At the beach: The politics of risk and coastal hazards

“As a society, making better collective coastal risk decisions requires people with contrasting backgrounds and diverse interests to have time and a supportive space to collaborate”.

"Wamberal Beach" by David Ansen. Sourced from Flickr Commons

Tom FitzGerald starts off our Student Blog Series with a discussion on why the social dimensions of ‘a risk-based approach’ to coastal management need to be considered in policy and planning.

In 2016, the NSW Government passed the largely commendable Coastal Management Act. When officially commenced (Hawley, 2017), the Act will seek to manage the coastal environment of NSW in an ecologically sustainable way for the wellbeing of the NSW public. At the core of this Act lie objects requiring mitigation of “…current and future risks from coastal hazards, taking into account the effects of climate change” (Coastal Management Act, s.3(f)), and to support public participation in coastal management and planning. The use of ‘risk’ as the basis for environmental decision-making has been implicit in environmental policy since its origins in the 1960s when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring highlighted the dangers of toxic pesticides. However, risk analysis did not really emerge as an integrative discipline for environmental policy until the late 1970s.

In this new Act (and its supporting Manual), the explicit and prescribed use of risk analysis as a public policy tool is to be applauded. Nonetheless, the use of risk analysis is only as good as the objectives it is trying to meet, and the quality of the process followed. To establish a scale to prioritise the management of risks requires dividing them up into groups of risks that are either unacceptable, tolerable, or acceptable (Dow et al., 2013). But drawing these lines is a task fraught with uncertainty, complexity, and contest (Klinke & Renn, 2012). The task is inherently political and asks society to debate the ambiguities of what is ‘of value’. In our society then, the acts of evaluating risks and making judgment is founded upon the principles and processes of participative democracy (Renn, 1998).

At the beach, coastal hazards like erosion and coastline recession are becoming more apparent every day, and are likely to increase further in the context of a changing climate and with changing population and lifestyle preferences. The impacts of severe coastal storms in Australia and around the world highlight the dangers of living by the coast, but also highlight the apparent folly of assumptions made about the perceived level of protection to communities afforded by structures like seawalls, tidal barriers and levées.  As Raymond Burby (2006) discusses: would the impacts of Hurricane Katrina for example, have been as bad if the New Orleans levée system had provided more than a veneer of safety to those vulnerable populations who thought they were safe behind it? In Europe as well, questions are being asked as to whether it is cost effective to try and protect the entire coastline, or if it makes more sense to pick and choose our battles with the rising tides. Ultimately, managing risk is about choice. Choices that are at once highly personal, but also collective in nature, and made in the legislative context of the public interest.

Figure 1 The Central Coast’s Wamberal Beach experienced severe coastal erosion in 1978 with the loss of three properties to the sea, but no lives. The same location was impacted again during a significant storm event in June 2016. This beach is one of many ‘coastal erosion hotspots’ in NSW. Their ongoing experiences and longstanding designation effectively highlighting the inertia in dealing with coastal conundrums in NSW. On the other hand, it could be argued that this kind of damage is implicitly acceptable to the NSW polity?


The practice of risk management is already embedded in many aspects of our society – like finance, medicine, road safety and increasingly now climate change. Historically though, definitions of risks in these fields are narrow, expert-led and made to look precise. Estimates of risk are often limited to an extrapolation of statistics from a short history of events out to an uncertain, dynamic, and ultimately unknown future. Accuracies are misleading. More recent attempts to delineate coastal hazard and risk zones have sought to make the lines more ‘fuzzy’ by using a probabilistic or quantitative approach (Wainwright et al., 2014; Wainwright et al., 2015, see also CoastAdapt). While these advances in the ‘hard sciences’ and their approach to hazard management are to be encouraged, the social side of the risk equation in coastal management and adaptation requires greater focus.

This is because decisions to manage risk in NSW are ultimately political in nature. In some cases, those decisions can be made on an ad-hoc, reactionary basis, contrary to the best available information. In NSW as well as in many other jurisdictions, planning for sea level rise is one such issue that has resulted in policy flip-flops, which has allowed problems to persist, unsolved. At the coast, our long-term preference for top-down, expert or politician-led decision-making has often failed to carry broad public support and led to the polarisation of opinion, and divided communities – and a legacy of risk conundrums (see Figure 1) (Kasperson, 2017; Nature Climate Change, 2015). The new Act gives us a chance to reset that model, by broadening and deepening our understanding of coastal risks.

