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Australian government policy is hurting property values and boosting insurance costs on the basis of what is described as “hopelessly vague” modelling for future sea rises.

THE federal government warns that as many as 274,000 homes along Australia’s coast could be swallowed by rising sea levels over the next 90 years, threatening streets, suburbs and perhaps even townships.

Despite these dire warnings, Australians have generally been slow to take the issue seriously, viewing it as a distant problem compared with more pressing climate change concerns.

But for many thousands of families living along the coast, the issue is now starting to have a direct impact on their lives. This is not because sea levels are rising dangerously; that is not projected to happen for many decades. Instead, they are being hit by a tangle of planning rules and restrictions introduced by local governments instructed by their state governments to prepare for higher oceans in the future.

Coastal councils are making real-life planning decisions based on long-range sea-level modelling that projects, with little certainty, that the ocean will rise by about 1m by 2100.

“We’re the first victims of global warming and we haven’t even got the rising seas yet,” says Pat Aiken, one of 9000 homeowners near Gosford on the NSW Central Coast, whose houses have been tagged with a council warning that they may be threatened by future rising sea levels.

Aiken claims the warnings, which are attached to Section 149 planning certificates, had the effect of devaluing the homes overnight.

Single mother Janelle Upton says they nearly prevented her borrowing money against her home to finance her dream of opening a beauty salon. Fellow local Neil Crocker says his home insurance premium tripled as a result of the sea-rise designation, and he can no longer afford flood-related cover.

“I think it’s very unfair what they’ve done,” he says. “I am not a climate change denier, but it’s all being done on vague theories and projections and I’ve been here 30 years and have not noticed the slightest change [in sea levels].”

In towns around coastal Australia thousands of similar battles are being fought as more than 100 coastal councils try to implement state and federal government rhetoric on rising sea levels.

These councils are busily rezoning coastal land, slapping building restrictions on private homes and commercial developments, demanding homes be built higher off the ground and issuing long-term warnings about suburbs that may one day be under water.

They say these new rules are justified because councils have a duty of care to prepare coastal communities for the projected rise in sea levels.

But in doing so they are also clashing with many young families, pensioners. small business owners and developers who object to their livelihoods being threatened on the basis of projections that, even the government admits, are little more than an educated guess.

“It is a difficult issue because you are dealing with people’s lives, people’s property, people’s wealth as well as public infrastructure and the public interest,” chairman of the federal government’s advisory body on sea levels, the Coasts and Climate Change Council, Bruce Thom says.

The issue is a climate change battle being waged at the grassroots level rather than on the national stage.

Final decisions on planning for coastal houses and developments are being made by local councillors with little understanding of climate change science. Their decisions reflect the political persuasion and personal prejudices of their councils rather than any consistent application of rules.

As such, the ability of young families to win planning approval to build a new home near the waterfront has become little more than a lottery, depending on which local council they live in.

“Everybody is just going at this problem independently and this ad hoc approach is the worst possible way to deal with it,” chief executive of the Property Council of Australia Peter Verwer says. “Houses are being tagged as being at risk from sea rise by local councils, based on what is, essentially, Googled research. This is a national issue which needs a national framework.”

The mayor of Wyong Shire Council on the Central Coast, Doug Eaton, who stood as a Liberal candidate for the federal seat of Dobell in the 1996 election, agrees.

“I think that state and federal government have just left it to local councils because it’s all too difficult, and that is why there is such a hotchpotch when it comes to implementing rules about sea level rise.”

A report to Climate Change Minister Greg Combet from the CCCC last December says sea-level rise is one of the biggest issues facing coastal communities and yet “there is considerable confusion about what to do and when”.

“Uncertainty in parts of the science and its often poor coverage in the media, inconsistent policy settings, a lack of a historical analogue, and little guidance on cost-effective future options underpin this confusion,” it says.

So why has such an important issue as future sea-level projections been so badly managed in a country such as Australia, where some 85 per cent of the population live near the coast?

The federal government has outlined the potential dangers of rising sea levels but has not yet implemented a national strategy beyond seeking further advice from bodies such as the CCCC.

And yet the stakes, in theory, are enormous.

The Department of Climate Change estimates that the “high end scenario” of a 1.1m rise in sea levels around Australia by 2100 could expose $226 billion of assets to damage and destruction, including to 274,000 residential homes as well as almost 15,000 commercial or industrial buildings and 35,000km of road and rail.

To highlight this, the government has released dramatic maps that model the impact of sea rise on selected coastal communities, allowing people to view for themselves whether their house, street or suburb will survive the projected rise.

The government says its projections were developed by the CSIRO based on the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as “more recent science and observations”.

The government cautions that “estimates of sea level rise remain uncertain”. Experts warn that while the seas are rising, the ability to accurately predict the level and pace of future rises is at best an imprecise science.

Even so, each state government has adopted these CSIRO/IPCC projections as their benchmark, with slight modifications for local conditions. As a result, there is no consistent national projection for sea level rise over the next 90 years, with Queensland and Victoria projecting an 80cm rise by 2100, while NSW projects a 90cm rise, South Australia a 1m rise and Western Australia a 38cm rise.

These state guidelines are the models that local coastal councils are told they must rely upon to implement their own planning rules for sea rise.

“This is clearly a massive challenge for councils because every state has different guidelines and different requirements and different sea level [projections],” president of the Australian Local Government Association Genia McCaffery says.

McCaffery says councils are behaving responsibly by introducing rules to deal with projections of rising sea levels at such an early stage.

“I don’t think there is any dispute that sea level rise is occurring; the argument is on the margins about its severity. So councils are taking the precautionary principle because we need to know we are preparing our communities adequately for things we know will occur.”

But an example of the dysfunctional approach to this issue can be found on the Central Coast, which is projected to lose up to 20,000 dwellings to sea rise by 2100, among the highest in the nation.

The three adjoining coastal councils in the region, Gosford, Wyong and Lake Macquarie, have adopted very different policies on sea-level rise.

Gosford City Council has chosen to warn residents of the danger of sea level rise by encoding the Section 149 planning certificates of 9000 homes close to the ocean and nearby lakes, but has not yet implemented specific changes to the planning laws.

“We had to make a provision for sea-level rise because the Central Coast is predicted to have a major problem with this in the future,’ Gosford mayor Laurie Maher says.

He says this was the responsible thing for the council to do. But local resident and community activist Aiken from Davistown says he has gathered about 3000 signatures on a petition opposing the move.

He says it has hurt property values and boosted insurance costs on the basis of what he describes a “hopelessly vague” modelling for future sea rises.

“Even if they have got the sea rise issue right, it’s premature to be hurting people now for a problem which won’t be here for many, many decades.”

Saratoga beautician and single mother of three Upton said the sea rise notification on her home almost cost her a $220,000 loan application she had made to finance her new beauty parlour.

“To get the loan I had to provide a valuation of my house, but the valuer told me that the sea-level rise issue would affect the valuation. Initially the bank did not want to lend me the money and I had to fight hard to get it approved. I was very, very angry.”

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