Past, Present and Future Landscapes: Understanding Alternative Futures for Climate Change Adaptation of Coastal Settlements and Communities.

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Philip Morley
University of New England
New South Wales

Executive summary from final report:

Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to coastal local governments. Already managing high population growth rates, demographic changes within the population and pressures on infrastructure and services, climate change adds the threat of a range of uncertain and increasingly severe weather impacts.

Recognising the potential impact of climate change and natural hazards most councils now have implemented some predictive and precautionary revisions to planning schemes. However the roles and responsibilities of local government are not particularly clear, and the extent of planning for climate change adaptation varies considerably across the sector. Specifically, to incorporate planning for climate change and the long time frames involved, many local governments need to consider new planning instruments.

To gauge the impact of climate change in the decades ahead, we need to know the pattern of urban settlement decades ahead. This is not yet known, but we can model and test a number of alternative settlement scenarios – a set of ‘alternative future landscapes’. By doing so, we can move away from trying to make accurate predictions about a single most likely future, and instead, investigate what a desirable future might be, or what a ‘worst case’ might look like. Tapping community preferences, it may then be possible to try to figure out how to make a chosen ‘future’ feasible. 

Using the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales as a study area, this project demonstrates a novel approach to modelling alternative futures by linking the possible futures to various strategic land use planning options. Then the consequent vulnerabilities to climate change impacts may be assessed. The details of the scenarios modelled however, are not designed arbitrarily. To model a future landscape at a regional scale, it is vitally important to understand how past and current pressures are driving change. This past-present-future landscape approach allows a more integrated analysis of parameters that might change. 

Maps which visualise how the future might look are produced for six land use planning options: a ‘deregulated’ scenario which has only minimal constraints on land use; a scenario that models land use constraints embodied in the Far North Coast Regional Plan; a scenario which increases the population density of urban settlement; an ‘energy development’ scenario which combines the Regional Plan constraints with those which would arise if coal seam gas was intensively exploited in the region; and two ‘climate adapted’ scenarios which place constraints on land use availability (additional to those in the Regional Plan) to protect areas vulnerable to either (i) ‘High’ climate change impacts or (ii) ‘Low’ climate impacts. Three population trajectories, measured as built-up area (in hectares) required by a growing population, are modelled for the scenarios – low (1% growth), medium (1.5% growth) and high (2% growth). 

In addition to the scenarios of physical impacts, the study considers how social vulnerability to climate change impacts might be assessed. Disadvantaged groups may find it more difficult to identify the risks they face, may have less capacity to manage those risks and in some cases, the impacts of climate change can exacerbate the causes of disadvantage. However future climate change impacts will be felt by future landscape residents, and the socio-economic characteristics of an area change over time. The question is: can an analysis of past and current trends lend any insights to future social vulnerability? We find that we can take important lessons from an analysis of current census-based demographic patterns. There are clear guides both in the drivers of vulnerability, and in the spatial patterns of vulnerability, that can suggest planning and social policies to reduce the risks in the future to the socially disadvantaged.

The central conclusion from the scenario analysis is that the Far North Coast Regional Plan is well equipped to handle the climate change impacts assessed in the study. It is important, therefore, that local governments are well supported and do not give in to pressures to weaken controls in the Plan. Moreover, the Plan must ‘hold its ground’ well beyond 2030. 

If the controls on the Regional Plan are weakened, then a future closer to the ‘deregulated’ future scenario – the one that has the most severe vulnerabilities to the climate impacts modelled – is likely. Not surprisingly, the future with the greatest protection from impact is the ‘high climate adapted futures’. Scenarios with impacts in between these two extremes actually had relatively minimal impacts, even though they modelled varying land use planning options. Each scenario did however have a baseline that kept the protections embodied in the Regional Plan. 

Accessing good quality data was the most serious difficulty for this study. A national review of data available is urgently required. The review must ensure that consistent data can be provided at scales appropriate to an investigation such as this. An understanding of smaller scale locality-specific factors that might compound (or alleviate) impacts identified at the larger scale is also critical. Such finer scale assessments are therefore an important complement to regional landscape scale studies such as this one.

View the final report