Costs and coasts: an empirical assessment of physical and institutional climate adaptation pathways

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Cameron Fletcher
Bruce Taylor
Alicia Rambaldi
Ben Harman
Sonja Heyenga
Renuka Ganegodage
Felix Lipkin
Ryan McAllister
University of Queensland


The distribution of the potential benefits and costs of adapting to protect against storm surge inundation vary greatly both within and between coastal communities. This diversity is a result of physical factors, such as the risk of storm surge, sea level rise projections, and the topography of the landscape, as well as socioeconomic factors, such as the level of development and the capacity within the community to adapt. Because the costs and benefits of adapting to protect against inundation accrue differently across the community, different players stand to win or lose from different adaptations. Moreover, the scales at which adaptation decisions are made and funded can influence the types of adaptations being implemented. Beginning to build an understanding of these issues is vital to the design of equitable institutions to manage inundation risk by adaptation.

Using a quantitative analysis of the distribution of costs and benefits of three adaptation options (protect, accommodate and retreat) across the residential sector in six Australian coastal communities, we were able to identify a typology of Australian coastal communities based on the economy, equitability and affordability of a community adaptation (seawall) for each style of settlement. The typology provides an empirical underpinning for whether adaptation should be considered at the community level, the individual property level, or not at all, based on simple community characteristics and the distribution of risks and benefits throughout the community.

The choice about how to adapt, however, is more than one of measurement; it must be implemented via institutions that are perceived as equitable and practicable by the people making the decisions. In Australia, local governments play a primary role in managing the risk of coastal inundation, and governing at this scale affects the types of adaptations chosen to manage inundation risk. We asked the local government actors responsible for adaptation decision-making in the case-study regions to appraise the relative merits of different options related to protect, accommodate and retreat adaptation strategies. In analysing their responses we found a strong preference for gradual, incremental adaptation options that can be implemented within existing development rules and council practices over options perceived as disruptive, unpopular or legally risky. While, incremental adaptation may not always provide sufficient protection against storm surge under future sea level rise scenarios it is, under present conditions, an institutionally-rational course of action.

In contrast to the Australian focus on locally managed climate adaptation, an international review showed that, globally, adaptation is more frequently coordinated and underwritten by policies, financing and responsibilities at state or national scales. The review explored the different contexts in which protect, accommodate and retreat adaptation decisions are being made. When combined with our empirical findings, our study suggests there is scope to consider new models for sharing risks and costs across scales of Australian government and industry.

Please cite this report as:
Fletcher, CS, Taylor, BM, Rambaldi, AN, Harman, BP, Heyenga, S, Ganegodage, KR, Lipkin, F & McAllister, RRJ 2013, Costs and coasts: An empirical assessment of  physical and institutional climate adaptation pathways, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 53 pp. 

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