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Swallowed by the sea (part one)

Oct 28, 2019 • 14m27s

A decision to hand planning about sea-level rise to local council has opened up a war around science, property values and influence.

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Swallowed by the sea (part one)

109 • Oct 28, 2019

Swallowed by the sea (part one)

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, This is 7am.

A decision by state governments to hand responsibility for planning on sea level rise to local councils, has opened up a war on science, influence and property values. Bronwyn Adcock on how the future of the Australian coastline will be shaped by disputes over climate change. This is episode one of a two part series.

Archival tape -- Unidentified female reporter:

“Already this winter some local councils have been forced to close popular beaches and dump tonnes of sand and rocks to protect buildings.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified female reporter:

“A report on the effects of climate change on Australia's infrastructure, calls coastal flooding a sleeping giant of risk to future prosperity.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Male:

“We’re getting sea level rise... We are getting increases in the intensity of east coast slows... We’re getting tropical cyclones coming through down the coast which is making it worse, so it’s a triple whammy.”

ELIZABETH:

So Bronwyn, how did you first come across this story?

BRONWYN:

So It’s actually quite interesting the way I came across this. Some years ago I was doing a story about homelessness in regional areas and I was sitting in on a local council meeting, and towards the end of the meeting it just happened that this issue was being discussed. And I didn’t know anything about it at the time.

ELIZABETH:

Bronwyn Adcock is a journalist. She wrote about climate change and sea level rise for The Monthly.

BRONWYN:

but what I witnessed in that particular council meeting, this was a meeting in the Shoalhaven, was some science being put forward where there was a case to be made that sea levels were rising and this had to be considered.

I started contacting local community groups who had been involved in the issue. And I started speaking to people. And then I came across Brett Stevenson, and he was fantastic because not only was he an eye witness in a sense, in that he'd sat through so many council meetings and had a really good understanding of what had gone on. But he also had this background in environmental policy and he'd actually done a doctorate into coastal research.

(ringing)

BRETT:

Hello.

ELIZABETH:

Hi, Brett. How do we find you this morning? What's happening in Shoalhaven?

BRETT:

It's a bit overcast with the prospect of a shower perhaps a little bit later in the day, which would be very, very welcome because it's incredibly dry down here on the New South Wales South Coast.

ELIZABETH:

Ah ok well I wish you a grey and rainy day my friend!

BRETT:

(laughs) Thanks very much.

ELIZABETH:

So Brett you are sea changer, you moved to the coast in 2000, tell me about how you became involved in local council?

BRETT:

Well, it was probably about 2005 or 2006 the council advertised saying that there were vacancies on a number of advisory committees to do with natural resources and floodplain management. So I put my hand up for that.

ELIZABETH:

Dr Brett Stevenson lives on the NSW’s south coast, he’s worked in environmental policy for over 20 years.

BRETT:

Council also had a coastal committee for a while to which I contributed to.

ELIZABETH:

And being on these committees did you know sea level rise was going to be an issue?

BRETT:

Well I guess I always knew it was going to be an issue somewhere down the track because of my background working in state government.

but I guess it hadn't really been crystallised until it became increasingly clear that sea level rise was happening the climate change is happening and there needs to be some concrete policy responses to that.

ELIZABETH:

And Bronwyn, for you, when did government in Australia start dealing clearly with the issue of sea level rise and coastal property?

BRONWYN:

So early this decade around 2009 was I guess the first time there was a really strong acknowledgement that this was a major issue for Australia.

Back then, there was a federal department of climate change. They did a major report and they said, look, on current modeling and mind you this is modeling that over a decade old somewhere between one hundred and fifty seven thousand two hundred forty seven thousand individual residential buildings are at risk of inundation by the end of the century.

The figures that are used primarily by government were from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The likely figures they were talking about then was planning for sea level rise of point four metres by 2050 and point nine metres by 2100.

That was a benchmark that was accepted by a lot of state governments. So New South Wales, for example directed local councils to plan for those particular levels when passing new applications for housing.

BRETT:

And to their credit in 2009, the New South Wales Government created what it would call a sea level rise benchmarks. and essentially with those benchmarks if councils ready to go look at their own particular local circumstances and work out what the implications would be.

ELIZABETH:

So the NSW government sets these benchmarks for sea level rise and then it says to local councils: you must implement these benchmarks. How did the councils respond to that?

BRETT:

Well council as a whole responded very well I think. That information was being reflected in the decision making tools of council which was a good outcome. And we were getting that sort of consistent approach. Up and down the coast.

Council just ran with it and they put those figures into their policy making tools and they get on with the job of doing it.

BRONWYN:

So lots of councils began doing coastal management plans, starting to think for the future like that. But what happened is that there was an enormous community backlash.

ELIZABETH:

And that’s because these planning provisions affect individual homes and that affects the price that that property is worth?

BRONWYN:

Yeah absolutely, yeah, that’s how it works.
So they were extremely concerned about the impact that this would have on their property prices. No way this will effect our property prices. We can't do this. We can’t do these planning benchmarks

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So Bronwyn, around 2010 there’s real acknowledgement from the federal government that sea level rise is going to be a problem for our coasts. Local councils start preparing management plans. But almost as soon as that happens, there’s a backlash. And one of the driving figures is a man named Pat Aiken. Who is he?

BRONWYN:

Pat Aiken was a man who in 2010 was not really involved in any kind of local community politics or activism at all, in fact, he was looking forward to at least a semi retirement.

