October 2019


Rising tide

By Bronwyn Adcock
Collaroy, New South Wales

Collaroy, New South Wales, 2016. © Nearmap / AAP Images

Dealing with sea-level rise when private property is at stake

Around 10 years ago, upon retirement, Dr Brett Stevenson started spending less time in Sydney and more in a house he owned in a town 200 kilometres south – the beginnings of the classic Australian sea change.

The region he came to is called the Shoalhaven, the kind of place where if someone says they live a stone’s throw from the coast they’re probably not exaggerating. Nearly every town there starts adjacent to a beach or clings to the edge of an estuary – evidence of the Australian ethos that the closer we live to the coast, the better.

Stevenson wanted to contribute to his new community, so he volunteered to sit on some of the local council’s natural resources and coastal management committees. He’d spent more than a decade working in policy for the New South Wales department of the environment, and before that with the state’s Environmental Protection Authority, and he had academic qualifications in science (including a doctorate for research into the NSW coast), so he thought he might have something to offer.

Like every other local government around the Australian coastline, Shoalhaven City Council has spent much of the past decade trying to figure out what to do about that wickedest of problems: 85 per cent of us live in proximity to the coast, and as the climate warms and sea levels rise, bringing bigger tides and more frequent storms, the ocean is coming for many of our homes. Local councils – being the ones that decide where and how we build – are the first responders to this critical challenge.

In 2015, Shoalhaven councillors solved the problem by voting to plan for a future in which sea-level rise will not be so bad after all: an alternative reality, where Shoalhaven remains unscathed from the worst impacts of climate change.

Stevenson witnessed this decision-making process unfold and still can’t quite believe what he saw. “It was just bizarre,” he says.

The council had commissioned an expert report, and then tossed most of it out, taking the advice of an American climate-change denial advocacy organisation backed by the fossil-fuel industry, and the advice of a group of property owners whose land value was impacted by the expert report’s findings.

“It was horrifying,” says Stevenson. “I mean, it was just crap policy.”

Even by Australian standards, last summer was one of weather extremes. As record-breaking rain was falling in northern Queensland, sending crocodiles up trees in the suburbs of Townsville, bushfires were burning alpine heathlands in Tasmania that hadn’t burnt in centuries, and drought-stricken towns in New South Wales were running out of drinking water.

In the midst of this, a couple of reporters from Guardian Australia ventured into a flood-ruined street in Townsville, where locals were still clearing the debris, and asked a man named Mark the question that was on many people’s minds that summer: Is climate change making floods more extreme?

“If anyone mentions that, I’ll punch ’em,” Mark replied.

Who could blame him? For a nation of coast-dwellers, climate change is much more than an inconvenient truth; it is upending.

In 2009, when Australia still had a federal department of climate change, a comprehensive national assessment quantified the scale of the problem we face. It found that if sea levels continue to rise at the rate suggested by current modelling, somewhere between 157,000 and 247,600 individual residential buildings are at risk of inundation by the end of the century.

This is not just a legacy issue, about building mistakes made in the distant past. For example, in Mandurah, Western Australia, one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, a quarter of new urban development between 1986 and 2006 occurred in low-lying areas potentially exposed to future inundation.

Rising sea levels and more frequent and powerful storms will drive coastal erosion, like that seen in the aftermath of the powerful east-coast low that hit the northern Sydney suburb of Collaroy in 2016. It left houses balancing precariously on eroded land, and tossed an in-ground swimming pool onto the sand like a child’s toy.

But in terms of the numbers of properties at risk, the greatest exposure lies in towns alongside estuaries and rivers, many built barely above the current high-tide level. Places such as Moreton Bay in Queensland and Lake Macquarie in New South Wales.

David Hanslow, a scientist with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, recently co-published research into urban development around the 186 estuaries and major rivers in the state. He found that if sea levels were to rise by half a metre – which is projected to happen around 2050 – then 23,700 properties will be exposed to tidal inundation, and if they rise by the projected 0.9 of a metre by 2100, then 50,700 properties are exposed. However, if a storm surge coincides with a tidal inundation – an event that would push water levels even higher – those figures would rise to 51,600 and 74,700.

Recent work by the University of Melbourne’s Dr Georgia Warren-Myers found that in the City of Port Phillip, which includes the suburbs of St Kilda and South Melbourne, a sea-level rise of half a metre combined with a storm surge would expose 33 per cent of all properties in that local government area to inundation.

But the threat is no longer hypothetical. In many areas it has already arrived.

