Many small island states, including Australia’s external territories and nations with which Australia interacts in relation to environmental issues in the region, are highly sensitive to sea level rise resulting from climate change and have limited scope for adaptation (i.e. the ability to change to remain resilient). Australian mainland coastal communities have considerably more scope and resources to plan for, and adapt to, climatic and other change. That capacity to adapt will only be realised, however, if planning and action are effectively coordinated at the national, state and local levels.
Abel et al.40 reviewed the literature on how high-income countries are approaching the challenges of climate change around their coasts. They found common themes:
- The origins of, and potential solutions to, problems of development and sea level rise are at different scales of space and time. Issues include lack of feedback from local to higher levels of governance, lack of capacity to initiate and implement local change, and defensive structures at one location causing erosion at others.
- Stakeholders are in conflict about the distribution of public and private benefits and costs in relation to climate change responses. Criteria for evaluating policy outcomes are unclear, and the rights of future generations are largely neglected (i.e. conserving assets and resources for the future is given little weight compared with values for current generations).
- Stakeholders’ decisions are influenced strongly by rules, norms and incentives, particularly property rights, compensation, liabilities and development controls.
- Where development is already intense, property rights, costs sunk in structures and lobbying by those affected work against policies for moving coastal settlements away from advancing water levels. (This situation is being experienced by many coastal councils in Australia. An example is the opposition to a planned retreat strategy proposed by Byron Shire Council, which is still in dispute.53)
- Arguments for action are weakened by large uncertainties about rates and magnitudes of sea level rise and future actions of governments.
- In the literature dealing with the United States, New Zealand and Australia, the role of Indigenous people in adaptation to sea level rise was discussed frequently.
Abel et al.40 noted that:
Coastal development is spreading along the World’s coasts. Sea levels are rising, so major future asset losses are expected. Planned retreat from the sea behind natural ecological defences is one adaptation option. To maintain it, land could be set aside for colonisation by coastal ecosystems, or buildings constructed on condition they are removed when sea level reaches a specified distance from the building.
A study of south-east Queensland concluded that the option of ‘planned retreat’, and hence a major opportunity to maintain the resilience of this area, is disappearing (Box 11.4).