Social Vulnerability: A Framework for Transforming Society and Our Shorelines

As fears of sea-level rise re-ignite during the current record-breaking European heatwaves, Max Maddison asks how risk managers and adaptation policy can do better for vulnerable coastal communities.

A record start to the summer ice sheet melt in Greenland, combined with concerns about the extent and speed of ice loss in the Antarctic ice sheet, have increased fears about sea-level rise. While mitigation of emissions remains the central task for governments globally, adapting to the inevitable impacts of sea-level rise has already begun for nations, communities and individuals. However, to ensure that the impacts of climate change don’t compound the existing disadvantage within society, we need to rethink the way we approach adaptation.

Globally, and particularly within Australia, approaches to adaptation have prioritised risk–management frameworks. Within these frameworks, a likelihood-consequence scale is applied: the most extreme risks with the highest likelihood are ranked highest in importance.1 While these scales are crucial for planning for sea-level rise, often allowing governments to decide which option – retreat, accommodate or protect – will be most suitable, these prediction processes ignore social elements that contribute to an individual or community’s vulnerability. The inclusion of social factors is important for two reasons: climate change and sea-level rise likely to exacerbate poverty and disadvantage, and conversely, disadvantage enhances vulnerability to climate impacts. Without accounting for these factors, policy risks excessively compounding the impacts on certain parts of society in the long term.2

The concept of social vulnerability has been proposed as a complementary framework to risk-management assessments. Vulnerability is the matter of how external stresses impact on well-being. Understanding this critical term enables assessments to take into account the difference between people’s ability to respond and recover from disasters.

Yet, vulnerability’s broad and ill-defined usage has resulted in its contestation throughout the literature. Part of the contestation has emerged from disagreement about whether vulnerability is a “starting point” or an “end point”.3 As an “end point” vulnerability represents the impacts of climate change minus adaptation. As a “starting point” vulnerability is considered part ofa set of attributes that don’t exist in isolation from the political economy, but which consider the social and environmental factors that limit the ability to cope with climatic and other stressors.4

Across the world, but particularly within the United Kingdom flood disadvantage literature, social vulnerability has been proposed as a complementary adaptation framework.5 Social vulnerability consists of three groups:sensitivity, which includes personal factors such as age and health status; adaptive capacity, which is the ability to respond and recover from external stressors; and environmental factors, which can enhance or decrease exposure and includes housing or neighbourhood characteristics.6

A relevant example of how the difference approaches – emphasising risk-management or social vulnerability – can result in the emphasis of different regions is evident within Sydney. Collaroy-Narrabeen, situated in the northern beaches of Sydney, has a long history of storm surges, often resulting in significant damage to beachfront residences and erosion of the beach. The risk of sea-level rise and coastal hazards was evident during the 2016 East-Coast Low “superstorm” which infamously collapsed a beachfront swimming pool, and resulted in former-Premier Mike Baird announcing ad-hoc adaptation policy from the beach.

In comparison, Botany Bay, located in the south-east of Sydney, has a lower exposure to sea-level rise and coastal hazards, due to the protection provided by the La Perouse and Kurnell Peninsula headlands. However, as demonstrated by the Sydney Coastal Councils Group (SCCG) in 2008, Botany Bay is one of the most vulnerable areas in Sydney to sea-level rise, a result of the area’s high social vulnerability.7 In their rationale, the authors contributed the score to the high population density, large proportion of lower socio-economic residents and number of the community members born overseas.

While the dramatic 2016 storm resulted in significant government attention and resources becoming available to beachfront residents in Collaroy-Narrabeen, the question remains as to whether this is the most effective way to adapt. Predominantly, the high socio-economic status of Collaroy-Narrabeen beachfront residents means they possess the resources (through insurance, household income or accumulated wealth) and human capital to recover and respond to these incidents. Additionally, as Abbas El Zein cogently argues, a coastal management framework that is predominantly driven by conflicts about coastal properties is unwise.8 The result being the creation of political dynamics that make the ‘stay-and-protect’ option – despite the obvious flaws – the only viable one.

Instead, by planning adaptation with a long-term focus on enhancing the ability of vulnerable individuals and communities to recover and respond to sea-level rise, resources would address existing disadvantage, ensuring a more equitable and resilient society.

While the moral imperatives of including social vulnerability frameworks to complement current risk-management approaches are apparent, the practical limitations are evidently significant. The current Federal Coalition government under Scott Morrison seem unwilling to even acknowledge the existence of climate-change and sea-level rise, let alone provide the resources or leadership necessary to confront the inevitable impacts. Consequently, the emergence of a policy-vacuum has forced local councils to confront these issues without a legal or policy framework, meaning any action (including no action) in sea-level rise development areas may be threatened with litigation. Additionally, recent research revealed that only half of NSW coastal communities believe sea-level rise will impact them directly, while only 25 percent of accommodation businesses located close to the coastline believe sea-level rise is even happening. In the face of minimal community acknowledgement and the lack of a policy framework, long-term adaptation planning faces significant barriers.

Despite these barriers, the case for more-inclusive adaptation planning is evident. With sea-levels predicted to rise by 40cm by 2050, increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (such as the 2016 ‘superstorm’), governments will be increasingly forced to manage and adapt to the impacts. A clear and ‘just’ vision of adaptation planning now will ensure that future coastal societies have the necessary tools to manage sea-level rise.

1. Standards Australia. (2009). AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 Risk Management. Sydney, Australia/Wellington, New Zealand: Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand.
2. England K and Knox K. (2016) Targeting flood investment and policy to minimise flood disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Institution.
3. Adger WN., Paavola J. and Huq, Saleemul et al. (2006) Fairness in Adaptation to Climate Change, Cambridge, MIA: MIT Press.
4. Collins L. (2016) Confronting the Inconvenient Truth: The Politics and Policies of Australian Climate Change Adaptation Planning. University of Sydney: Department of Government and International Relations, pp.1-321.
5. Lindley S, O’Neill, John., Kandeh, Joseph., Lawson, Nigel., Christian, Richard., and O’Neill, Martin. (2011) Climate change, justice and vulnerability. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1-177.
6. Banks N, Preston I, Hargreaves K, et al. (2014) Climate Change and Social Justice: An Evidence Review. York: Joseph Rowntree Institution.
7. Preston B, Smith T, Brooke C, et al. (2008) Mapping Climate Change Vulnerability in the Sydney Coastal Councils Group. SCCG.
8. El Zein A. (2018) Fraying at the Edges: On Coastal Life and Rising Seas. In: Mossop E (ed) Sustainable Coastal Design and Planning First edition. ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Max Maddison is an honours student with the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney . Having recently completed a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences, his honours thesis looks at the intersection between environmental justice and sea-level adaptation planning, seeking to understand whether more inclusive adaptation planning can confront existing disadvantage within coastal communities. Max has a research passion for social/environmental justice, coastal societies, economics and  Australian politics.

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 environment related research. If you are a current postgraduate student who would like to participate in the series, find out more here.