By Chris Medhurst
Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is one of the most beautiful places in the world, with its pristine sandy beaches and laidback lifestyle attracting visitors from all over the world. But while tourists and locals enjoy the present, the future is shrouded in mystery as the reality of climate change looms as a massive threat to the region.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), considered to be the pre-eminent scientific body investigating climate change, produced their fourth report into potential climate impacts in 2007 and it painted a bleak picture of what to expect if changes weren’t made. It said that heatwaves, fires, floods, landslides, droughts and storm surges would be likely to increase in intensity and frequency, along with increased drought which would cause a decline in agriculture and forestry. Worryingly, it singled out South East Queensland as an area particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Graham Ashford is a lecturer in environmental science and climate change mitigation at the University of the Sunshine Coast. He believes the IPCC report showed that climate change will have a big impact on the Sunshine Coast region, especially in places near the water such as Mooloolaba, due to temperature, precipitation and sea level events. He believes that more needs to be done to prepare the Sunshine Coast for future impacts of climate change.
“There are some small initiatives out there such as home insulation, solar panels, solar hot water, energy efficiency measures and so on, but they are small compared to the problem,” Ashford said, citing the fact that Australia is one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. This statement is backed up by a 2010 report on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website, which states that despite Australia having only 3 per cent of the world’s population, it is responsible for 1.5 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the highest per capita emitters.
“Australia is one of the highest producers of greenhouse gas emissions in the world due to our heavy reliance on coal fired electricity so on the whole, not a lot is being done to mitigate emissions and very little is being done to adapt to the anticipated impacts, which is a worry especially on the Coast,” he said.
While the carbon tax may have been political suicide for Julia Gillard, it has been effective in reducing carbon emissions since its introduction in July 2012. A Sydney Morning Herald article in February 2014 cited the September-quarter National Greenhouse Gas Inventory figures as evidence that Australia’s emissions were down 7.6% since the carbon tax was introduced. Of course, Prime Minister Tony Abbott plans to scrap the carbon tax in favour of his Direct Action Plan which, according to a government paper released in April 2014, will provide incentives for businesses to reduce their carbon footprint. Ashford believes while Australia’s policies alone will not halt climate change, they can provide a framework for the future.
“Australia on its own cannot influence the climate,” he says, singling out places such as China, the US, Indonesia and Russia as those who can make a bigger difference. “Australia, like all other countries, needs to reduce emissions, but it has to be a collective effort. But while our policies will not be sufficient to change the temperature in a noticeable way, they will transform our industries over time and result in lower emissions which will help in the future.”
The Sunshine Coast Council recognised the danger the region faced from climate change and released a report in 2010 titled Sunshine Coast Climate Change and Peak Oil Strategy 2010-2020. The document acknowledged the threat to the Sunshine Coast’s natural environment, communities and economic activity that climate change poses and aims to “ensure that future climate conditions are factored into council’s strategic, infrastructure and operational projects to help reduce risks and long-term costs”. One thing the report could not anticipate, however, was the impact a change of government would have on climate change strategy.
Wiebe ter Bals, who is the Executive Officer of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council (SCEC), says that the environment movement in Queensland fought long and hard to get climate change recognised in planning frameworks. These efforts came to fruition in the coastal management plan, which is a strategy to provide council with a clear direction and framework to manage the environment as effectively as possible.
“Sunshine Coast Council was the first and, to my knowledge, still the only local council to actually adopt a climate change and peak oil strategy so they have a strategy to respond to those really major driving mega issues,” he says. A hint of frustration enters his voice when he explains how the plan was discontinued. “We had the coastal management plan which basically said that every development in Queensland had to account for 0.8m of sea level rise by 2100. Then the powers that be changed and climate change all of a sudden became a belief, and the coastal plan was rescinded. So now in spite of the fact that the insurance industry has enough faith in the science to not insure you if you’re below Q100 (1 per cent) of 0.8m, you’re not actually required to meet Q100 0.8m in order to get development approval in Queensland.”
Ashford says that while council may give approval for development in areas where climate change is a real risk, it may well be the refusal of insurance companies to insure new houses that change people’s willingness to live as close to the water as possible.
“There are significant risks of coastal erosion and storm related damage from climate change in coastal areas, but council does not appear to be ready to declare particular areas that are already settled as high-risk zones,” he said. “Therefore, it’s probably likely that the refusal of insurance companies to cover the properties will be the thing that changes consumer behaviour around building in high-risk locations.”
A government report titled Climate Change Risks to Coastal Buildings and Infrastructure supports Ashford’s view about the risks of building in susceptible areas, and outlines the economic damage that climate change could wreak if left unchecked. The report found that if sea levels do rise by 1.1m in 2100, it would result in greater than $226 billion in commercial, industrial, road, rail and residential assets being exposed to serious inundation risk.
Mooloolaba resident Joshua Scutts, 27, recently purchased a house by the water and is unconcerned about what the future may hold for his property. Displaying a typically Australian ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, Scutts says the future will sort itself out and that he would rather live in the here and now.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think the climate probably is changing but it hasn’t impacted me directly so it’s hard to actually say yes, 100 per cent, we need to stop doing this and that and we need to pay more taxes and things like that,” he said. “That’s why we have scientists and people smarter than me looking into that stuff. I’m not going to not buy a home or anything else though because of stuff that might happen in 100 years. To me, thinking like that makes no sense.”
This viewpoint does not appear to be shared by other people in the Sunshine Coast. A poll on the Sunshine Coast Daily website in November 2013 resulted in 92 per cent of respondents saying they believed the evidence was clear and that climate change is real. Additionally, a rally at Quota Park in Nambour on November 17, 2013 saw hundreds of residents protest against the government’s proposed changes to climate change legislation. These changes include not only the axing of the carbon tax, but the dismantling of the Climate Change Authority, an action which Australian Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne has called “cowardly and an attack on current and future generations”.
For the Sunshine Coast, the main issue now is to ensure the futures of beautiful places like Mooloolaba, Coolum Beach and Noosa aren’t ruined by the actions of today. The SCEC released a document calling for people to register as a campaign supporter to stand up for the environment and protest what they believe will be dark times ahead. The document says that environmental protection measures that had taken years, or even decades, to obtain have now been dismantled in a matter of months, and lists environmental mistakes made by the Queensland and Federal Governments since they came to power. It is a stark reminder that the fight for the environment will always be difficult due to economic and political considerations.
As the suns sets over Mooloolaba beach, locals can sit back, relax and enjoy another night in their urban paradise. The question they face is will their kids, or grandkids, or nieces and nephews be able to enjoy the same simple pleasures?
The answer, as hard as it may be to face, is up to us.