by Lynne Blundell

The Sydney Coastal Councils Group’s (SCCG) recently released report on adapting to climate change outlines the difficulties councils face in tackling rising sea levels, flooding, storm damage and increased bushfire incidence.

The report, Case Studies of Adaptive Capacity is the result of a two year project by CSIRO, the University of the Sunshine Coast and WWF Australia. It contains numerous in-depth, anonymous interviews with local government workers on the front-line of climate change adaptation in three municipalities – Mosman, Leichhardt and Sutherland Shire.

The report makes six key recommendations for councils:

• “Know Your Enemy” – improve understanding of social and ecological vulnerability

• “Plan for Change” – build climate change into planning frameworks

• “Get Smart” – develop education and outreach programs

• “Act, Watch and Learn” – monitor, evaluate and report

• “Put the House in Order” – develop internal and external arrangements

• “Money Talks” – enhance revenue streams to councils

Council workers tell it like it is

The comments of council workers contained in the report provide a rare insight into the myriad problems being tackled at local government level.

Local government feels trapped between its duty of care to residents and the risks of charging ahead with policy in the absence of guidance and support

Some case study participants questioned the extent of local government responsibility for adaptation while state and federal governments remain quiet on the nature of climate impacts:

“Climate change I get a bit nervous about because we seem to be accepting responsibility or …Council… could end up being sued for either taking no action or taking the wrong action, that’s the one that worries me…When you don’t actually have the complete answer…

Local government was trapped between its duty of care to residents and the risks of charging ahead with policy in the absence of guidance and support, the report concluded:

So much of Local Government action depends upon specific standards such as building codes and above floor heights. The lack of such information remains a key hindrance for Local Government planning, infrastructure management and community engagement, due to uncertainty over what climate impacts may involve.”

Interviewees noted, for example, that depending upon the figure used for sea-level rise, there may be thousands of properties vulnerable to sea-level rise within the case study regions. Hence, decisions with far-reaching consequences may hinge upon the determination of a single value.

Questions of liability were impeding action, with councils that have undertaken analyses of climate impacts, such as sea level-rise mapping, admitting they are reluctant to communicate the results to the public in the way for fear of issues relating to liability and property value.

In the words of one council worker:

“…to get a report up to Council probably took about 12 months just for them to acknowledge that it’s happening and we need to think about it…that even had to be confidential because they didn’t want any of the community to know about it. So they’re still– politically very scared by it, I suppose, and the potential ramifications.”

Planning or maintaining infrastructure such as sea walls was being done in an ad hoc manner due to lack of guidance on policy:

“Yeah, with the sea walls, they’re [accounting for sea-level rise] already. But say with things like upgrading the jetties, I don’t think it’s factored in, because we’re just sort of maintaining them as they are. So I guess if it’s maintenance, then we just tend to maintain [it] the way it is. But if we’re doing something new, then maybe…climate change gets considered.”

And finances and lack of resources to tackle climate change featured prominently in the responses:

“it all comes down to money… we’ve got one or two environmental officers and …they’re pretty stretched just managing what they’re doing…if we did get assistance from the Federal Government and actually have some people to assist us in promoting it, I think that would make it simpler and more achievable.”