The devastating effects of hurricanes, floods and storm surges currently impacting the US, Caribbean, Cuba and Bahamas could soon be felt by Australian cities if we don’t urgently focus on adaptation and resilience.

Australian coastal cities are becoming increasing vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather events, and governments need to step up their responses, according to local and international experts.

Adam Parris, executive director of the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay in New York City, was brought out by the ANU Climate Change Institute last week to speak on why coastal cities need to be better prepared for extreme weather.

Parris also met with policymakers to talk about resilience measures in New York, and to make clear the extent of impacts on cities from future sea-level rise. He says there is now “substantial scientific evidence” that we’ve underestimated future rising – and the sooner we act the cheaper it will be.

“We’re looking at higher levels of sea level rise – 5-25cm over the next decade, and two metres by 2080,” he told The Fifth Estate.

“Any amount of sea-level rise will increase severity and frequency of floods. We need to start preparing people for this.”

Apart from sea-level rise, climate change is also causing more extreme weather.

“As our climate changes, we’ll also be seeing storms with more intense precipitation, whether they’re tropical storms or thunderstorms,” he said.

In New York, emergency preparedness is a key strategy Parris is engaged in at Jamaica Bay, with the institute having developed a community emergency response toolkit.

The institute is also helping cities look at long-term planning in terms of responding to sea-level rise and flooding, and how that interacts with building codes. One project is looking at how effective tidal marshes and wetlands are for buffering the effects of storm surges and improving water quality.

“We’re already seeing parts of New York City that flood on an almost monthly basis with impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods,” he said.

“Sea level rise is only going to increase the duration, frequency and intensity of flooding. We also have to consider that once-in-every-500-years storm and make sure that critical infrastructure is protected.”

Parris said it was critical that cities’ metropolitan plans included up-to-date details on sea-level rise.

“It’s absolutely critical for agencies under the mayor’s office, departments of planning and environment – they need that kind of guiding document to coordinate. They also need to be able to point at that when they engage communities. It becomes a unifying document from the citywide scale down to neighbourhood scale.”

He said there was already good work happening in Australia, pointing to Lake Macquarie City Council and its community engagement strategy.

“I think that’s very inspiring wherever you see councils and planners engaging with communities.”

US events a wake-up call

Parris’ warnings to governments have been echoed by Australian experts.

Australian Coastal Councils Association executive director Alan Stokes recently told ABC’s PM radio program that the hurricanes battering the US coast were a “wake-up call”.

“We should be taking much better notice of what’s happening over there at the moment because we could face very similar circumstances here in Australia,” Mr Stokes said.

He said funding for science related to climate change adaptation and resilience had been cut.

“We find it difficult to understand why the science to assist people who are trying to deal with these risks is being cut back, and funds are simply not available to assist councils to carry out the works required to address these threats.”

Flinders University strategic professor in coastal studies Patrick Hesp said building and living around the coast needed to be better managed.

“If we don’t start following some hard and fast rules, the world’s coastal areas will be in diabolical trouble as sea levels rise due to climate change,” Professor Hesp said.

He said there had been unprecedented growth in global populations around the coast, with 2130 coastal cities today compared with 470 in 1950.

“The impact on the coastal environment has been phenomenal,” he said, particularly around coastal erosion.

One of the solutions that may be needed if we were to continue our coastal living love affair, he said, was to find significant new supplies of sand (of which we are running out), or to build sea walls. However, he noted that governments like NSW had declared they would not pay for the construction of fortified sea walls to save threatened coastal properties.

Professor Hesp said adaptation plans needed to be put in place.

“But plans themselves are no good, unless there is money and community willingness to implement them.”