Local Councils are Bracing for Climate Change in Australia

Lisette Collins explores how local councils are bucking the national trend and getting on with developing climate change adaption plans

People are often surprised by my choice of PhD research. As a PhD student who has dutifully memorised the two-sentence response to the inevitable question “what is it you study?” my ready-made answer has served me well for the past two years. “I study climate change adaptation plans (CCAPs) as developed by local councils across Australia. I am collecting these plans from across the country and am seeking to explain the different prioritisation of vulnerabilities in plans from different councils across Australia.” People who tune out after the words “climate change” remark on my research being topical or hot button. But those who manage to stay with me until the end of the response often looked surprised. ‘But is that happening?’ they question. ‘Are local councils developing plans? What does a plan look like?’ And sometimes ‘does [insert council name here] have a plan?’ These are fair questions. In a country where the national conversation continues to debate the presence of anthropogenic climate change, it can be disarming for people to learn that there is action occurring at the local government level across the country.

But occurring it is. And my research is particularly interested in the points of difference between CCAPs across Australia. CCAPs can be developed by individual councils or as part of a regional effort between councils. Using familiar risk management guidelines which councils are accustomed to working with, CCAPs are developed through a process of identifying risk, prioritising that risk and working to mitigate against or adapt to that risk. Many of the vulnerabilities identified by councils are similar across the country – from concern about water availability and quality, to the effect of extreme weather events and soaring temperatures. Some differences in CCAPs can be easily explained: erosion and sea-level rise are the concern of coastal councils. However, less explicable (at least until I finish my research) is the variation in non-geographically specific impacts of climate change. Socio-economic impacts such as education, mental health, community cohesion, and pre-existing inequalities are concerns which are popping up in CCAPs in varying degrees. For example, many councils are identifying the impacts of climate change on the physical health of populations, from increases in aero-allergens, mosquito-borne diseases and even heat-related deaths. However, some councils are also identifying areas of concern for the mental health of populations who may suffer from trauma, stress and depression after experiencing extreme weather events such as drought and bushfire. Key to my research is finding out how these socio-economic concerns come to be prioritised in some areas and not others. The first step of this research involved collecting CCAPs from across the country and collating them into a single database. It then involved identifying where these socio-economic concerns were or were not present in plans. The research ultimately seeks to provide an overview of climate change adaptation planning at the local council level in terms of where it is occurring as well as focusing on vulnerability prioritisation – particularly of the socio-economic kind.

Councils are on the frontline of adapting to the impacts of climate change. We need to take a closer look at how adaptation is occurring within distinct council jurisdictions if we are to be prepared for what is to come and if we wish to improve the gaps in local level adaptation. The Australasian chapter of the recent IPCC Fifth Assessment Report of Working Group II finds with high confidence that, “without adaptation, further changes in climate, atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidity are projected to have substantial impacts on water resources, coastal ecosystems, infrastructure, health, agriculture and biodiversity”. Local councils have an important role to play in assisting Australia to adapt to a changing climate.

Lisette Collins  is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, specialising in climate change adaptation policy at the local government level across Australia. Her PhD research focuses on the prioritisation of sociopolitical concepts (education, vulnerable groups and mental health) in adaptation planning. The research involves the development of a unique database of adaptation plans from across the country which has been sought out by local government employees in New South Wales, Western Australia, and Victoria. She is also part of a research team which considers the relationship between vulnerability prioritisation and community consultation in local government adaptation planning.