Lake Macquarie restaurant collapse
Lake Macquarie's Milanos restaurant collapsed in 2017. Photo: Fire and Rescue NSW

Fear of falling property values could be blinding coastal communities to the risks posed by rising sea levels, new research has found.

“Socially organised denial” could block attempts by coastal councils to change development laws aimed at mitigating future inundation caused by the climate crisis, according to a study being done by researchers from Newcastle and Sydney universities.

Residents in coastal towns, such as Lake Macquarie in NSW, were content to “wait and see” if sea level rise posed a problem for their low-lying homes, the study of the Lake Macquarie region found.

Lake Macquarie Council is at the forefront of climate adaption planning in Australia thanks to the region’s exposure to low-lying coastal areas.

The study by the two universities is investigating the role of socially organised denial in opposing proposed development changes to stop future inundation of buildings in the region.

In the first stage of the study, researchers interviewed a cross section of stakeholders, including community members.

They found that fear that property values would plummet because of the risk of damage from sea level rise engendered a “hope for the best” attitude among residents, and resistance to local government efforts to address the issue.

That’s part of the whole issue with climate change, said PhD research fellow at the Newcastle Business School, Dr Vanessa Bowden, who is one of the researchers behind the study.

“Even if we accept the science, the question is what will happen and when, that makes it difficult,” she said.

Rather than outright denial that climate change was happening, the study identified a collective community scepticism that sea level rise would be severe enough to damage their properties and quality of life.

Although it was just one case study, Dr Bowden said there were lessons for other vulnerable coastal communities.

“These places like Lake Macquarie are right at the forefront of this issue,” she said. “Hopefully, there will be lessons to be learned and people start waking up.”

However, there is some evidence these attitudes are widespread. For example, a recent study by the University of New South Wales found only half the people living on the NSW coastline believe sea level rise will impact them directly.

What happened in Lake Macquarie?

Lake Macquarie City Council started planning for climate change adaption in light of the Coastal Protection Act 1979 and the NSW government’s policy on adaptation to sea level rise.

The council released its Sea Level Rise Preparedness Adaptation Policy in 2008 – one of Australia’s first sea-level rise policies – which included recommendations for stricter development controls, including requirements that new residential and commercial buildings would need to be built up to 2.85 metres above ground in the most vulnerable areas.

These measures were based on IPCC projections of future global sea level rise as well as national scientific estimates of regional variations.

One NSW developer threatened to sue the council, accusing it of “falling for this unjustified, worldwide idiocy about sea level rises”.

Media coverage focused on home owners’ concerns about what the new planning measures could mean for property prices and insurance premiums.

One NSW developer threatened to sue the council, accusing it of “falling for this unjustified, worldwide idiocy about sea level rises”. The developer also organised a community meeting that was addressed by prominent climate deniers.

This toxic climate prompted the council to re-evaluate its approach to sea level adaption planning and undertake extensive community consultation.

The resulting adaption plan has been largely heralded as a success. But stricter development controls haven’t been put into place.

The report from  Newcastle University and University of Sydney said: “This meant that no material adaptation will occur until aspects of sea level rise are locally observed in the ‘here and now’.

“The collective response, then, became more about appeasing tension in the community over present property values than planning for the future impacts of climate change.”

What the report found

There are a number of processes at play that explain how climate change denial is socially produced, and the need to adapt to it deferred.

Few of the interviewees in the university study were outright climate sceptics. What they doubted was the severity of the potential impacts.

Interviewees also tended to see the issue of sea level rise through the lens of their own local experiences. Periodic fluctuations in water levels and flooding events that had happened in the recent past were enough to sow the seeds of doubt.

“According to these residents – and some councillors and business leaders – the lake was not observed as changing throughout this shared local history, therefore, it was argued, there was no need to worry,” the study reported.

Residents also believed periodic flooding was just a fact of life on the coast, a “minor inconvenience” and not necessarily a cause for concern.

One community member described floods as nothing more than something that involved putting on gumboots and using the toilet in the local pub because of backed-up sewers.

These beliefs fed into the primary source of anger and concern in the community that land values were falling and insurance premiums rising because properties were being classified as flood prone.

“The very act of alerting people to the potential impacts of sea level rise on properties was seen as impacting their value,” the study found.

Some residents even complained that the council was exploiting its power, at a time when council rates were rising.

The council had a measure of success when it brought in insurers to discuss with residents the implications of the planning process, insisting that it was not having an impact on property prices and costs.

A recent story in The Fifth Estate found that sharing information on hazards doesn’t cause home prices to fall or leave councils exposed to legal problems. The opposite is true because premiums tend to increase in the absence of data, with insurers assuming the worst.

Council also started to shift its language around sea level rise, focusing instead on “increased flooding events” and other terminology considered less political.

The Lake Macquarie case study is one example of the broader tensions playing out between “localised understandings of environmental change as they relate to time, and the globalised complexity and uncertainties inherent in climate change as a phenomenon,” the study concluded.

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  1. So to be clear, the Milano’s building collapse is not connected with the case study you have used. It was not climate change that caused its collapse. I understand it collapsed due to structural failure from lack of maintenance by the tenant.