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How 'acts of God' may end up in court

High tide in Mooloolaba two weeks ago may be a sign of what coastal communities can expect as climate change impacts increase.
High tide in Mooloolaba two weeks ago may be a sign of what coastal communities can expect as climate change impacts increase.

THE ability to redefine so-called "acts of God" weather events as being the consequence of human action could ultimately reshape the legal landscape and result in governments and business being sued for the damage caused.

That's the conclusion drawn in a new report by environmental law firm ClientEarth published in the journal Nature and could be what eventually forces the inter-governmental response to climate change being sought by the Australian Coastal Councils Association.

Created more than a decade ago to lobby for such an outcome, the association in 2015 changed its name from the National Sea Change Taskforce.

Speaking in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Coastal Councils CEO Alan Stokes says the challenge remains the same.

His comments come two weeks after the Sunshine Coast experienced dry weather flooding in Mooloolaba, Twin Waters and Caloundra from coastal inundation during a period of relatively smooth seas.

Water poured up through stormwater drains into River Esplanade at Mooloolaba during a night-time high tide as a result of an ocean uplift after several days of constant winds.

"It's a question of making sure action is taken necessary to responding appropriately to what appears the inevitable consequences of climate change," Mr Stokes said.

"We think the current weather events of the past week and going back to last year's severe east coast low in NSW and Cyclone Debbie there is little doubt that climate change impact is making weather events more extreme.

"And the science says they are likely to be more frequent."

Mr Stokes said Australia had to get serious in bringing the three levels of government together to settle on a coordinated plan to adapt to looming impacts.

What is needed is a national coastal policy, something that was recommended in the 2009 joint-party George Report into climate change adaptation.

Mr Stokes said the Federal Government must lead such an approach but the dilemma was that every time the association raised the matter with the Commonwealth it was pointed to the state governments who have responsibility for planning.

The coastal zone most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change is home to 85% of Australia's population as well as all state capitals.

ClientEarth argues in its report the legal duties of those responsible for keeping people, the built environment and the natural world safe were changing.

"Identifying the human influence in events once only understood as 'acts of God' will reshape the legal landscape, meaning governments and businesses could be sued if they don't take action to protect people from floods, heatwaves and other foreseeable climate change risks."

Australian Coastal Councils Association wants an intergovernmental agreement that defines the roles and responsibilities of each tier of government in relation to coastal zone management and that it be integrated and overseen by a designated COAG council or ministerial council.

It wants that agreement to be the basis of a National Coastal Zone Policy outlining the principles, objectives and actions to be taken to address the challenges of integrated coastal zone management.

And it is seeking a national funding formula to resource the management and maintenance of the coastal zone and to increase the adaptive capacity of councils to address climate change impacts.

Ahead of the 2016 federal election the association also called for increased funding for Australia's climate science research programs and for the Australia-wide adoption of legislation that would help coastal councils address the legal risks associated with coastal planning in preparation for the projected impact of climate change.

Topics:  australian coastal councils association climate change federal government hurricane irma


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