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Swallowed by the sea (part two)

Oct 29, 2019 • 16m37s

How the American anti-climate-science lobby hijacked local councils in Australia, changing sea-level benchmarks as it went.

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Swallowed by the sea (part two)

110 • Oct 29, 2019

Swallowed by the sea (part two)

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

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

When state governments handed planning for sea-level rise to local councils, small towns were suddenly hit with the lobbying force of the American anti-climate science movement. Bronwyn Adcock on how an alternate reality took over decision making.

This is the second episode in a two-part series.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So Brett, we’ve talked about how, beginning around a decade ago, federal and state governments effectively began hand-balling the issue of sea level rise to local councils.

Shoalhaven was one of the first councils in the country to take up this responsibility. You sat on a number of committees there, what happened after this shift?

BRETT:

I think that in 2012 was that was a pivotal moment which really sort of set the ground, or sowed the seeds, for all these sorts of unfortunate changes.

ELIZABETH:

Dr Brett Stevenson lives on the New South Wales’ south coast. He’s worked in environmental policy for over 20 years.

BRETT:

And what happened is that Shoalhaven and Eurobodalla councils got together and hired some very reputable coastal consultants called Whitehead and Associates to do a report and what Whitehead and Associates had done was a good job.

ELIZABETH:

So this report was done and what it found was essentially in line with what the State Government had earlier recommended?

BRETT:

Yes, but it was consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommendations. I think that was one of the key things, they weren’t figures that were just plucked out of the air, it was being driven by solid science.

ELIZABETH:

Bronwyn, you reported this story. Where did the figures from that first environmental report that was commissioned, where did those figures come from?

BRONWYN:

So they did a very comprehensive report, they drew together international science, they drew from the IPCC. They looked at regional information, statewide information, and they came up with recommendations and planning benchmarks which were broadly in line with IPCC recommendations for planning benchmarks.

ELIZABETH:

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

BRONWYN:

So this report went out to the community. There was not, by any stretch of the imagination, widespread community dissent.

BRETT:

And then that report went up to be signed off. That recommendation was totally turned on its head almost as a result of just one council meeting.

It was obviously a carefully coordinated and orchestrated process because originally the consideration of the sea level rise benchmarks was supposed to be one of the last items on that council agenda. But it was moved by the councillors that eventually voted for the new policy to move it forward.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“There’s no way that I was going to adopt the framework of the Whitehead report. As far as I’m concerned, I want nothing to do with the framework…”

BRETT:

What council did was they looked at the figures, because the Whitehead and Associates had produced a range of scenarios. Essentially, they just chose figures that were associated with a lower representative concentration path, which is highly unlikely that we're going to achieve that because our global emissions just keep on rising.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“And I can guarantee you, councillors, that in another 6 months, councillor Watson will have found some more climate change and sea level deniers on the internet to create his, you know, very robust case to bring towards council…”

BRETT:

Well, it is obviously rather heated. I think that discussions were pretty full and frank, shall we say.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“Mr. Chair, if councillor Watson would refrain from calling my contribution to the debate ‘ranting’, I would ask that you ask him to withdraw that comment because I find it offensive…”

BRETT:

Eight of the nine councillors there voted in favour of the alternate reality.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“OK all those in favour say I, against, no. OK, that’s carried.”

BRONWYN:

So Shoalhaven City Council voted to plan for a future where by 2050 there could be a sea level rise of .23 of a meter and by 2100, that would be .35 of a meter. And that's a huge difference between the IPCC figures at the time, which were 0.4 by 2050, and 0.9 by 2100.

ELIZABETH:

So Bronwyn, you’re saying that in that meeting the council votes to accept a sea level rise for 2100 that leading science tells us will actually already be well exceeded by 2050, fifty years earlier?

BRONWYN:

Yes.