So, we must remain optimistic. Despite the divergent opinions, there exists a common ground – the beach. For it is at the beach where we shed our inhibitions and come together (Hoskins, 2013). But ‘coming together’ in the coastal management or adaptation sense requires effective models of participatory democracy to be adopted and supported. Recent guidance in both Australia and New Zealand highlight the need to involve communities upfront and throughout the risk management process. As a society, making better collective coastal risk decisions requires people with contrasting backgrounds and diverse interests to have time and a supportive space to collaborate, deliberate and decide (Renn, 2015).

Finding that common ground and managing coastal risk to tolerable or acceptable levels thus requires a greater investment in public participation processes – from the beginning. We must enable the broadest possible spectrum of public, institutional and sectoral knowledge to be used to set our objectives and the bottom line – the unacceptable risks we want to avoid. Done right, wider and deeper public participation will ultimately provide for more democratic decision-making processes, greater legitimacy, fairness, and walk us ever closer to the nirvana of sustainable coastal environments.


Burby, R. J. (2006). Hurricane Katrina and the Paradoxes of Government Disaster Policy: Bringing About Wise Governmental Decisions for Hazardous Areas. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 604(1), 171-191. doi:10.1177/0002716205284676
Dow, K., Berkhout, F., Preston, B. L., Klein, R. J. T., Midgley, G., & Shaw, M. R. (2013). Limits to adaptation. Nature Climate Change, 3(4), 305-307. doi:10.1038/nclimate1847
Hawley, M. (2017). The Next Wave of Coastal Planning Law: a Legal update Paper presented at the 26th Annual NSW Coastal Conference, Shoal Bay Country Club, Port Stephens, NSW.
Hoskins, I. (2013). Coast: a history of the NSW edge. Sydney, N.S.W: NewSouth Publishing.
Kasperson, R. E. (2017). Risk Conundrums: Solving Unsolvable Problems: Taylor & Francis.
Klinke, A., & Renn, O. (2012). Adaptive and integrative governance on risk and uncertainty. Journal of Risk Research, 15(3), 273-292. doi:10.1080/13669877.2011.636838
Nature Climate Change. (2015). Coastal conundrums. Nature Climate Change, 5(2), 81-81. doi:10.1038/nclimate2527
Renn, O. (1998). Three decades of risk research: accomplishments and new challenges. Journal of Risk Research, 1(1), 49-71.
Renn, O. (2015). Stakeholder and Public Involvement in Risk Governance. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 6(1), 8-20. doi:10.1007/s13753-015-0037-6
Wainwright, D. J., Ranasinghe, R., Callaghan, D. P., Woodroffe, C. D., Cowell, P. J., & Rogers, K. (2014). An argument for probabilistic coastal hazard assessment: Retrospective examination of practice in New South Wales, Australia. Ocean & Coastal Management, 95(0), 147-155. doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2014.04.009
Wainwright, D. J., Ranasinghe, R., Callaghan, D. P., Woodroffe, C. D., Jongejan, R., Dougherty, A. J., . . . Cowell, P. J. (2015). Moving from deterministic towards probabilistic coastal hazard and risk assessment: Development of a modelling framework and application to Narrabeen Beach, New South Wales, Australia. Coastal Engineering, 96(0), 92-99. doi:10.1016/j.coastaleng.2014.11.009
Figure 1 source: GeoScience Australia

Tom FitzGerald is a PhD Candidate in the School of GeoSciences at University of Sydney. Tom’s research looks at the political side of the coastal risk equation. He is investigating the management of coastal hazards, the governance of risk, and exploring how perceptions of risk acceptability may influence coastal management and planning decisions.

Tom has worked for all levels of government, for NGOs, academic institutions and in the private sector. Prior to starting his PhD, Tom has been a former Secretary for the Australian Coastal Society, Regional Coordinator for the New Zealand Coastal Society and volunteered his time on the organising committees of the NSW Coastal Conference for the last 5 years and the NZCS Conference 2017. Tom also volunteers with the Environmental Defence Society (Australian Oceans Institute) in NZ on ocean management.

Twitter: @coffee_n_coast
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This blog is a part of SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.