The impact of climate change

The consensus of scientific opinion is that coastal communities such as ours are exposed to the full impact of sea level rise, storm surge and more frequent and severe weather events.

We’ve heard so much about the impact of climate change on our environment, but what about the impact on our people? How will we cope when these events happen?

The communities in our part of the coastline have many older people who may be unable to comply with evacuation orders. We also have many newcomers who may not have family or friends to turn to. The majority of people living here are also on low incomes, many living in older style dwellings that may not withstand the intensity of extreme weather events.

As council’s representative on the National Sea Change Taskforce Executive, I attended the two-day Coastal Management Forum in Brisbane earlier this week where I heard the latest research from around Australia about the impacts of climate change on health and well-being. I’d like to share some glimpses of that research with you here.

Key health impacts include injury, the spread of water-borne and mosquito-borne disease, respiratory disease from dampness and mould, and mental health impacts associated with trauma.

How you cope will depend on your current health status and your capacity to take measures to reduce exposure. We are not all equal in that regard. Older people, children and people with a disability are particularly vulnerable. So too are people on low incomes who live in poorly maintained housing which does not provide adequate protection. Caravans and mobile homes are most vulnerable.

The combination of increased physical exposure, socio-economic disadvantage and population instability puts us at greater risk than more affluent and stable populations.

There was plenty of discussion at the forum about which level of government should lead climate change mitigation and adaptation, but it was wasted on me! I had already resolved that we must all take a leadership role within our own sphere of influence.

The council must assume responsibility to the things it can influence and the other two levels of government must do likewise.

Council has a key role in climate change risk mitigation and adaptation. Council must ‘mainstream’ climate change into all planning and management decisions. We must undertake local vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning work.

We must tailor urban and building design guidelines to local climatic conditions.

We must require shade, shelter and vegetation to cool open areas and walkways and cycle paths. Council must increase coastal setbacks and undertake restoration works to the natural environment. We must consider how to meet increasing demand for expensive sea walls and sand dredging to replenish beaches as the sea encroaches.

Council must also maintain space for emergency access, shelter and evacuation.

We must plan for our infrastructure to be climate-proof by taking future climate scenarios into account. Decentralised water, energy and waste management plants must be developed. Water harvesting schemes should be encouraged in new estates along with water reuse and recycling technologies.

Our floodplains must be preserved for their original purpose – to store flood water.

Despite the enormous challenges we face as climate change begins to bite, there are signs of hope in the new approaches to planning and governance that are emerging around Australia. Many councils are already developing innovative planning approaches that protect biodiversity, support sustainable economic growth and increase community resilience to climate change.

A collaborative approach is also emerging between the levels of government around climate change impacts in sea change communities such as ours. In particular, the federal government is developing a Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan under the leadership of Senator Penny Wong, the federal minister for climate change and water. This will provide a national policy context for action across the nation and across levels of government.

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