BRETT:

The whole process, essentially, was turned on its head without any real basis apart from the councillors didn't like what was being recommended. It just seems utterly bizarre. And if you go to council's website, it says that the figures for 2100, the projected sea level rise levels have an 85 percent probability of being exceeded.

So what's the point of having a benchmark figure that you know has an 85 percent chance of being exceeded? It just seems insane.

ELIZABETH:

And Bronwyn, how did this happen? I mean, why did the council vote this way?

BRONWYN:

Well, what council did, or what a majority of councillors voted for, was to walk away from evidence-based policy and to essentially make up a policy without any credible evidence base. Basically, the most powerful dissent that council ended up taking on board came from two quarters. The first was this group called The Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change, the NIPCC. So despite the kind of slightly official sounding name that meant reflects the IPCC, this is essentially an American climate change denial advocacy organisation. This group is funded by another American organization called the Heartland Institute, which is an American think tank, again, which has been a leading promoter of climate change denialism. And it's been backed in the past financially by the fossil fuels industry.

So they submitted a report to Shoalhaven council, basically arguing that climate change and sea level rise are not happening, so therefore there is no need for any policy response at all.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“The truth is, the world is becoming a cleaner and safer place thanks to technology and affordable energy. Join those who are willing to speak up for technology and affordable energy and against global warming alarmism.”

BRONWYN:

People who have been vocal climate change skeptics under the umbrella of that organization have addressed quite a number of community meetings up and down the New South Wales coast.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“Join the Heartland Institute. Join the forces for good.”

BRETT:

Imagine if you had a health policy designed by the tobacco industry. Here you have a policy of the council that’s actually been based on a submission from group that says you shouldn’t these policies. It’s just totally contradictory!

BRONWYN:

The second source of information that council took on board came from a group of property owners who lived on a particular beach in the Shoalhaven and their properties had actually fallen under this new coastal hazard zone. So they were extremely concerned about the impact that this would have on their property prices.

Their submission, though, was not about the value of the property. They essentially replicated some of these climate change denialism arguments and putting forward the view that look sea level rise is uncertain,we don't know what’s happening, therefore we can’t do these planning benchmarks.

ELIZABETH:

So how does an American climate-change organisation get tied up with local politics on the New South Wales coast?

BRONWYN:

I think it's about an alignment of interests. So I think that you have this US- based climate change denial organization that is looking to propagate its message, it's looking to spread its message, and then they can spot on the other side of the world these disgruntled property owners in coastal New South Wales who are very unhappy about what they're being told that climate change is going to do to the value of their properties.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Brett, in 2015, the Shoalhaven council voted to make planning decisions that were based on sea level rise figures that were far below any projected by leading international science and the IPCC. Why does it matter that the council accepted unsupported figures?

BRETT:

Well the fact is that those decisions are being incorporated into decision making things and tools and planning decisions that are happening now.

ELIZABETH:

And homes being built, I imagine...

BRETT:

And homes being built. You know, once something's built, once something's there, it's a very, very different situation. This is one of the areas that I find really, really unbelievable. We're just compounding existing problems, drawing in more people that are going to be affected by these bad decisions in the future.

BRONWYN:

There are many, many examples of houses and developments that have been built in the Shoalhaven now under this flawed sea level rise policy. So, I found one, it's an eight lot subdivision in an area called Sussex Inlet, which is an estuarine area where a finger of land stretches out into the inlet. So the developer first put in their development application when Shoalhaven City Council was under their original sea level rise benchmark planning.

When council threw out this policy, what it meant is that they could amend the plans and drop the level of fill on their subdivision. They also no longer had to build a retaining wall. So, eight people are buying properties that are built at a level, it's a planning level that basically no one thinks is going to happen.

So this is not just an issue that affects people who have multi-million dollar beachside properties. The fact is, particularly around rivers and estuaries, that's where a lot of homes that are still affordable to many Australians are built.

ELIZABETH:

Is it unrealistic to say within 30 years that house may no longer be habitable?

