AROUND Australia, there are more than $220billion worth of homes and infrastructure at risk from rising sea levels. Newcastle and its surrounds have more than their fair share.
No doubt, managing sea level rise is going to be expensive, but who is going to foot the bill?
Sea level rise is one of the most certain impacts of climate change because it’s fairly simple physics.
Atmospheric temperature is rapidly increasing and much of this heat gets absorbed by our oceans. As water warms, it expands, just like mercury in a thermometer. Warmer air temperature also melts land ice, adding more water to the oceans.
These two factors combined have already contributed about a 0.1-metre increase to local mean sea levels, and we can expect up to a metre over the coming century.
Until now, we’ve built our lives on the concept of a relatively stable shoreline. But sea level rise means the goalposts are shifting, and adapting to this change is a new, complex and extraordinarily expensive problem.
Coastal home owners are concerned they will, or already are, the first to pay.
Areas at risk from sea level rise are becoming easier to identify as local, state and federal governments continue to refine and update their future flood mapping.
Potential buyers may hesitate to invest in a location that is projected to be affected by sea level rise. Also, it seems prudent for councils to restrict development in areas of unavoidable risk, which may limit financial benefits of capitalising on a property with a secondary dwelling or subdivision.
But is this cost to coastal home owners fair? Each individual has only played a proportional part in causing climate change. And it seems unreasonable that those who will be affected by sea level rise should shoulder the cost for those who dwell on higher ground.
It is even more unjust for those who barely caused climate change at all. Residents of the Pacific island Kiribati emit about 0.6tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, grossly less than Australia’s 17tonnes per person a year.
But because of their low-lying geography, their island is likely to be uninhabitable in the coming decades. There is no option for moving to higher ground, they will instead need to seek refuge elsewhere.
Globally, coastal communities will face a loss of culture, tradition, livelihoods and homes. Should these people who have caused only minimal climate change be burdened with such a cost?
Surely, the greatest injustice for who will shoulder the cost from sea level rise is our children. Future generations will continue to pay for the actions we have taken.
If not the individual, should the cost of sea level rise fall to local government? Certainly councils have been responsible for prior planning of the location of houses and infrastructure. And already, legal cases are emerging where councils must defend decisions.
But local councils and other public service providers have their own financial burdens. They are responsible for maintaining and upgrading assets that will also be affected by sea level rise. Roads will become vastly more expensive to maintain as they flood more.
The cost to shift infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants and railroads is enormous. And as the risk of flooding increases, so too does the cost to insure, meaning that councils will have to pay more to ensure they can replace or upgrade a service after damage.
If the cost is borne by any tier of government, essentially that cost comes back to you, through higher rates, taxes or reappropriation of funds from other services. So asking the government to shoulder the cost of sea level rise is putting your hand in your own pocket.
So what is a fair way to pay for sea level rise? There are interesting options emerging on future funds for climate change. Globally, nationally and even locally, accounts could be established for saving now to be spent on climate impacts into the future.
But the simplest and cheapest option is to work hard to reduce the amount of sea level rise that will occur, by stabilising our climate.
Cutting emissions to within a safe level of warming is significantly cheaper than waiting to deal with the effects of a runaway climate.
Instead of haggling over who should pay for sea level rise, we should acknowledge that we are all responsible for avoiding it.
Clementine Watson is a student of environmental science and management at the University of Newcastle. A free community forum on sea level rise in the Hunter will be held on Thursday, October 30, from 6.15pm to 9pm at Newcastle Museum. Email firstname.lastname@example.org