Pick any document on sea level rise and its projected impacts on the Australian coast – be it a research paper, a government publication, a local council report or a study by a consultant. There is a good chance you will find, somewhere near the beginning by way of introduction to the topic, some statement about the dollar value of coastal assets at risk from sea level rise.

A little further down – as the three generic options of building defences, accommodating the rise in sea levels or relocating are mentioned – it is likely that the importance of consulting with stakeholders when developing adaptation policy will be highlighted.

It is not hard to see why these figures of speech are used. The monetary value of all the assets that may be damaged, provided it is large enough, sends a powerful message in a predominantly European culture such as ours, in which land tenure is paramount and the marketplace is seen as one of the foremost organising principles of social life.

And it is hard to disagree with such a democratic impulse as one that invites to a conversation about a problem all those who are affected by it. No wonder this vocabulary is pervasive in the jargon of mainstream natural resources management and climate change adaptation.

Nevertheless, the use of market-based metonyms (representing something by its market exchange value to the exclusion of all else about it) and metaphors (a human with any form of association to the coast compared to the holder of stakes in a corporation) is problematic. (I confess that my first impulse was to write “comes at a cost” instead of “is problematic”, which perhaps goes to show how easily market metaphors come to us, even when we are trying to approach them critically).

Something important is lost as the complexity of our association with the beach and the multiplicity of experiences animating the coast are reduced to neat, easily classifiable, potential market transactions.

Take a woman who returned to the small coastal town where she grew up, after 10 years in the city, in order to start a small business and raise her young children in a tight-knit community where she feels a strong sense of belonging. Or an Indigenous Australian on the Cape York peninsula whose livelihood depends on fishing, whose cultural understanding of the world is intimately bound with the Sea Country, including both living and inanimate features of the landscape, and for whom relocation evokes a painful colonial history of dispossession. Or a middle-aged couple who, 10 years earlier, had used their savings to design and build a house close to the beach, spending the kind of labour and emotional investment most of us could probably only afford once in our lifetime. Or the group of friends who joined their local surf club a few years back and have been running it ever since, part of what lends their lives a sense of purpose.

Clearly, when it comes to the impact of sea level rise, the notion – implicit in “monetary value” and “stakeholders” – that these individuals or communities can “sell” their stakes for what they’re worth and opt for another investment is deficient, to say the least.

Over the last five years or so, there has been mounting interest among researchers, communities and policy makers in how to incorporate “values” in developing adaptation to sea level rise. By “values” we usually (though not always) mean non-material aspects of existence, tangible or intangible, that cannot be exchanged in a marketplace. A far-from-exhaustive list might include cultural beliefs, attachment to place, world views, subjective measures of wellbeing and so on.

Problems of “valuation” and “values” are obviously not restricted to climate change issues and anyone working in this field can draw upon rich scholarly traditions – mostly from philosophy, anthropology, economics, social science, geography – that question the construction of value in modern societies and dissect the way in which “value” relates to power, culture and governance systems built on techno-scientific rationality.

The projected scale of sea level rise, despite the uncertainty, is intimidating, to say the least. According to the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for policymakers, released in 2014, there is “medium confidence” that sea levels will increase by about 25cm to 1m, relative to their pre-industrial levels; the current average rate at which sea levels are rising – 3.3mm/year – is itself increasing; as a result, it is likely that large stretches of coastal areas around the world, including Australia, will be permanently or seasonally inundated, and this will create a host of long-lasting ecological, economic and social problems.

Hence, sea level rise raises a multitude of issues that are too numerous to list here. However, underlying most of these issues are two fundamental and challenging questions. First, what is it that we, as a society, value most about the beach and the coastline? The answer will likely be different for different people, as the few sketches above illustrate. Recognising the diversity of what’s valued about the beach is a good starting point for thinking about adaptation.

Second, how are we to approach the process of developing adaptation including those crucial choices we have to make about what to protect and what to let go, whether to build a sea wall or not and whether to stay or move away? Implicit in this second question are other equally important ones, about ownership of adaptation and the role of the different layers of government in Australia in the process.

And it is the second question that brings up different, though no less important, kinds of values – those concerned with fairness, democracy, efficiency and so on. It is not so much that there is disagreement about whether we should be fair and democratic or not. Rather, it is about how fairness and democracy should be interpreted. Is it fair that the taxpayer be made to compensate those who lose their properties in a storm? Where should democracy stop and “efficient” central planning start? Should coastal dwellers in marginal areas be forced to relocate for their own protection or should the decision be ultimately left to them and if they choose not to leave, should the taxpayer help in protecting them? What kind of government structure is best suited to envision, carry through and oversee the changes required?

There is no doubt that sea level rise, the demographics of migration and population growth, and the decline of the resource economy that has sustained us for so long, will continue to transform Australia this century. What kind of country we become will depend in no small part on the kind of questions we choose to ask, as well as the answers we bring to them, over the coming years and decades. And, as far as the beach is concerned, how much it’s worth – forgetting the absurdity of the question for a moment and assuming it can be answered at all – matters far less than what it means to different people, at different times and in different settings. That’s the kind of questions we are increasingly asking. And so we should.

Abbas El-Zein is associate professor in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney. He will be speaking at the Sydney Environment Institute’s “Coastal vulnerability to sea level rise” event on Wednesday 23 March 2016.

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