COASTAL NEWS – AUGUST 2021

Over the past week or so, I have encountered five items of news related to coastal management that I would like to share with you. They are diverse in place and substance. It comes at a time when so many of us are concerned about the future of coastal environments and their use. Each item deserves a blog on its own, but they are all so topical and relevant that I just want to offer a summary.

The first was the release this month of IPCC AR6 report: Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis. Since the AR5 2014 Report, there have been improved understanding of human influence on the climate system including improved confidence through use of “attribution” studies. This leads to a finding that “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land” (see attached summary diagram supplied by James Carley). AR6 provides both global and regional sea-level rise ranges for a set of greenhouse gas scenarios associated with what are now known as SSPs (or “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” replacing RCPs). Global SLR projections shown in the diagram include those for a low-likelihood, high impact “storyline” under SSP5-8.5 which includes ice sheet instability processes. Some metres of SLR is locked in this millennia irrespective of what happens in reducing emissions due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt. It will be difficult to differentiate between any particular SLR projection scenarios till possibly the mid-2040s.  The projections and local implications need to be read in conjunction with the full report in order to understand the scenarios and the confidence attached to modelling.

In 2013 on a visit to the USA, I had the pleasure of meeting Jessica Grannis then located at the Law Center of Georgetown University in Washington DC. Jessica is now the Interim Vice President of Coastal Conservation at the National Audubon Society. On 6 August she released a report titled “A decisive victory for the most important coastal law you’ve never heard of”. The law referred to here is the Coastal Barrier Resources Act 1982 (CBRA). It was bipartisan legislation signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The aim was to protect coastal habitats on undeveloped barrier islands around the US coast and stop any federal investments that would encourage actions that endanger ecosystems including bird life. This would involve no federal support for insurance or grants for disaster recovery. In 2019, the Secretary for Interior in the Trump administration introduced a rule that would allow sand mining on beaches protected by the CBRA. The Audubon Society took the Federal Government to court. However, the Biden Administration has just reversed the ruling of Trump’s Secretary. This is seen as a great victory with the Society noting “By reinstating the full protection of the CBRA the Biden Administration has sided with common sense and environmental protection followed the letter of this Reagan-environmental law”. The wonders of US politics!

Continuing with litigation but at a very different scale, I noticed a news item in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 August headlined “Fox loses battle over private beach outside sandcastle”. This article was referring to the Lindsay Fox weekend compound near Portsea in Victoria where it was said Fox lost a bid to “kick the Victorian Government off a private beach”. Years ago I wrote an article in “The Conversation” about his desire to fence off this beach. A 2013 court decision enabled him to have ownership of what was accreted foreshore land. However, this “acquisition” occurred over land zoned as Public Conservation and Resource Zone (PCRZ) and he desired a rezoning to residential so he could fence off without consent. The issue was heard before Justice Melinda Richards in W Everton Park Pty Ltd v Minister for Planning 2020 VSC 465. Under changes to the planning scheme in 2014 the owner was required to obtain a permit for works related to changes in use of the accreted beach. Their lawyer argued this amounted to “acquisition by subterfuge”. The critical issue before the Court was that the additional permit obligations were imposed on a “statewide” basis and were accordingly for a proper planning purpose. The judge noted that restrictions on the use and development of private land within the PCRZ “were imposed for the public benefit”. Fox family was not deprived of lawful interest or use of the beach land, yet they may still appeal. I am reminded here of debates in the US under the Public Trust Doctrine of rights of beach landowners under “jus privatum” terms.

Returning to the US, a fascinating article appeared in the New York Times weekend magazine dated 14 August written by Andrew Lewis (“The long, slow drowning of the New Jersey shore”). I am familiar with this section of coast having visited in early 2013 just after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Lewis spent time interviewing locals on their concerns about “nuisance flooding” effects. He said these events rarely show in the news “but with their persistent submerging of lawns and roads for hours at a time, they represent the primary existential threat to the beating heart of the Jersey shore”. NOAA has documented in this region a doubling of such events since 2000 and projects an increase of 5 to 15 times by 2050. Meanwhile real estate is booming and no mayor, he said, is seriously wanting to curb development although they fear that at some stage homes must be bought out and real estate surrendered: “eventually the water will win”. Professor Stewart Farrell of Stockton University, New Jersey, has been involved in mapping inundation levels and frequency. Several adaptation studies are underway including use of pumping stations and the installation of sensors called HOBOs that are zip tied to the undersides of storm drains to record water levels. Meanwhile the US Army Corps of Engineers is assessing options as part of a “back-bays” study. In their usual fashion the Corps has major engineering option costing billions; however, it also notes that “human systems may have to relocate in a responsible manner”. This story has Australian relevance as shown in a talk at the recent National C2C conference by Ben Haugh of the Bureau of Meteorology in reviewing increased nuisance flooding in the Sydney region (see Haugh et al, 2020, Earth Future, 8, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EF001607).

The final news item touches on comments I made in my talk at C2C. An article appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 14 August by Tony Boyd (“Cyclones force insurance upheaval”). He discusses what he calls the “new player” in the Australian insurance system, the Federal Government. The Government is considering establishing a $10 billion reinsurance pool to cover risk of property damage in cyclone areas of northern Australia. I will have more to say on this at a later stage as I fear coastal-related impacts have not been fully assessed. Boyd interviewed key insurers for this article and it was interesting to learn that Nick Hawkins of IAG has “overcome his reluctance to be involved in federal government intervention in the insurance sector”.  Both Suncorp and IAG underestimated natural hazards costs over the past 22 half-yearly periods and fear the worst given IPCC climate change projections on cyclone intensification. Reports I have read from ACCC and Treasury highlight the urgency behind consideration of some form of federal action. I can understand all this but am concerned about who, where and when coverage under reinsurance will apply.

Note: I am very grateful to all those who have offered help with this blog.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email austcoastsoc@gmail.com

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