Putting a Dollar Figure on Our Beaches

Can we place a dollar value on the effects of sea level rise?

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Associate Professor Abbas El-Zein, from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, will share his research into local climate change adaptation and planning at the Sydney Environment Institute panel, ‘Coastal vulnerability to sea level rise’, on Wednesday 23 March.


Professor El-Zein joins Research Fellow Tayanah O’Donnell, University of Canberra and host Tina Perinotto, publisher and editor from The Fifth Estate, for a discussion aimed at unravelling the complexity of problems associated with sea level rise and the decision-making being made at a municipal level.

Various reports have highlighted the dire consequences that Australian coastal areas will face due to sea level rise, says Professor El-Zein.

The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for policymakers, released in 2014, revealed there is “medium confidence” that sea levels will increase by about 25cm to one metre, relative to their pre-industrial levels.

As a result, it is likely that large stretches of coastal areas around the world, including Australia, will be permanently or seasonally inundated, creating a host of long-lasting ecological, economic and social problems.

Many governmental and scholarly reports on the impacts of climate change use market-based metaphors – putting a dollar value on coastal assets at risk from sea level rise – and this can be misleading.

“Something important is lost as the complexity of our association with the beach and the multiplicity of experiences animating the coast are reduced to neat, easily-classifiable, potential market transactions,” said Professor El-Zein.

“Clearly, when it comes of the impact of sea level rise, the notion – implicit in ‘monetary value’ and ‘stakeholders’ – that these individuals or communities can ‘sell’ their stakes for what they’re worth, and opt for another investment, is deficient, to say the least.”

Professor El-Zein has been studying vulnerability and adaptation to sea level rise at a municipal level in New South Wales. He has noted that there has been increasing interest amongst researchers in how to incorporate ‘values’ in developing adaptation to sea level rise – including cultural beliefs, attachment to place, worldviews, and subjective measures of wellbeing.

“Sea level rise raises two fundamental and challenging questions. First, what is it that we, as a society, value most about the beach and the coastline? Second, how are we to approach the process of developing adaptation including those crucial choices we have to make about what to protect and what to let go, whether to build a sea wall or not and whether to stay or move away?”

“As far as the beach is concerned, how much it’s worth – forgetting the absurdity of the question for a moment and assuming it can be answered at all – matters far less than what it means to different people, at different times and in different settings. The challenge is to incorporate these vital elements of the coast into adaptation without inadvertently creating conditions that stifle collective action,” said Professor El-Zein.

The panel is co-presented by the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Ideas at the University of Sydney.

Event details

What: ‘Coastal vulnerability to sea level rise’ panel
When: Wednesday 23 March, 6.00 to 7.30pm
Where: Law School Foyer, Level 2, Sydney Law School
Cost: Free

Article by Rebecca Simpson