In the Moyne Shire of south-western Victoria, powerful storm surges over the past decade have thrown rocks onto the road, sent seaweed onto people’s front doors and eaten away the local beach. In the historic town of Port Fairy, what was left of the beach had to be vacated to make way for bulldozers brought in to build a wall to protect the town.

In Western Australia, Fremantle’s beloved Port Beach all but disappeared this winter, with the ocean also taking away large chunks of infrastructure such as concrete pathways, cutting into a car park and encroaching on other buildings. The mayor of Fremantle, Brad Pettitt, says these kinds of storms are “normally spaced well apart, like once in a decade, but we have had them two years in a row now”.

The examples of such encroachment are legion, and their number is growing. What’s called for is adaptation: protect some places, accept we can’t save others; build differently, build elsewhere. It’s a challenge we’ve known about for at least 10 years, but how far have we really come?

The decade started with strong political resolve. In 2010, a House of Representatives committee looked at coastal management in an era of climate change, and called for strong national leadership, issuing a bipartisan report subtitled “The time to act is now”.

In New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, state governments introduced new coastal management plans, directing local councils to consider projected sea-level rise in their future planning decisions.

The NSW government directed councils to plan for a sea-level rise of 0.4 metres by 2050 and 0.9 metres by 2100 – projections that came from assessments by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

It was a different political outlook back then – during one late-night sitting of the NSW parliament in 2010, when the Labor government put forward a coastal management bill to deal with sea-level rise, a Liberal MP stood up to argue for a more robust approach. The member for the coastal electorate of Pittwater, Rob Stokes, became almost philosophical – suggesting a radical rethink of our attachment to our coastal properties.

“The central truth of this bill occurred to me while I was building sandcastles with my kids on Sunday afternoon. We in Australia attach permanence to the occupation of our property that is ultimately ephemeral. Our attachment is not real. We are not here forever; nor is the land that we live on. We need to manage, love and protect our land and our homes, but also to recognise that the ocean will always do what it has always done.”

But before long this kind of sentiment had become political poison.

In 2010, Pat Aiken was working as a casual TAFE teacher and looking forward to semi-retirement in the house he’d bought in Davistown, 85 kilometres north of Sydney on the NSW Central Coast. It wasn’t much, just two bedrooms and a sunroom, but it was in a location he’d aspired to live in for 30 years. He used to be a bricklayer, and envisioned a quiet life, picking up the tools again for small jobs to get by.

He vividly remembers the morning in May he received the letter that would change his life’s trajectory. It was from his local council, then known as the City of Gosford, telling him his house could be exposed to future sea-level rise.

Davistown is one of a cluster of suburbs built around a winding, 11-kilometre estuary system. Urban development began in earnest there in the 1950s, with swamps and marshland filled in just enough to make a subdivision viable. It’s an area that’s been identified as highly vulnerable to inundation, and as part of its adaptation planning process, Gosford council sent letters to 9000 residents with potentially exposed properties.

“I was furious,” says Aiken. He realised it meant a planning certificate (called a section 149) with this information would be attached to his property, and available to a buyer if he ever wanted to sell. He saw it as a black mark.

“The concern I had was that this would have an impact on property value,” he says. “I just saw an asset that was going to diminish in value. It felt like all your plans over the years were just ripped away and that there’d be no support from government: local government or from state or federal. Nothing was going to be done for you.”

Aiken took his fury and started campaigning, ringing the local paper and letterboxing homes in the area. Soon he had an active association of around 30 members. His first public meeting drew 300 people, the second, 600.

For its sea-level rise assessment, the council was using the benchmarks set by the state government. Property owners like Aiken hated them. With every centimetre of vertical sea-level rise, there is a corresponding horizontal movement of water onto land. When these benchmarks are set, they result in hazard lines being drawn on a map showing how far the ocean is expected to travel. Home owners can find their properties on the seaward side of those hazard lines – their asset now in a hazard zone, facing potential constraints on development, and with a cloud over its value.

In late 2010, Aiken received a phone call from a lawyer who was acting for a group of residents at Belongil Beach, near Byron Bay on the NSW North Coast, with an offer of help. These residents owned beachside homes that were being threatened by coastal erosion. They were locked in a decades-long battle with the Byron Shire Council, which had a policy of “planned retreat”, the gradual ceding of certain, highly vulnerable areas to the sea. The residents wanted their homes physically protected by some kind of sea wall.