BRONWYN:

It could potentially be at risk of inundation, properties built at that level. I think it's not just the issue of the potential inundation, it's the issue that your insurer, your mortgage holder, actually might come for you before the water does. Insurers are increasingly starting to look at this issue of properties and at-risk properties. And as are the big banks.

ELIZABETH:

And who is going to be responsible when that moment comes - is this just a case of kicking the can down the road?

BRONWYN:

It has been a case of kicking the can down the road because a lot of the policy decisions have been based on considerations of the here and the now.

And a lot of these local communities, when there are natural disasters, whether it is a flood or whether it's a bushfire, the majority of people who respond to these are community volunteers. So the question of: Are we okay now planning to have development and building in areas that in 50 years time, we might be asking community volunteers to come in and risk their lives to save those properties?

ELIZABETH:

And Bronwyn, is anyone leading on this? I mean, is anyone actually willing to acknowledge and act on the science?

BRONWYN:

There's no doubt that the private sector is completely understanding of the risks of climate change and that they are now factoring that into their decision making. A lot of the big coastal developers and savvy developers have either got out of some coastal properties that are deemed to be too risky already, or they are accepting the extra cost. You know, I guess the smart money, you could say, is going into adaptation. So either not building or building differently. And the real risk is when you have local councils trying to pretend there's still not an issue and allowing people to continue to build and develop in areas that will be at risk of inundation.

Like, you have local councils around Australia who are spending huge parts of their budget on trying to prop up beaches that are disappearing, trying to build seawalls to stop houses falling into the sea.

You know, there are some councils, I think, in South Australia where they're saying they're spending 40 to 50 per cent of their annual budget dealing with this issue.

We live in a country that is very exposed to the natural environment, so you know, 85 per cent of Australians live in proximity to the coast. We are also very exposed to things like bushfire, to storm surges. How we adapt and how we develop public policy is a really, really important question for us. So to see this being quite mangled, I think, over the last decade, it’s an extraordinary loss for Australia.

ELIZABETH:

Brett, when you think about this now, how do you feel about it?

BRETT:

Well it just makes me think; it's no wonder we find ourselves in the increasingly dire situation that we are. And that it’s actions and decision making like this that drives people to look at things like, shall we say the extinction rebellion and civil disobedience because you think, you know, we've tried all the formal channels, we've tried arguing the science, we’ve gone down all these paths for rational debate and they can still be overturned.

And so what alternatives do we have left to us? It comes down to things like civil disobedience and that. Because if you've exhausted all other alternatives, and you’re looking at something that you think is really part of an existential threat to our way of life and society, then what do you do?

ELIZABETH:

Ten years ago, Brett, is that something that you would have sympathised with?

BRETT:

Look, I think I've always been able to appreciate both sides of an argument, but I think we could do a whole lot better than what we're doing. I guess, vested interests certainly rule.

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

In a press conference on Monday, US President Donald Trump claimed Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “died like a dog” during a military raid in north-west Syria. Trump said that Baghdadi was targeted by a special operations team and that he was chased down. When he encountered a dead end tunnel, he detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and three children. Trump added that two of Baghdadi’s wives wearing undetonated suicide vests were also killed. Critics say that while Trump may be hoping for a bump in his approval rating similar to the one experienced by Barack Obama after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, it’s not likely to have a lasting effect on his approval rating, which has remained between the high 30s and low 40s since his election.

And the Department of Home Affairs has proposed using face scans to confirm people's age before they watch online pornography and to restrict access to gambling sites. The Department suggested that checking ages could be done by matching a person's photo with a document already logged with Home Affairs, such as a driver's licence.

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 Wednesday.

[Theme music ends]

When state governments handed planning for sea-level benchmarks to local councils, small towns suddenly encountered the lobbying force of the American anti-climate science movement. Bronwyn Adcock on how an alternate reality took over decision making. This is part two of a two-part series.

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 #property #coastline #development #auspol #heartland us science




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110: Swallowed by the sea (part two)