Published 11 November 2019
New research suggests that sea level rise will triple current estimates, placing several global metropolises at significant threat of complete inundation.1 Current projections put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for 2050 and 2100 – conservative in comparison – already pose a significant threat to Australian coastal communities. However, despite the threat of rising sea levels seemingly becoming graver daily, local Australian coastal councils have been forced to abandon well-considered, long-term adaptation policy. The New South Wales Liberal government’s decision in 2009 to abolish IPCC sea level rise benchmarks from coastal government frameworks, instead instructing local councils to develop geographically specific policy, has proven pivotal.
The problem with property-oriented governance
In their place, driven by the demands of powerful coalitions formed around property interests, councils have introduced myopic policy predominately concerned with protecting the assets of wealthy coastal property owners and developers. However, this short-term focus has a potentially harmful side effect. A corollary of property-focused policies is the neglect of vulnerable residents threatened by rising sea levels but currently unrecognised by local councils. Without an equitable and long-term sea level rise adaptation plan, coastal governments risk compounding what social scientists already define as a “super wicked problem”.2 The broad and significant issues currently unrecognised by coastal councils was elucidated in my Honours research throughout this year, throughout which I illustrated that residents across NSW face what O’Brien and Leichenko define as “dual exposure”: they are simultaneously exposed to the impacts of climate change as well as the socioeconomic currents that undermine individuals’ ability to prepare, recover and respond to external stressors.3 This research demonstrates the urgent need to recalibrate adaptation policy: moving away from property-oriented governance towards focusing on human vulnerability, ensuring existing disadvantage isn’t compounded by rising sea levels and ill-considered adaptation policy.
IPCC benchmarks in adaptation policy
Before the decision to remove the sea level rise benchmarks, the NSW coastal governance framework for local councils’ adaptation decisions pertained to the projections estimated by the IPCC: 45 cm by 2050, and 90 cm by 2100. The decision to remove these benchmarks created a political vacuum that left the onus on local coastal councils without legislative backing and at the mercy of property owners impacted by the sea level rise demarcations created by these benchmarks.
Mobilising around the threat these benchmarks had on their assets’ values, vocal and well-organised property owners and property developers (with the help of climate change denialist groups) stressed that these scientifically agreed-upon projections were uncertain at best. Moreover, these parties successfully argued that integrating these benchmarks into adaptation policy resulted unfairly in the denial of residential developments and the value of affected properties decreasing.
One such group is Coastal Alliance, whose rise over the preceding decade has helped move policy away from retreating from rising sea levels in favour of protecting coastal property assets. A collective of several smaller organisations from towns across NSW – including Bellingen, the Central Coast and Collaroy-Narrabeen – Coastal Alliance has successfully pressured several local councils into removing sea level rise benchmarks from their adaptation plans, paving the way for increased development in areas threatened by current and future inundation. The clout of these organisations and the property focus of coastal councils became evident in my research. Each local council’s adaptation plan could be categorised in Pelling’s typology as “adaptation as resilience”.4
The IPCC defines resilience as “The ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning”.5 Yet by focusing on the protection of the current structure of the social system, Pelling asserts that governments mitigate any risk to the societal status quo, allowing socially unjust practises to persist.6
By prioritising the protection of wealthy property owners’ assets while neglecting less visible but more vulnerable residents, governments risk compounding pre-existing disadvantage in their constituency. The moral and practical imperatives of recognising the wider contextual environment that contributes to individuals’ ability to confront climate change are evident. As Banks et al. reason, failing to account for human vulnerability may result in adaptation planning disproportionately impacting disadvantaged individuals and communities over the long-term.7 Moreover, by failing to account for the wider social costs, England and Knox argue that governments risk underestimating the costs of extreme weather events.8
If governments are to adequately address the widespread threat of rising sea levels, they will require methodological tools that illustrate the uneven geographies of disadvantage that exist in their local governmental areas. Socio-spatial maps that identify residents facing an enhanced risk by incorporating their wider contextual situation of residents should be at the forefront of coastal government’s considerations moving forward. Throughout my research, the considerable danger of failing to include the wider social factors became evident. Combining ecological exposure sea level rise projections with socio-economic disadvantage maps provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics highlighted several areas across NSW facing the dual threat of rising sea levels: exposure to rising sea levels and the inability to prepare, recover and respond to these stressors.
“Combining ecological exposure sea level rise projections with socio-economic disadvantage maps provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics highlighted several areas across NSW facing the dual threat of rising sea levels: exposure to rising sea levels and the inability to prepare, recover and respond to these stressors.”
In spite of a recent report by the World Meteorological Organisation that asserted sea levels were accelerating faster than previously thought, the tide seems to favour ignoring the complex dangers posed by rising sea levels to Australian coastal residents and communities.9 The ongoing battle in coastal communities is a microcosm of the debate surrounding climate change globally: vested interests concerned with their short-term profits undermining attempts by scientists and citizens to adequately prepare society. As with the climate change debate globally, action is needed before it’s too late.
1. Kulp, S.A., Strauss, B.H. New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding. Nat Commun 10, 4844 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41467-019-12808-z
2. Zafrin S, Rosier J and Baldwin C. (2014) Queensland’s Coastal Planning Regime: The Extent of Participation in Coastal Governance. Planning Practice and Research 29: 1-19.
3. O’Brien KL and Leichenko RM. (2000) Double exposure: assessing the impacts of climate change within the context of economic globalization. Global Environmental Change 10: 221-232.
4. Pelling M. (2011) Adaptation to climate change: From resilience to transformation: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
5. Pelling M. (2011) Adaptation to climate change: From resilience to transformation: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
6. Banks N, Preston I, Hargreaves K, et al. (2014) Climate Change and Social Justice: An Evidence Review. York: Joseph Rowntree Institution
7. Banks N, Preston I, Hargreaves K, et al. (2014) Climate Change and Social Justice: An Evidence Review. York: Joseph Rowntree Institution.
8. England K and Knox K. (2016) Targeting flood investment and policy to minimise flood disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Institution.
9. WMO. (2019) The Global Climate 2015-2019. Weather Climate Water. Geneva: World Meteorological Organisation.
Max Maddison is an honours student with the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Having recently completed a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences, his honours thesis looks at the intersection between environmental justice and sea-level adaptation planning, seeking to understand whether more inclusive adaptation planning can confront existing disadvantage within coastal communities. Max has a research passion for social/environmental justice, coastal societies, economics and Australian politics.