "credible and reliable flood mapping" be introduced, along with better access to insurance and amended building codes, in order to help Australia cope with floods, storms and bushfires. The insurance industry has welcomed its findings.

The Greens called for the committee in the wake of the Queensland floods in 2010 and 2011. Christine Milne, the Greens' leader, told Guardian Australia that urgent reform was needed to better prepare Australia for extreme weather.

"Local governments aren't changing planning schemes fast enough to prevent people building on floodplains," she said. "And we still haven't got to the point where either of the old parties have a consistent, precautionary approach to climate change.

"Raising one-off levies, like we did for the Queensland floods, reinforces the idea that these are just one-off events that we don't have to plan for. The human toll and the infrastructure toll shows that it makes sense to spend money up front for mitigation, in order to save money and lives in the long term.

"We'd like to see a resilience advisory group paid for by a levy on thermal coal exports because at the moment when disasters strike, the public pays, not the coal industry."

Greg Hunt, the shadow climate change minister, said that he "strongly supports" continued research by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO into climate change's impact on weather.

"On the specific recommendations on insurance and building codes, those need to be examined in more detail and discussed with the states and local government," he said.

"There needs to be a co-ordinated approach and it is for this reason we were disappointed that the federal government scrapped funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Facility. It's another example of Labor being all talk but no real action on addressing the challenges."

The committee's warning coincides with a new report by the Climate Institute that outlines how Australia's financial and physical health is at risk from runaway climate change.

The report, called Dangerous Degrees, warned that current warming trends would see a temperature increase of at least four degrees by 2100 – well above the internationally agreed limit of two degrees warming.

This change, the study stated, could significantly affect Australia's social stability, diminish natural resources such as water and trigger greater sea level rises.

Hewson helped unveil the report and said that climate change could carry an economic cost that would make the global financial crisis seem like a "blip".

"A failure to change track puts in jeopardy everything for which Australians have worked and their retirement nest eggs," he said.

"On the other hand, numerous governments and businesses are beginning to invest in clean energy as well as price carbon pollution. Asset owners like superannuation funds are slowly waking up to the climate risks and if they properly manage their investments of our money for these risks, they will help drive investment and innovation in the solutions."

John Connor, chief executive of the Climate Institute, said Australia was more exposed to climate change risks than any other developed nation.

"There is a big and growing gap between the emissions pathway we're on and the one we need to be on to avoid unmanageable, costly climate risks," he said.

"Closing the gap between danger and relative safety is still doable, as long as we start now. Delay only means higher costs and fewer options."