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Sink or swim

By Kellie Tranter - posted Monday, 10 May 2010

Reports last week of rising sea levels reducing traditional food sources in Kakadu National Park and the size of islands in the Torres Strait serves as a reminder that every now and then an issue comes along that is beyond the reach of politics.

An issue that can’t adequately be dealt with by our political system because dealing with it requires consensus between and co-operation by our elected representatives; because it can only be tackled with bipartisan long term policy and monetary planning; and because it may require confrontation with large and sometimes powerful parts of the electorate and, perhaps, the loss of political “careers”.

Rising sea levels and mapping our planned retreat is just such an issue. Yes indeed, it will put our politicians to the test.


Late last year the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre revealed in its Copenhagen Diagnosis Report that:

.... By 2100, global sea-level is likely to rise at least twice as much as projected by Working Group 1 of the IPCC AR4; for unmitigated emissions it may well exceed 1 meter. The upper limit has been estimated as - 2 meters sea level rise by 2100. Sea level will continue to rise for centuries after global temperatures have been stabilised, and several meters of sea level rise must be expected over the next few centuries ...

Uh oh. That doesn’t even factor in sea-level rises associated with king tides and storm surges! And since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent abandonment of the carbon trading proposal, it looks like we’ll have “unmitigated emissions” for quite a few years yet.

Now our governments can’t plead ignorance about this. Drawing on some of the findings of the Climate Change Risks to Australia’s Coasts report, the Minister for Climate Change recently said:

… Up to 247,000 residential buildings are at risk of flooding from a 1.1 metre sea level rise. Their replacement value is up to $63 billion. Many industries that support Australia’s economy rely on use of the coastal zone. Those industries are vulnerable even to small rises in the sea level and changes to the extreme events. Our coastal infrastructure will be affected - from low-lying airports in Brisbane or Sydney to the vital infrastructure that supports our electricity and wastewater services ... Not only are our assets and environments at risk, many of our sandy beaches could erode away or recede up to hundreds of metres over the coming century …

It’s worth noting that $63 billion was the 2008 replacement value so if you can believe what’s allegedly going on with house prices it would be at least $80 billion by now. On top of that there are the risks posed to community services and industries located within 200 metres of the shoreline, and the potential fallout for tourism (PDF 3.05MB).


Can you even try to imagine (PDF 527KB), let alone calculate, the cost of that kind of damage?

Well insurance companies have, and continue to do so. It’s their business to balance the rates of losses against premium revenues.

Munich Re has reported:

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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