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By Fran Molloy 1 September 2016 5 min read

Bronte beach and suburb
Million-dollar sea views may come at a cost. Image: Tim J Keegan/Flikr

In June, multimillion-dollar properties along Sydney’s northern beaches at Collaroy were left hanging on a precipice by large sea swells combined with ‘king tides’ that tore up to 50m of sand from the beach in front of them.

The event served as a reminder about the power of the ocean and as warning, of sorts, about development along Australia’s future coast line. Suddenly, a sea view, one of the most valuable assets in recent Australian real estate history, might also come with a cost.

Development and population growth along much of Australia’s 36,000 km coastline continues to place pressure on coastal resources, including natural systems and infrastructure and services.

Meanwhile, climate change is putting even greater pressures on the nation’s coastal zone, and any response must go beyond a simple coastal planning response, into social and business arenas.

But Dr Neil Lazarow, who is a Senior Research Scientist with CSIRO Land and Water argues that society needs to rethink our approach to address the burgeoning issue of coastal climate change adaptation.

“We simply do not have time to address coastal adaptation by following the same path that coastal management has followed,” he says. “We’re looking at resolving challenges that are societal as well as structural, and you can’t do that at the level of the coastal manager.”

His recent presentation to the Climate Adaptation 2016 conference in Adelaide, titled Where to now for coastal adaptation?, argued against broadscale integration of climate adaptation strategies into coastal planning, without first thinking through the consequences on communities and governance.

“We need to manage two important risks. First, that the trade-offs required in the coastal zone are ‘societal’ in nature and need to be considered in this context; and second, that decision-makers need to be wary of using ‘adaptation’ as a justification and opportunity to attempt to drive through all change and all development.

"This is not to say that coastal development should not take account of climate impacts, but that without community and key stakeholder support, we are likely to see continued resistance to climate adaptation."

Involving Stakeholders

Lazarow says that it’s critical to co-ordinate responses from the various stakeholders of coastal sites to encourage more innovative solutions, and this needs to be done with care.

“We need to triangulate and bring together a range of different viewpoints - asset owners and asset managers, investors and insurance companies as well as various levels of government,” he explains.

Solutions that involve relocating residents from vulnerable sites, or issuing “retreat orders” that increase the required coastal setbacks, cannot take place in a vacuum.

“There’s almost an assumption that, bombarded with evidence and rationality, coastal homeowners will concede to the potential of significantly reducing the value of, what is often their primary asset, because the government thinks it's in the public good,” he says.

While natural processes cause beaches to fluctuate in width and orientation over seasons and even longer cycles, the introduction of coastal protection structures can exacerbate beach erosion, during periods of intense storms and La Nina cycles, which bring higher sea levels.

Powerful storms like those in June at Collaroy on Sydney’s northern beaches have focused debate over insurance coverage and over how to protect existing homes and who should pay for infrastructure such as sea-walls.

Climate change is projected to increase the intensity of large storms and, along with sea-level rise, this will exacerbate coastal damage.

Legacy assets

“Our biggest issue is legacy assets, such as existing housing and infrastructure,” Lazarow says. “For new developments, we can put codes in place which cater for risk and spell out exclusions, but where you have existing property in at-risk areas, government faces a real challenge in working with communities and business to reduce risk to an acceptable level.

Storm damaged beach with tall buildings
Storm ravaged beaches at this popular tourist resort. Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.

While there are a range of possible options for some locations, key questions around ‘who pays’ and how issues such as beach access and environmental values are regarded against the need to protect public and private infrastructure remain contested.

Coastal retreat – where people relinquish their home and move – is contentious. “People don't want to retreat, obviously, because they paid a premium to live in that location or they may have a strong bond to the land.”

Governments paying residents out can set an unaffordable precedent. “There’s also a value beyond private homes, held in all the public infrastructure such as roads, water, electricity, sewage, all of these feeding into a wider web of value,” says Lazarow.

“This is a massive question, and trying to resolve it at the level of the coastal manager is inadequate.”

Innovative solutions

He says that while Australian policy makers are considering various strategies for redistributing risk, so far there hasn’t been a serious conversation about power sharing.

“Land owners do recognise the risk exists,” he says. “In many cases they may be willing to share some of that risk with government, but they also want a very clear say in what the future holds and so far, there are very few examples of governments willingly ceding part of the decision-making process to communities.”

He says that, as risks begin amplifying, focus is shifting towards the roles, rules and responsibilities around coastal adaptation for climate change.

“We have a window of opportunity where communities can try out some innovative ways of managing coastal risks and explore solutions that, while they may be very specific to local areas, will involve principles that can be extrapolated.”

Solutions need to involve trade-offs of public versus private good, he says. He warns that those who have the most to lose privately are often able to present a much louder voice to government, but this should not mean discounting of the ‘public good’. Solutions involve a commitment of resources – and that’s often where co-operation falls down.

“For example, a homeowner is unlikely to make a decision against their interests, but if you could insure them against financial or aspirational risks, they might be inclined to make more innovative decisions about protection, relocation, or the greater needs of the community.”

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