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It is hard to believe that only 10 years ago on 18 February, 2010, around 180 coastal wonks gathered in Adelaide to discuss “developing a national coastal adaptation agenda”. It was a Forum sponsored by the then Australian Government’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (DCCEE). A subsequent report of the Forum was released by the Department. But how times have changed?

Before discussing some outcomes of the Forum, I need to offer some context. The Rudd Labor Government in 2008 commenced a multi-faceted program of climate change initiatives including one on adaptation. Minister Greg Combet in his foreword to the Forum report, after noting the need to cut carbon pollution, said “We must also prepare for climate change that is too late to avoid. Planned adaptation needs to be a part of a balanced and prudent response to climate change”…“It will take time to adapt and current uncertainties call for creativity and flexible approaches, not delay”. He acknowledged both the work of his predecessor, the Hon. Penny Wong, in starting the dialogue on developing adaptation priorities for Australia, and that of the House of Representatives Committee on Climate Change, Environment and Water (chaired by Jenny George MP). That committee had just released their bipartisan report “Managing our coastal zone in a changing climate: the time to act is now” (2009) (the so-called “George Report”). And it must be remembered that this is one of many previous Australian Government reports on coastal matters. We were delighted that both Minister Wong and Jenny George were at the Forum along with the Deputy Chair of that House Committee, Mal Washer MP.

In the current political climate, it is hard to appreciate the degree of goodwill and hope embraced by all involved in the review conducted by the George committee. The hearings covered the nation and it was marvellous to see members come to the Australian Coastal Society 2008 C2C conference in Darwin. I was one of many who made submissions and was formally interviewed, although at times it felt like being interrogated by one member, Mark Dreyfus MP, QC. The report was comprehensive and offered the Australian Government 47 recommendations that were discussed at the Forum.

Also in 2009 the Department of Climate Change (DCC) released a substantial study entitled Climate Change Risks to Australia’s Coast: A First Pass National Assessment. I was privileged to be part of the team led by Jo Mummery that compiled the report. Chris Sharples, Richard Mount, many from CSIRO and others made significant contributions to information and analysis that defined coastal risk facing both built and natural assets in the future. A subsequent DCCEE report appeared in 2011 as a supplement to the 2009 report outlining risks to coastal buildings and infrastructure. Both reports offered potential costs of impacts of climate change and pathways for all governments, industry and communities to mitigate those risks.

The Forum met in an atmosphere defined so succinctly in the George Report: “the time to act is now”. Presentations from scientists confirmed that the climate system is changing faster than previously thought and risks will increase substantially if current development patterns continue. There was broad agreement among participants that a coordinated national approach was required, involving national leadership, and with clear allocation of responsibilities. Local government representatives called for national guidance, more consistency of planning policies and standards, accessible information on science and potential impacts, and assistance with communication. In particular, there was a call for information to be at a scale relevant for the people who have to use it and in a form that is clear and capable of building capacity and understanding at a community level.

Looking back, I can see matters raised at the Forum being relevant today.  There was talk on need for improved building codes and standards, how to cope during disasters, ecosystem migration needs, implementing a national scheme of sea-level benchmarks, population growth planning, and the dreaded issue of legal liability. Martin Parkinson, who was then head of DCCEE and later to be Head of Treasury and PM&C, noted that an issue that will require attention by governments is “a framework to optimise investment in adaptation”. He cast this as a question: at what timeframe or quantum of climate change does a particular adaptation option become cost-effective? And Penny Wong in her concluding address recognised that governments can’t fix everything, and that the Forum should be an important step in embracing partnerships with business and communities.

It could be argued that this Forum was the high point in seeking a national approach to coastal adaptation.

While many positive things have emerged in the last decade, for instance NCCARF, one sees little signs of national leadership. At state level there have been a range of positive outcomes and I am proud of what we have achieved to date in NSW. But those involved in advocacy have not had too many wins at a federal level. This is not the place to discuss these difficulties. However, recent fires and drought may stimulate a greater level of interest by the Australian Government in bringing states and local governments back to the table to develop a national adaptation agenda along the lines we so enthusiastically embraced in Adelaide 10 years ago.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2020, for correspondence about this blog post please email