He was a casual TAFE teacher and a former bricklayer and now he'd bought a home in a little suburb called Davistown, which is north of Sydney on the edge of an estuary. This was where he imagined he was going to potentially retire to.

But then his local council, which at the time was the City of Gosford, part of their planning for sea level rise, they would have done some new mapping and that included Pat Aiken's house.

So he received this letter in the mail from his local council saying, ‘guess what? Your property is now considered to be in a coastal hazard zone. We don't know what that means at this point, but we're just informing you of this’. Ten years ago council was essentially acting on instructions from state governments which was to start planning for sea level rise. For lots of councils, this would have been the beginning of their planning process so they would’ve been informing residents that look your property is now in an area that we're going to have to consider what we do.

BRETT:

But of course once you draw lines on maps, I think that's when people really can get I guess upset irritated and try and decide to change things.

And I guess that was just leaving the way clear for a lot of local pressurizing and for local agendas to come to the fore rather than I guess that the broader collective wisdom.

BRONWYN:

They were very well organised being really vociferously opposed to this kind of new sea level rise benchmark planning.

Pat Aiken absolutely saw this as a black mark against his property. I mean, he more or less hit the roof as he describes it.

He was really, really upset by getting his letter. He felt that he'd been working so hard for this property for so many years and all of a sudden it was just ripped away.

So he started campaigning. He organised big protest marches. He went to see local MP’s. He went to see local council. And pretty soon he essentially became the leader of a New South Wales wide movement to oppose a lot of these new coastal policies.

Archival tape -- Unidentified male reporter:

“The NSW Coastal Alliance says up to 60,000 homes are affected by this. Pat Aiken from the NSW Coastal Alliance joins me on the line.”

Archival tape -- Pat Aiken:

“This is the green dream you know, threaten everyone with climate change and then start to take properties, you know, this is what they are after, they are after our land.”

ELIZABETH:

And did it work, lobbying like this from people like Pat Aiken work, was it effective?

BRONWYN:

Yes. It was in lots of coastal communities around Australia. There was this backlash to state governments and local councils

Archival tape -- Unidentified male reporter:

“The state government is the laughing stock of the mid north coast when they talk about immediate and intolerable risk, there are people who have lived there all their lives who say absolutely nothing has changed, if anything they’ve got more sand than they did before.”

Archival tape -- Pat Aiken:

“Well the problem with the state government is that they are listening to the greens which they’ve incorporated into the highest levels of the bureaucracy. You keep on fighting the good fight and we’ll stay in touch. thanks for your time. Thank very much.”

BRONWYN:

At least three state governments Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. Basically took a step backwards. They said it was too hard.

It looked different in various states in various jurisdictions. But the particular thing the NSW did is the state government said ‘right so whereas in the past were we had these statewide planning benchmarks where we to the entire state every coastal council you need to plan or these benchmarks that are accepted international science’, they then stepped back is that okay. Local councils can do that now. Every local council on the coast has to do their own planning and decide their own planning benchmarks.

ELIZABETH:

So where previous plans were based on international science, now the state gov is saying to councils - you can set your own benchmarks for sea level rise and you can pick the figure that you want?

BRONWYN:

Yes. The state government justified it by saying look regional communities can find their own regional solutions. I mean but essentially the handing over of a political hot potato to local councils.

ELIZABETH:

And Brett, is the issue here, to your mind, that if local councils are responsible for setting their own sea level benchmarks...are particularly vulnerable to pushback from property owners and developers?

BRETT:

Yes once that happens then essentially we have a series of councils of varying capabilities open to various types of influence various types of lobbying to change the development processes. So it just becomes a much more complex situation to deal with. A lot more scope for influence and lots of local agendas.

ELIZABETH:

I find this remarkable that local council is forming its own view about climate science - and setting planning approvals based on that.

BRETT:

Mmm.

And I guess what I saw a lot in my time is that the state government increasingly flipped lots of responsibilities for various quite contentious issues at times down to the local government level.

And whilst it might get it off the issue off the agenda if you like for the state government it puts it fairly and squarely onto the agenda for the local government. And they just haven't got the resources or capabilities and oftentimes the willingness to be able to grapple with these sorts of issues that are being thrust upon them.

BRONWYN:

So there is this push and pull between the small number of property owners now against a wider view, and it's a science backed view, that we actually do need to plan for the future and we do need to take this into account.
And that essentially comes to a head in this meeting in 2015 at Shoalhaven City Council.

ELIZABETH:

Tomorrow, we look at how American lobby groups got involved and shaped Australia’s coastline in opposition to climate science.

[MUSIC PLAYS]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Serial killer Ivan Milat has died in prison after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was 74. Milat was convicted of murdering seven hitchhikers, although he maintained his innocence. Speculation continues that he was responsible for other murders, although he was never tried for these.

And The Guardian reports that the Australian government has granted a $20 million contract to a phosphate mining company, to maintain the Christmas Island detention centre. The centre currently holds four people. The three year contract provides gardeners and cleaners for the centre - but not guards or other services, which are provided by Serco.

This episode of 7am was produced in part by Elle Marsh, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Tuesday.

A decision to hand planning about sea-level rise to local council has opened up a war around science, property values and influence. Bronwyn Adcock on how the future of the Australian coastline will be shaped by disagreement over climate change. This is part one of a two-part episode.

Guest: Writer for The Monthly and The Saturday Paper Bronwyn Adcock.

Background reading:

Rising tide in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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climate science property coastline development auspol




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109: Swallowed by the sea (part one)