“They were quite wealthy people,” says Aiken, “and they helped us because it was going to help them.”

There was a state election looming, and Aiken abandoned his status as a rusted-on Labor supporter to campaign against the Labor government.

“They [the Belongil group] had contacts with the media, so we got interviews with Alan Jones and Channel 7. And they employed lobbyists that were helping us as well. The lawyer was helping us. Because they could see a win for us would be a win for them.”

Aiken says the Belongil group helped pay for letterboxing. “They bombed [nearby] Woy Woy with something that I’d put together. That had a big impact on how people voted in Woy Woy.”

The Liberal Opposition was also targeted. Aiken says members in Liberal strongholds, such as the canal estate of Saint Hubert’s Island, told their candidate to “do something” about getting rid of the sea-level rise policy, or else he wouldn’t get their support.

“The Liberals jumped onboard, because they were the Opposition and they saw an opportunity there,” says Aiken. (The Liberal party did win the seat, in the context of a statewide demolition of the Labor government.)

The Central Coast was not the only place where sea-level rise policies were causing heat for local councils and state governments. In dozens of coastal communities, from Lakes Entrance in Victoria to Hervey Bay in Queensland, well-organised and vocal property owners were complaining.

Aiken’s small association soon became the NSW Coastal Alliance, a grassroots network with groups in 10 different coastal locations spanning the length of the state’s coast. It’s still active today.

It wasn’t just property owners. In Queensland, the property industry lobbied against state legislation that would temporarily halt development in vulnerable areas until adaptation plans were in place. The industry argued it could harm the economy and cost jobs.

Some developers saw sea-level rise policies as a constraint on business: requirements for new buildings to have higher engineering standards is a future flood mitigation measure to some, but “red tape” to others. In 2012, in Lake Macquarie, an area in New South Wales identified as the most at-risk place in Australia for climate change-induced inundation, local developer Jeff McCloy said he was considering suing the local council. McCloy told Sydney Morning Herald journalist Ben Cubby that the council was “falling for this unjustified, worldwide idiocy about sea-level rises”. Cubby noted that McCloy was seeking to gain approval for a sub-division of 24 homes that were likely to be affected by the new council planning guidelines, but McCloy said this was unrelated. It was “about the poor little property owner who had had hundreds of thousands of dollars knocked off the value of their property”.

Coastal communities worrying about property values provided a fertile ground for those promoting climate-change scepticism. In 2012, McCloy arranged for three well-known climate-change sceptics to attend a community meeting in the area. Professor Robert M. Carter, a geologist, told the 400 residents that scientists were “in this game of hyping up” climate change and sea-level rise, and that models used to predict sea-level rise were “sheer fantasy”.

Carter, who is now deceased, was an adviser and author for the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), an American climate-change denial advocacy organisation set up to dispute the work of the IPCC. It is funded by The Heartland Institute, an American think tank that has been a leading promoter of climate-change denialism and has received backing from the fossil-fuel industry.

By 2012, the Liberal and National state governments in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland were all winding back their sea-level rise policies, making it easier to develop in at-risk areas, and repealing sea-level planning benchmarks.

This phenomenon was written about by climate-change lawyers Mark Baker-Jones and Justine Bell in their snappily titled paper, “Retreat from Retreat: The Backward Evolution of Sea-Level Rise Policy in Australia, and the Implications for Local Government”. The authors noted that at the same time as Australian governments were stepping backwards, the scientific community was revising its projections of sea-level rise, with an “emerging scientific consensus that sea-level rise may be of greater magnitude than initially expected”.

The NSW government made it no longer compulsory for councils to place warnings on section 149 notices that an individual property could be exposed to sea-level rise. Victoria also rejected placing climate-change information on land titles.

Following this change, Pat Aiken stepped up his pressure on Gosford’s council, including holding a large rally, and in mid 2012 the council removed the notices relating to sea-level rise from all 9000 properties.

The retreat by state governments had left local councils on the frontline of adaptation planning, but without backup. The NSW Liberal government, having tossed out the previous Labor government’s statewide planning benchmarks, told every local council to determine its own sea-level rise projections. It said this would give councils the flexibility to address local circumstances.

The first council in New South Wales to enter this brave new world was Shoalhaven. The instructions from the state government were to “consider adopting projections widely accepted by competent scientific opinion”.

Brett Stevenson, the community volunteer, says what happened next “goes to the very heart of good governance and professional risk management”.

