At a glance
The resilience of, and future prospects for, coastal natural environments are inextricably coupled with the social, economic and cultural systems that lead to Australian people living on, depending on or influencing the coasts.
Globally, the threat of rising sea levels as a result of climate change is one of the most concerning pressures on coastal communities. It brings into focus all other aspects of the resilience of coasts, because it potentially affects their economic, social, cultural and environmental assets and processes. In Australia, a sea level rise of a metre or more during this century is plausible, and several hundred thousand homes are potentially at risk of inundation. Rising sea levels will also result in greater wave action on the shore, leading to increased rates of coastal erosion, particularly during extreme weather events, which are increasing in frequency. The capacity for coastal habitats and species to migrate inland to higher ground is limited in many parts of Australia by both the natural limits to the coastal plains and human-built structures such as seawalls, beach groynes and offshore reefs. Direct impacts on certain types of cultural sites, including many of significance to Indigenous people, are also possible. One of the major determinants of the future of Australia’s coasts is how extreme and rapid the effects of climate change will be on coastal Australia.
The emerging risks from climate change remain incompletely addressed for Australia’s coasts. Recent research comparing Australian coastal governance with examples elsewhere in the world has concluded that the ability to adapt to emerging pressures, especially climate change, is low and declining in many parts of Australia. Recommended remedies include allocating authority and resources between levels of governance according to their effectiveness at each level (rather than trying to manage everything centrally); strengthening development rules and incentives to encourage relocation before irreversible problems arise; allowing for uncertainties by building flexibility into rules and incentives so that they can be adjusted when knowledge and circumstances change; transferring public and private benefits, costs, risks, uncertainties and responsibilities from governments to beneficiaries of development; and viewing catastrophes as opportunities for learning and change, not signals to automatically rebuild.
In the context of this chapter, resilience is the ability of coupled coastal communities and ecosystems to recover from shocks without moving to a new way of functioning that delivers different, and probably lower, values and benefits to humans and other species.40 The resilience of coastal environments is coupled with the social, economic and cultural systems that support Australian people living or depending on the coasts. Conversely, factors that affect the resilience of human communities are likely to affect their relationships with ecological communities. This is a broader approach to assessing the state of the environment than has been used previously, but we argue that a strong body of evidence indicates that it is now important to take this broader system view.