As Australia’s nationwide heatwave continues, submissions to a Senate inquiry into the country’s readiness for climate change warn we’re unprepared for what’s to come.

“This summer has demonstrated precisely what the scientists and reports have been saying,” Greens leader Senator Christine Milne told Crikey. “We are now experiencing extreme weather events across Australia with these heat wave conditions.”

The Greens gained support from the Gillard government for the inquiry back in November before the heat dome began to build across the continent, delivering a seven-day stretch of average maximum temperatures above 39 degrees. The wide-reaching inquiry by the Environment and Communications References Committee will look at any emerging trends on the frequency of extreme weather events including bushfires, heat waves and floods. It’s asked for future projections of such events, based on global warming scenarios of between 1 and 5 degrees by 2070.

Under those scenarios, the inquiry — due to report by March 20 — will look at the costs of extreme weather events and their impacts on ecosystems, infrastructure and human health. Also examined will be the “availability and affordability” of private insurance in disaster-prone areas — an issue which has the potential to make or break the viability of areas where people live. Major economic sectors will be examined for readiness, including power, water, health and the emergency services.

Professor Neville Nicholls, a leading climate scientist at Monash University, was a co-ordinating lead author in a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report into extreme weather events and climate change. In his submission, he restates the IPCC summary, which found it was likely (66% to 100 % probable) Australia had already seen a rise in the number of warm days and a decrease of cold nights since the 1950s. It’s “likely” (greater than a 66% probability) that globally this has been caused by human activity, mainly from fossil fuel burning:

“Models project substantial warming in temperature extremes by the end of the 21st century. It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur in the 21st century at the global scale. It is very likely that the length, frequency, and/or intensity of warm spells or heat waves will increase over most land areas.”

The Senate inquiry will also examine the way climate change risk is managed by current regulations, laws and codes. Dr Michael Eburn, a senior fellow at the Australian National University, writes in his submission that the roles of local government to prepare for emergencies are vague and not clearly articulated. He says legislation is needed to detail the roles and responsibilities of federal government and how extraordinary emergency powers are exercised.

A report from the Climate Institute in October last year warned Australia’s preparations for increasing extreme weather events was “patchy”. The nation’s electricity network was underprepared, the report said, with risks of supplies being disrupted by heat waves, floods and fires. The road and rail network was also underprepared, along with the financial services sector, with investors and insurers overexposed to the costs of extreme events and the potential damage to assets. But preparations to cope with water supply issues are progressing well, it reported.

Pointing to a 2011 report on heat wave deaths from PricewaterhouseCoopers, Milne said: “What is frustrating is that the media has reported extensively on fire and floods and storm surges but not so much on heatwaves, yet heatwaves have killed far more people than floods. Yet we have no national heatwave plan.” The PwC report says that heatwaves “kill more Australians than any other natural disasters”.

Milne says the inquiry is an opportunity for communities affected by extreme weather events over recent years — from the Queensland floods, Cyclone Yasi, Black Saturday and the current record-breaking heatwave and the associated bushfires — to contribute their ideas. “Hopefully the real costs will come out through the inquiry. As Sir Nicholas Stern said, the cost of not acting is far greater than the cost of acting,” Milne said.

“I hope we can abandon the notion of ‘one off’ and acknowledge that we are now in the midst of a climate emergency.”