The Legal, Institutional and Cultural Barriers to Adaptation to Sea-Level Rise in Australia

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Jon Barnett
The University of Melbourne
Year Started: 

Executive summary from final report:

Adaptation to sea level rise challenges individuals, communities and governments to make good decisions that are suitable to local contexts. There are a range of legal, institutional and cultural processes that act as barriers to adaptation, and which need to be overcome. Yet there is a limited body of evidence and few examples of how barriers to adaptation to sea level rise emerge and are addressed in local contexts. There is therefore a need to improve knowledge of the barriers to adaptation, in particular through empirical investigation. This study addresses this knowledge gap by: developing a typology of barriers to adaptation that can inform research and policy; and by investigating the effect of and proposed solutions to one barrier - uncertainty about responsibility for adaptation  - as it affects two coastal local government areas (Eurobodalla shire in New South Wales, and Mornington Peninsula shire in Victoria). 

The first phase of this project develops a typology of barriers to climate change adaptation based on a unique body of evidence. Systematic document analysis of over eight hundred pages of submissions to the Australian Productivity Commission’s inquiry to barriers to adaptation was conducted. Analysis of submissions from governments, the private sector, and civil society, reveals that there are five key kinds of barriers to adaptation: governance, policy, uncertainty, resources, and psychosocial factors. Our results show that the various actors prioritized these barriers differently according to the sector in which they operate. However, some barriers are generally more important than others; governance and policy were consistently considered to be major impediments to adaptation. This report explains the implications of our analysis for efforts to enable adaptation. This stage of the project indicated that there would be value in an in-depth investigation of roles and responsibility for adaptation to sea level rise in the two case study areas. 

The second phase of this project investigates the issues of responsibility for adaptation from the perspective of the people it matters to most in the context of sea level rise: coastal residents, business owners and managers. In total 80 semi-structured interviews were conducted: 37 in Eurobodalla and 43 in Mornington Peninsula. To set the context the interviews began by asking for the respondents’ opinions on current regimes of coastal management, and their views on the likelihood of sea level rise and the policy options that will be needed to deal with the risk of sea level rise. The interviews then elicited preferences for who should be responsible for a range of key tasks associated with adaptation: providing information and creating knowledge; managing public assets; managing private assets; local planning; and cost bearing for adaptation. 

Overall there was a strong preference among respondents for a significant role for government in adaptation. Local government was seen to be best placed to manage public assets, regulate decision making for private assets, and lead and coordinate public input for local planning. Federal government was viewed as the most appropriate entity to take responsibility for information provision on the risks of sea level rise and to bear the costs of adaptation. State governments, while not viewed as the primary responsible entity for any of these key tasks, was seen to have a role in coordinating adaptation actions across local government areas. 

By eliciting preferences for the distribution of responsibility for high-level adaptation tasks, the project provides evidence and information on approaches to adaptation governance that different groups find acceptable. This information can help policy makers begin the process of negotiating responsibility for adaptation across different levels of government and sectors, and address the barriers of uncertainty of responsibility for adaptation for sea level rise.

View the final report