The council started by hiring a well-regarded environmental consultancy firm to give it advice. In a 100-plus page report, drawing on a range of sources, including regional tidal data and IPCC models, the consultants recommended that council considers a range of possible sea-level rise, but in “most cases” that would mean planning for 0.26 of a metre by 2050 and 0.98 by 2100.

The council’s professional staff advised the elected councillors to adopt the report because it was “based on sound advice”. There was no widespread community dissent; in a shire of 90,000 people, just 11 negative submissions were received when it went on public display in 2014.

But when it came to a vote, the majority of councillors voted to set a benchmark of 0.23 by 2050 and 0.35 by 2100. The latter projection is so low that, based on IPCC modelling, it could barely be achieved even if the entire world cut emissions to zero starting tomorrow. It is a benchmark that puts Shoalhaven out of line with the planning measures of virtually all other coastal councils, as well as mainstream scientific projections.

Dr David Wainwright is the author of the rejected report and one of the state’s most experienced coastal engineers. He says that Shoalhaven City Council was “not bound to accept our advice”, but he points out it was in line with the standards adopted elsewhere. “Currently what is being adopted by the majority of councils in New South Wales, is at least 0.9 metres by 2100. And around the rest of Australia it is typically 0.8 metres. There is not much variation from those numbers.”

Shoalhaven City Council’s official position is that its decision was based on “part of” the report it commissioned, plus submissions from the “NIPCC and a local civil engineer”.

The NIPCC – the American climate-change denial organisation – gave a lengthy submission to Shoalhaven, arguing the council should reject the consultant’s report because it was based on “speculative computer projections”. Instead they should look at “local relative sea levels”, which showed no significant increase and therefore required no special planning.

That the NIPCC was invested in the decision a shire on Australia’s east coast made about sea-level rise is notable – a reflection of the importance with which it viewed these skirmishes in little coastal towns, in the context of a global battle to ensure that climate change remained a disputed concept. (It also later made a submission to Gosford’s council.)

The second source used by Shoalhaven City Council was a submission from a “local civil engineer”. It was indeed the man’s profession; however, his contribution was on behalf of a group called the Collingwood Beach Preservation Group, of which he is a member.

Shoalhaven’s Collingwood Beach has a street of houses running its length, tucked in just behind the dunes. It’s the kind of place where the fibro cottage bought for just over $100,000 in the 1980s is now worth well over $1 million, and real-estate agents describe a newly listed house as “tightly held”. The Collingwood Beach Preservation Group is a well-established and well-connected group of property owners who had originally galvanised around the issue of vegetation on the dunes blocking their views. They have been active lobbyists on the issue of sea-level rise benchmarks impacting the value of their properties, and in 2014 and 2015 secured meetings with the state’s environment minister and head of department, and gave a presentation to a council meeting.

Their submission to council was not about impacts on property. It was an attack on the science of Wainwright’s report, describing it as a “doomsday scenario” and saying “there is no science associated with the process” of setting sea-level rise benchmarks.

“It just recycled a lot of the usual denialist talking points from The Heartland Institute in the US,” says ­Stevenson. “And that was something that was taken as gospel.”

Greg Watson is a Shoalhaven councillor who describes himself as the “architect” of this unique sea-level rise policy. Watson is a stalwart of local council, having served for more than 40 years, including a couple of terms as mayor. He was happy to pick up the phone to defend his position, and is confident that the mainstream scientific position on sea-level rise is wrong.

“The predicted ocean-level rises are not occurring,” he says. “It is only when you get the people who want to push the wagon of extreme events, when you start using satellite stuff where they start massaging it and running logarithms to do what they think needs doing to start correcting the figures, that you start getting these extreme sea-level rises.”

Watson says there is a built-in mechanism to review the policy every seven years, so they can always change it if they get “real” evidence of sea-level rise. He says 2100 is too far in the future to speculate on. “With dwelling houses, we have formed the view that most houses have a practical life of around 50 years, so on that basis we think our policy is realistic and practical and not too onerous on our community.”

The benchmarks adopted by Shoalhaven City Council had the effect of removing the hazard lines from many coastal properties, including those on Collingwood Beach. But they apply to all coastal development in the shire.

“These dodgy figures are now embedded in all current Shoalhaven planning decisions,” says Stevenson. “This means that new developments are being allowed in vulnerable areas, which would not have occurred if proper technical advice had been followed.”

