Complacency rules as Queensland makes risky edict on sea-level rise | RenewEconomy

Complacency rules as Queensland makes risky edict on sea-level rise

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Queensland Deputy Premier’s decision to order a Brisbane council to remove future sea-level rise from its planning regulations seems rather short-sighted.

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The Conversation

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Scarborough, Queensland: no longer allowed to factor in sea-level rise in its planning laws. Seo75/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Queensland Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney’s decision, revealed this week, to order a Brisbane council to remove future sea-level rise from its planning regulations seems a rather short-sighted thing to do.

His directive, issued to Moreton Bay Regional Council in the city’s north, flies in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus that average global sea levels will rise by 2100.

For several years, governments across Australia and the world have factored in a sea-level rise of 0.8 m into their coastal planning schemes. The most recent evidence presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that this may even be too conservative.

Yet as certainty over future sea-level rise increases, planning protections are being wound back right across Australia. Since winning the 2012 Queensland election, Campbell Newman’s government has joined New South Wales and Victoria in removing sea-level rise from state government policy, and is evidently now pressing local governments to do the same.

Planning backflip

The previous Queensland Labor government had introduced a detailed Coastal Plan, requiring local governments to plan for a 0.8m sea-level rise by 2100, and featuring detailed mapping of the areas most at risk.

The plan was suspended not long after the election, and when the Newman government released its final policy in December 2013, all references to sea-level rise were omitted. Deputy Premier Seeney explained his rationale by saying:

… we believe local governments are the best placed to make planning decisions according to their local circumstances and their communities and we are empowering them to do so.

Moreton Bay Regional Council made the decision to do just that, incorporating a projected 0.8m sea-level rise into its draft planning scheme. This decision, while attracting the ire of some local residents, was deemed necessary by the Council to protect themselves from a clearly foreseeable liability.

The decision was initially given a green light by Seeney, who in a letter to the council in January 2014 stated that:

Each coastal local government should proceed to determine the extent of coastal hazards in the manner it considers appropriate and plan accordingly.

But Seeney has since changed his mind, as a letter made public this week shows (see page 33 of the council’s minutes). He ordered the council to remove

…any assumption about theoretical projected sea level rise due to climate change,

and decreed that the scheme

…must reflect only proven historical data when dealing with coastal hazards such as storm tide inundation and erosion.

Legal implications

It is unclear whether other coastal councils will be given the same directions, but this decision may signal a broader trend of preventing local governments from planning properly for future sea-level rise.

Legally, Moreton Bay Regional Council might be able to defend itself against claims of negligence by pointing out that a minister ordered it not to include rising seas in its planning scheme.

But the situation is far from clear. Under negligence law, a council may still potentially be held liable for failing to consider the impact of sea-level rise on a particular proposed development, despite the planning scheme being silent on the issue.

Councils thus find themselves in the awkward position of facing appeals from developers if they refuse a proposal on the basis of sea-level rise, but also facing negligence claims in the future if they approve a development that is later affected by rising seas.

New planning legislation will be introduced in Queensland next year, which looks set to remove local governments’ liability for anything done in complying with a minister’s orders. But until then, local governments are in an extremely difficult position.

Suing the state?

Even if local governments are let off the hook, the state government could still face negligence claims. The weight of scientific evidence, coupled with the previous government’s efforts to compile sea-level risk data for the entire Queensland coastline, would make such lawsuits very difficult to defend.

Under Queensland law, government’s actions (or non-actions) are not considered unlawful unless “the act or omission was in the circumstances so unreasonable that no public or other authority having the functions of the authority in question could properly consider the act or omission to be a reasonable exercise of its functions”. But a failure to consider overwhelming scientific evidence may well meet even this very high threshold of unreasonableness.

Even if liability is disclaimed even further, the problem is not going to go away. Experience with past natural disasters such as the 2010-11 Queensland floods shows that, where homeowners are un- or under-insured, governments and taxpayers ultimately end up footing the bill. Buying insurance for actions of the sea is already notoriously difficult, and may become even harder as coastal development continues.

Governments no doubt have challenging decisions to make, and planning for future sea-level rise will not be universally popular. Yes, including sea-level rise may reduce property values and increase insurance premiums. But deferring action will mean that more properties are built in hazard-prone areas.

The time will eventually come when governments cannot ignore this issue, and by then there may be even more properties with reduced value and increased insurance premiums.

Planning for impacts now will let governments spread the huge cost burden of dealing with sea-level rise over time. Waiting will just make the problem even more expensive.

The Conversation

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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13 Comments
  1. suthnsun 6 years ago

    Sea level rise and it’s effects are seriously underestimated IMHO. Regrets will follow from this within 20 years. The current minister will most likely still be alive.

  2. Chris Fraser 6 years ago

    It’s almost Canute-like. Perhaps the Minister could simply legislate the water back down to a nicer level.

    • Alan Baird 6 years ago

      My first thought too. An exact parallel except the king was showing what he couldn’t do whereas the Coalition is doing what it does come hell or high water, probably both.

