In unforgiving hands

How one local council is changing the face of climate adaptation

Kingston Beach Adaption Study. Photo: Climate Planning.

In a time when, despite the obvious effects of climate change, governments across the globe are still undecided as to how to respond, it is surprising to find a small, relatively remote Australian council is leading the way.

Situated approximately 15 kilometres south of Hobart, Kingston Beach remains one of the most picturesque suburbs of the greater Hobart area and, arguably, the southern hemisphere. The township itself is located between the meandering Browns River and wetlands, and the long curve of the Kingston Beach. The first main swimming beach southwest of Hobart, it is host to modern development, cafes and restaurants, and yet is nestled with quaint heritage homes, maintaining a traditional beach-holiday feel: a postcard by another name.

Kingston Beach. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

These are the very features that shape Kingston Beach, and yet have placed it between the unforgiving hands of global climate change. Specifically, it is the risk of the coincidence catchment flooding in the Browns River and oceanic inundation from an extreme storm event, coupled with projected sea level rise of 1.82 metres above Australian Height Datum, that causes Kingborough Council concern.

Rather than shy away from what would to many governments be a daunting challenge, the Kingborough Council in Tasmania has embraced the task, recognising that climate change is one of the most urgent and threatening issues councils face. As a local council, it is the closest tier of government to the community and has taken seriously its position as being the most trusted. The Council has sought to lead its community and work constructively and collaboratively throughout its local government region to improve the understanding, and develop responses to, climate change.

In an effort to construct a comprehensive response, Kingborough Council has commissioned a study of the Kingston Beach area, with a view to creating and implementing a strategy to deal with the various climate change impacts that may affect the beach and its community.

It has been a distinctive opportunity to provide the Council with climate legal advice for the study on a range of matters, including identifying where liability for natural hazard impacts lie and assisting the Council in dealing with its climate legal risks.

Flowchart designed to assist decision-makers. © Mark Baker-Jones.

Core to enabling the council to recognise and deal with its legal risk has been the development of a procedure to assist local government decision-makers in identifying legal risks, specifically with relation to quantifying and assessing the legal risks arising from climate change impacts. Local government decision-makers will therefore be able to understand their liability, recognise when a legal risk is developing, and be well equipped to respond appropriately.

The project has been coordinated by Jon Doole, Manager of Environmental Services for Kingborough Council, who has this to say about the legal issues Kingborough is facing in light of climate change:

‘In the absence of genuine leadership by the upper tiers of government for a strategic response to the climate change adaptation needs of communities, it is essential that local councils have access to best practice legal and risk advice. Mark Baker-Jones has facilitated a meaningful and cost effective methodology to this critical issue at Kingborough that could act as a demonstration approach to other councils throughout Tasmania.’

The Kingston Beach Adaptation Case Study is led by Donovan Burton of Climate Planning, one of Australia’s most experienced climate planners. Mr Burton has developed governance indicators which are used by local government across Australia and overseas, and endorsed by various State governments, to determine the ability of organisations to respond to climate change.

This project is a crucial step in highlighting the global and wide-ranging effects of climate change. No longer can governments characterise their obligations as removed, or ‘too remote’, from endemic climate change; rather, they must realise its formulation as a native issue, capable of altering the very way of life central to communities.

Eventually, all local governments will have to make the decision Kingborough Council has, and respond to climate change. The difference is those, like Kingborough, who are already reducing their risk, and those whose risk continues to rise.

DISCLAIMER: This content is general commentary provided for information and interest only. It is not intended to be comprehensive, and it does not constitute and must not be relied upon as legal advice. Readers should obtain specific advice relating to their particular circumstances.

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