In one case, a developer started playing by the new rules almost immediately. Sussex Inlet is a small town built on the edge of an estuary. Local tourist information
boasts that “having a jetty in your backyard is the norm”. It is also one of the lowest socioeconomic areas in the shire, a place where families on smaller incomes can still sometimes scrape together enough for a ­mortgage.

Prior to council voting for the new benchmarks, a developer had submitted a development application for an eight-lot subdivision on a finger of land stretching out into the inlet. However, once the new, lower ­sea-level benchmarks were voted in, the developer amended its plans: now, it could drop the level of fill on the subdivision from 3.7 metres to 2.8 metres, and it no longer needed to build a retaining wall around the subdivision.

This subdivision is now approved. The blocks are up for sale as house-and-land packages – glossy brochures promising family-friendly, waterfront living. It seems unlikely a home buyer would be aware that they are buying a piece of land that is only raised to a height demanded by the lowest sea-level rise benchmark in the country – a level that the IPCC says has an 85 per cent chance of being exceeded.

Shoalhaven City Council’s decision was seen as the poster child by other members of the NSW Coastal Alliance, who wanted their councils to do the same. Eurobodalla Shire Council, just south of Shoalhaven, had jointly commissioned the same expert report by Wainwright, and were under huge pressure to follow Shoalhaven’s lead – even from the state government.

The local member, Liberal MP Andrew Constance, urged Eurobodalla’s council to adopt a “projection that does not hinder investment in the shire”, warning that if council maintained the previous government’s benchmarks – the ones based on the work of the IPCC – it would be “damaging to property owners both in terms of the value of their property and their ability to sell and or do a renovation”.

This was not an isolated example of state government pressure. In Queensland in 2014, the then deputy premier Jeff Seeney forced Moreton Bay Council to remove all references to sea-level rise from their plan.

Ultimately, the Eurobodalla council compromised, voting for a benchmark of 0.77 metres by 2100.

“You don’t want to sink people’s wealth and ­livelihood,” says Eurobodalla councillor Rob Pollock. “But if you are aware of a risk and there’s scientific evidence identifying or substantiating that risk, you can’t ignore it.”

While uncertainty around sea-level rise is a narrative that has been fanned by climate sceptics such as the NIPCC, mainstream science has a more clear-eyed view. Professor John Church, an Australian scientist working with the University of NSW, says the science is clear that sea-level rises have been accelerating since the 1970s, and that the dominant cause has been human activity. “There’s actually good agreements between the models and the observations,” he says.

Church, regarded as one of the foremost experts on sea-level rise and a contributor to the IPCC reports, says the rate at which this acceleration continues does hold uncertainties, in part because it depends on what we do to mitigate use of fossil fuels.

“But the uncertainties are one-sided. So, things can be somewhat worse than our projections in IPCC reports … but they can’t be much better – sea-level rise can’t be much lower than in those projections. So, I think we should be planning for the upper end.”

Other recent research suggests the IPCC figures could be too conservative, and that as ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland melt, sea levels could rise by more than 2 metres by the end of the century.

Dr David Wainwright says that this uncertainty makes him and other coastal engineers more cautious.

“When you have uncertainty, that breeds more caution. That tends to be the engineers’ approach,” he says. “We don’t want people, whether it is people today or people in the future, to be put in situations where they might be at harm or there could be safety issues. It is the same as designing a beam to hold up a building. We don’t skimp on that, because people’s safety is at stake.”

After the battering of the past decade, most states are starting to take small steps back towards providing leadership and support to local councils in managing sea-level rise planning.

Progress in adaptation is ad hoc. Some places, such as Lake Macquarie, have successfully developed adaptation plans that have resulted in a truce between council and property owners. Other shires are still battling with unhappy property owners using NIPCC talking points to get coastal management policies implemented.

A few months ago, Gosford’s council (now Central Coast Council) adopted its first ever climate-change policy, although a clause relating to the setting of a sea-level rise benchmark was removed from the document after community backlash. Even so, local councillor Troy Marquart said the policy was like “preparing for a zombie apocalypse”, and would cost many ratepayers a “shitload of money”.

Over the past decade, the federal government has gradually backed away from promises of leadership. The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility – Australia’s primary national response to the issue – has been defunded to the point that it is now little more than a website.

Recently, Barry Sammels, the mayor of Rockingham in Western Australia and the chair of peak body the Australian Coastal Councils Association, flew into Canberra to meet with Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

His message was not a new one. He told the minister that “the coast was experiencing widespread and unprecedented erosion at numerous locations around Australia,” and local councils “do not have access to the resources needed to respond effectively”.