  3. Alex 6 years ago

    I can’t see how anyone with half a brain could imagine that this is good policy- if the research on sea-level rise has already identified vulnerable localities, surely houses built in such areas will be uninsurable, and councils themselves could open themselves to lawsuits by allowing building to occur should these houses become impacted down the track. The LNP practice idiocy at an unprecedented ideological level.

    • michael 6 years ago

      add a clause in the approval that it does not indemnify the developer against sea level rise, would that remove the risk of lawsuits in 50 years time?

  4. Pedro 6 years ago

    Throw the ball back into the insurance industry court. If you can’t insure against sea level rise and storm surge flooding then no approval.

  5. john 6 years ago

    This subject has had a huge amount of comment on The Conversation.
    We have too many situations where present infrastructure both private owned and community owned is exposed to detrimental effects of natural disasters.
    The guidelines from the poorly advised minister has to be strongly along the same lines of what happened in North Carolina, where simular outcomes resulted.
    For the future liability of the community let us please not put housing or any structures or needed transport services in areas that are liable to harm.
    This covers all areas both river, sea and hill side.
    Can we please get a few science trained people into government not party people this is so poor a way to run a country.
    Would you trust a investment adviser who is a horse trainer?
    But we take advise from people with no grasp at all of the subject.

    • nakedChimp 6 years ago

      these positions are being aimed for by people who are sociopathic narcissists, not scientists.. no idea HOW you want to get scientists there, they won’t survive that or even if they make it they will sooner or later throw the towel as they’re just not made for it.

      The bad thing with current society is that money rules it all (monopoly) and the ones who have the money don’t seem to be affected yet on any relevant scale or think they can buy themselves free from any repercussions. So the puppets do as the masters bid.. business as usual and ‘devil-may-care’.

      • john 6 years ago

        Yes I am hearing you.
        However there has to be one person who has some training out there who can get through the system and talk real sense not slogans which is all we are getting.
        I know it resonates with the lower educated however where on earth are we headed to some stupid I feel

  6. Kevin O'Dea 6 years ago

    In this situation where government and business are colluding to ignore the mainstream science, individuals need to take responsibility for their own decisions. The insurance industry really needs to step up to the plate here, and simply refuse to play this game on which some governments seem to be hellbent on.

  7. Chris Baker 6 years ago

    Minister Seeney’s advisers seems to have a poor understanding of what the word theoretical means. In respect of infrastructure design, engineers have always taken historical data records, and then used a theoretical evaluation of that data to make predictions about future events. So we have concepts such “the 100 year flood” for rivers and creeks to provide a benchmark for designing bridges and other infrastructure likely to be inundated by such events.

    Any prediction about future events will of course be theoretical. Aside from reading tea leaves and so on, interpreting historical data is the most rational method available for making predictions about the future.

    If we look at historical tide data for global sea level we see this graph from http://www.cmar.csiro.au/sealevel/sl_hist_few_hundred.html

    Anyone can see where this headed without having to ascribe any particular reason for it. We can make a reasonable prediction that in the future the tidal levels will continue to rise. And looking at the shape of the curve, we could expect that the rate of rise will increase.

    It just so happens that the estimates of future sea level rise are all based on interpretation of historical data and so should reasonably fit with the ministers decree that

    any assumption about theoretical projected sea level rise … must reflect only proven historical data when dealing with coastal hazards such as storm tide inundation and erosion.

    When Minister Seeney travels to work he makes a theoretical analysis of how long it will take him, based on historical data. For him the historical data of how long it usually takes him is proven — he has done it enough times to know its reliability. Even so, his prediction remains theoretical until he actually travels to work and only then can he know with certainty how long it will take on a particular day.

    And so with predictions of future depth of tidal inundation, we cannot say what it will be on a particular day, but we can say with some certainty that it will be more than it has been in the past, because historical data tells us so.

    It seems to me that the Minister’s decree should not be such a hindrance to sound engineering as long those whose role is to to implement such designs act on behalf of the greater good for the community, and not be beholden to pressure from the minister that is reflected in this whimsical pronouncement.

  8. Steve Fuller 6 years ago

    Perhaps any concerned council could make a by-law that prescribes that a sea level hazard sign be erected on the front boundary line, display the hazard information on the annual rates notice and maintain a database of such properties on their website for public view (including for insurance companies). Further, they could resolve not to provide any infrastructure that would be as risk, nor any compensation or assistance to any property owner affected by sea level rise.
    Gradually the rateable value of the property would fall towards zero as the risk increases over time and any structures sink beneath the waves.
    If there is a coherent society and rule of law still operating at that time, they should be safe from litigation.

  9. Bart_R 6 years ago

    Considering that 1.2m is the 50% likely sea level rise, and the distribution of 95% probable rise is between 0.2m and over 2m, the 0.8m allowance was absurdly low.

    What responsible authority plans to invest so much in Pollyanna wishful thinking?

Comments are closed.

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