Issues Magazine

Climate Adaptation: Preparing for the Worst or Hoping for the Best?

By Johanna Mustelin

What does climate adaptation mean for us and our communities, and what are the best ways to go about it?

In Australia we love our coast – the beaches, the surf, the fishing, the relaxing sound of waves and touch of warm sand beneath our feet. We might be lucky enough to buy a home close to the beach and “live the dream”. We enjoy all the benefits that coastal systems provide, and some cannot imagine living anywhere else.

Coastal environments are highly dynamic systems. This might not seem so on a sunny day, but given any amount of storm conditions we quickly see the waves encroaching, the wind setting in and erosion eating away our beaches.

Erosion is just a small aspect of changes on the way to our coastal settlements. Eighty-five per cent of Australians now live on the coast, which means that the impacts of climate change are going to be extensive in our communities. These impacts include sea level rise, increased frequency and extent of extreme storms, storm surges, increased erosion and an increase in the number of hotter days.

Much essential infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools, airports, roads and industry sites, is close to the coast. The reality is that all of our communities are vulnerable to climate change to some extent, and for the safety of our communities we need to be well prepared.

Why should we be adapting to something that might happen far into the future? In the past, many societies have adapted successfully to changing conditions, but the pace and extent of projected climate change impacts that we face is unprecedented.

Sadly, much of the climate change media “debate” in Australia still focuses on whether climate change is true or not. Many arguments centre on uncertainty: we do not know enough, so we should wait for more accurate models to tell us which impacts will occur, as well as where and when. Adaptation then becomes the double-edged sword: if we overestimate the impacts we will invest too much, but underestimation might come at great cost to the functionality of our societies.

The trouble with climate change is that by the time we “see” its effects it is too late to avoid them. This is why precautionary approaches that focus on preparation for the effects of climate change, as well as reducing the risks of further climate change, now and in the future, are essential. This includes learning from the past and learning to deal with uncertainty.

We usually make decisions under uncertainty. If you are an economist or work as a stockbroker, you do not know exactly how the situation with markets evolves on a particular day. Certain things are relatively stable, but you still make decisions without absolute certainty, dealing with situations the best way you can.

So how can we adapt to climate change? The answer depends on who you are, where you live and what work you do. Adaptation is first and foremost personal because it often depends on the will and understanding of the individual. Installing solar energy systems, buying water tanks, growing your own food, preparing your assets for possible storms, buying insurance and changing lifestyles to be less carbon-dependent are all possible strategies for adaptation.

Thinking about climate adaptation does not mean we have to forget common sense about living in dynamic environments. It simply means that the risks of adverse events can increase and that we need to be prepared.

Adaptation also depends on place and scale: decisions will be different depending on the location of a community, how many people live there and their capacity to respond. For instance, responses to sea level rise in a small seaside town are going to be different than responses on the Gold Coast, where the investments in infrastructure and assets are higher and where there is more at stake in monetary terms.

When should we start adapting? Do we need to abandon all low-lying areas now to make sure that we are safe in the future? Although such radical views have been expressed, these are not always in line with the expectations and aspirations of our communities.

Belongil in Byron Bay, New South Wales, is an example of a community that is taking a rather different approach to coastal management. The Byron Bay Council has opted for a planned retreat strategy under which no property owner is allowed to protect his or her beachfront property. The idea is to let nature have its way. The owners also have to guarantee that any structure (including houses) is demountable and can be moved if necessary.

This decision has raised national headlines and landed the council in court numerous times. While some see the council’s decision as rather sensible, because with increased sea level rise and storms the coastline will retreat inland in any case, others claim that such policies are too radical and should not be adhered to. Central to the question of homes under threat are the questions of who should pay for protection or retreat, what is the role of the community, and how much can they have a say?

Communities should and can have an important role to play in decision-making. Policy and decisions often get stalled because of community resistance, which tells us that there is a conflict about the right course of action. The question of who should be accountable is far from simple: how to calculate who should pay more or less for a public space such as the beach, and for its maintenance? In future, beachfront property owners might be expected to pay more for coastal protection than those living further inland.

Effective adaptation to climate change is essentially a question of negotiation and collaboration and about finding ways to work together. This is central to the way in which the future can be shaped: talking about the impacts, strategies and opportunities and seeing what residents and local governments can all do. Councils can engage with their residents and find out which strategies are accepted by the community and why.

Still, many local councils feel uneasy talking about climate change and risks to their communities. This is partly because of the inherent uncertainties, political pressure and so many current responsibilities and services. Communities often hold strong and varied opinions on everyday matters. Issues such as where the walkway should go, which side of the park is most suitable for new benches and where holiday housing should be placed are more tangible to the community than long-term risks.

As the floods in several states in January demonstrated, nature is unpredictable. The typical blame game of who approved floodplain developments will go on when we grapple with so much loss, both at individual and community levels. The truth is we love the places where we live, even if they are on the floodplains or in erosion-prone areas. Our lifestyles weigh more than the possible risks, and that is why adaptation essentially has to deal with questions about what a community values.

Reconciling the here-and-now with a long-term future is not an easy task but one that needs innovative approaches so that we can become an adapted society.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Griffith University.