Witness King Tides is a global project that asks people around the world to take photos of king tides in their communities and post them on the web – the idea being that these images give a visual depiction of what towns could look like in the future.

In the summer of 2018, photos of a king tide in Woy Woy appeared. They showed the old wharf and the pub going under, but also water lapping at the door of a brand new commercial building in the centre of town. So new, it hadn’t even been occupied yet.

It caught the eye of coastal scientist Professor Bruce Thom, who found it a striking, if disheartening, illustration. “Today you’re getting new developers building on a site where no allowance has been made for today’s sunny day tides, let alone for any future higher sea level.”

Some analysts suggest that even before the water comes for home owners in low-lying areas, the more immediate problem will be a market correction on climate-change-exposed properties.

Research done by the University of Melbourne’s Georgia Warren-Myers says the market is currently underestimating the risk to property from sea-level rise. Primarily, she says, this is because purchasers have “very limited understanding” of the risks to a given property. In Victoria, a section 32 notice attached to a property (similar to a section 149 in New South Wales) does not need to contain information about sea-level rise.

“What you have is a situation where people are trading houses that are probably overvalued, because their value has not factored in risk,” says Dr Karl Mallon, the director of a company called Climate Risk. Mallon believes that within decades thousands of Australian homes could become uninsurable, and financial institutions won’t want to lend on them. “The councils were not brave enough to provide the consumer protections that were required. And now people have built and bought essentially climate lemons,” he says.

Mallon’s company has already provided risk assessments on the mortgage portfolios of Westpac and the Commonwealth Bank – a sign that financial institutions are increasingly aware of the risks that climate change poses to private property. His company is now launching a consumer version, where a home buyer can look at maps showing the risks to their property based on a range of sea-level projections, and receive an assessment that determines the insurability of their property over the life of their mortgage.

Mallon says this will render meaningless the attempts to disguise the fact that some properties lie in future hazard zones.

Mark Baker-Jones, the climate-change lawyer who co-wrote the “Retreat from Retreat” paper, says the smart money is already moving on. “Some of the very big developers, the sophisticated developers, are responding very positively. I know of one large Queensland developer that six or seven years ago just got rid of their coastal assets. They just think it is too high a risk and not worth their while. Other large developers are being very innovative in the way they develop, and they are managing those impacts from climate change.

“But it is in the next tier down – the smaller developers, the mums and dads who aren’t well informed and perhaps don’t have the resources available to understand and respond to those impacts – that most of the fear lies. And they are the ones putting political pressure on governments, and those governments are therefore reluctant to introduce policy that would restrict development.”

Could this then be a pyrrhic victory, for communities who convinced their local councils to not robustly tackle climate change? Dr Tayanah O’Donnell, a lawyer from the Australian National University who specialises in climate-change adaption, says many people whose homes will be affected are not wealthy.

“These people are even more vulnerable, they don’t have the means to take legal action, to get proper insurance cover, build their own defensive works.”

I asked Pat Aiken whether it would be an over-simplification to say that all this really boils down to is people wanting to protect the value of their property.

“I don’t disagree on that,” he says. “I think that’s what people have done. But is that a bad thing? There’s not many people who will invest in a home and accept that over time it will lose value.”

It is hard to see how local councils, whose limited income depends on rates, can be expected to make the hard planning decisions on sea-level rise alone. Even if some councils address the issue effectively, ad hoc adaptation is not enough. With national wealth, safety and health at stake, state and federal governments must end their retreat for good.


*Since this essay went to press, the latest IPCC report released in September 2019 confirmed that global mean sea level is rising and accelerating. The most likely range of sea-level rise is now projected to be between 0.61m and 1.10m by 2100. Extreme sea-level events (serious storm surges) that have occurred once a century in the past will take place once a year by 2050 in some parts of the world, particularly in the tropics.


Bronwyn Adcock

Bronwyn Adcock is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Griffith Review and The Saturday Paper, and on the ABC. She is the author of Currowan.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue

The Monthly Awards 2019

Highlights of the year in Australian arts and culture

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age

‘Act og Grace’ cover

‘Act of Grace’ by Anna Krien

The journalist’s propulsive debut novel tackles the aftermath of the Iraq War

Still from Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre

More in The Monthly Essays

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Close-up of smiling Kathleen Folbigg after being acquitted at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, December 14, 2023

By her own words

How systemic misconceptions around women’s guilt led to a 20-year miscarriage of justice for Kathleen Folbigg

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality