Resilience and adaptive capacity


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).

Box 11.4 A study of the coastal resilience of south-east Queensland

Based on an examination of plans, records, policies and development approvals, combined with interviews and workshops with a range of stakeholders, Abel et al.40 concluded that the option of planned retreat (movement of buildings and other infrastructure away from areas likely to be inundated as sea level rises in the future) is disappearing because:

  • the state government promotes population increase
  • the need to protect coastal ecosystems does not seem urgent, so houses are built on the coast
  • liability laws favour development
  • planning ignores cumulative impacts and the chance that these impacts could eventually cause major irreversible changes in coastal communities and ecosystems
  • political pressure to build defences (e.g. seawalls) grows as the value of built assets increases.

To implement planned retreat, changes to coastal governance would be needed, for which the authors proposed five guiding principles:

  • Allocate authority and resources between levels of governance according to their effectiveness at each level (rather than trying to manage everything centrally).
  • Strengthen development rules and incentives to encourage relocation before irreversible problems arise.
  • Allow for uncertainties by building flexibility into rules and incentives so that they can be adjusted when knowledge and circumstances change.
  • Transfer public and private benefits, costs, risks, uncertainties and responsibilities from governments to beneficiaries of development.
  • View catastrophes as opportunities for learning and change, not signals to automatically rebuild.

The issues identified for south-east Queensland are very similar to those identified consistently over the past two decades by a range of experts in coastal management and governance and, more recently, by the coalition of coastal councils that forms the National Sea Change Taskforce (see Section 3.2).

If the limits of the resilience of coastal settlements and ecosystems are exceeded, adaptive strategies framed around incremental change are unlikely to be adequate to prevent major harmful impacts on key sectors. Instead, the functioning and management of coastal communities and ecosystems might have to change fundamentally to cope with changing circumstances.

Cork S (2011). Coasts: Resilience and adaptive capacity. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659bdc758b