Understanding community perceptions of sea level rise

Posted March 05, 2014

SGS Economics and Planning sea level rise

Predicted sea level rise due to climate change will have significant impacts on many Australian coastal towns and cities due to storm damage, more frequent flooding events or even permanent loss of some coastal landscapes [1].

It is important that Australians begin to understand and adapt to the risks that climate change-induced sea level rise pose to individuals and their property. However, it is also important to understand how coastal communities currently perceive this risk; to what extent people are knowledgeable about predicted sea level rise in their area and if this knowledge affects their future decision-making. There is a gap in Australian social research on this issue.

A pioneering research survey focusing on a small coastal region in Victoria -the Borough of Queenscliffe - has taken the first step in gaining an understanding of community perceptions of sea level rise in coastal communities. It gathered information through surveys hand-delivered face to face to a random sample of 104 residents of the Borough, with 63 surveys returned for analysis. [2]

SGS Economics and Planning sea level rise 2

The study area

The Borough of Queenscliffe local government area includes the suburbs of Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale. Fifty-four per cent of private dwellings in the Borough are unoccupied, reflecting a large amount of holiday-only use [3]. Its population of 3,000 is ageing more dramatically than the rest of Australia, with 33.7 per cent of the total Queenscliffe population aged over 65 compared to the national figure of 14 per cent. [4 ]

The Borough is included in the Australian Government's series of sea level rise maps, created to illustrate the 'potential impacts of climate change for key urban areas'. [5 ] The maps combine a sea level rise value with a high tide value, and illustrate an event that could occur at least once a year around the year 2100. Three scenarios have been presented: low sea level rise (0.5 metres) scenario, medium sea level rise (0.8 metres), and high sea level rise (1.1 metres) scenario. [6]

Unsurprisingly, the release of this information has encouraged an increased focus on government policy in the area of sea level rise.

In 2010, the Borough of Queenscliffe commissioned AECOM to undertake the Preparing for Climate Change in the Borough of Queenscliffe'' project, the risk assessment and adaptation actions of which inform a Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan for the Borough. [7]

Demographics of the survey population

Of the survey population of 63, around 60 per cent were female, and 38 per cent were male. Sixty-eight per cent stated they were aged 66 years or over, and 30 per cent were aged 66-75. On average, the sample population was older than the total population of Point Lonsdale and Queenscliff, (as recorded in the 2011 Census). This could partially be explained by the large proportion of holiday homes within the two suburbs, suggesting that permanent residents may be retirees or elderly and less mobile residents, while younger holiday homeowners may be only part-time residents and thus less likely to be home to receive the surveys.

On average, survey respondents had lived in the area since 1992. They overwhelmingly chose the area for reasons connected to the local landscape and community lifestyle. The data collected on housing tenure suggests a settled community; 64 per cent of respondents fully own their homes, and 19 per cent has a mortgage, reflecting the aged population.

Knowledge and concern over sea level rise

Survey respondents were asked 'How much, if anything, do you know about climate change?' and 'How much, if anything, do you know about sea level rise?' Over 60 per cent answered "a fair amount" to both questions. Knowledge of climate change (67 per cent) did rate slightly stronger than sea level rise (60 per cent) when looking at the overall figures. And an overwhelming 78 per cent thought the world's climate was changing. Only small proportions answered "no" (14 per cent) or didn't know (8 per cent).

Over 95 per cent of respondents were aware of the Australian Government's sea level rise predictions for the Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale area, and the overwhelming percentage knew where their property resides within the maps. In all, 65 per cent of respondents were both aware of the predictions and knew where their property resides within the maps. A further 30 per cent were aware that there are predictions but didn't know what they were. Only 5 per cent were not aware of the predictions.

Fourteen per cent of survey participants thought that their place of residence would be affected by sea level rise, based on the predictions they were aware of, while 78 per cent believed they would not be so affected. However the survey found there was a level of concern over sea level rise that extended beyond the people directly impacted: in fact, 33 per cent of respondents were "fairly" concerned about the prospect of sea level rise, and 19 per cent were "very" concerned. The level of concern was relatively evenly spread within each age bracket.

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Interestingly, when survey participants were asked if they would change their activities at the prospect of sea level rise the response was overwhelmingly negative. This means that more than seventy per cent of participants would not change their behaviour at the prospect of sea level rise.

— SGS Consultant Tara Callinan

Survey participants were asked 'will the prospect of sea level rise cause you to change your activities in any way in the future?' The response was overwhelmingly negative - 71 per cent answering "no", 14 per cent answering "yes", and another 14 per cent answering "I don't know". The few people who indicated that they would change their activities suggested a wide range of activities they might engage in; for instance "educating people by conversation", and "becoming more involved in local activities to support marine plants and the environment".

Figure 1

SGS Economics and Planning concerns over sea level rise 01

Twenty-five per cent of respondents believed that we are already feeling the effects of sea level rise in Australia. However the timescales anticipated by the rest of the respondents varied widely between "in the next ten years" and "beyond the next 100 years", and 17 per cent of respondents did not know when effects would be felt.

Finally, the survey asked who should be mainly responsible for taking action against climate change-induced sea level rise. Participants could choose as many options as they liked from a list that included the federal government, industry, the international community, state government, individuals/families, local governments and environmental groups. Seventy-three per cent chose the federal government as one of the bodies that should be responsible. Twenty-two per cent ticked all the options above.

When investigating relationships between different variables, the results present quite conflicting information. As shown in Figure 1, there seems to be little relationship between the two variables of concern over sea level rise and an individual's preparedness to change their activities.

Conclusions and directions for future research

The analysis suggests that the Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale community is relatively homogenous in both their demographic data and their overall perceptions of climate change-induced sea level rise. There seems to be a level of concern over sea level rise, but this does not coincide with a willingness to change future activities. It seems that there might be other factors at play in determining people's level of concern over sea level rise rather than proximity to risk and general awareness of the issue. Further research could delve into political and monetary motivations of individuals, to determine whether there are other factors influencing people's perceptions of risk, levels of concern and willingness to adapt their activities in the future.

It must be acknowledged that the survey was somewhat limited by the sample being over-represented by an older demographic (as shown by comparison to ABS statistics). More responses from the younger and more mobile Queenscliffe and Point Lonsdale community might have provided a different data set. As such, it is suggested that future research also investigates measures to achieve greater participation in research surveys by the younger demographic.

Footnotes and references

1. Geoscience Australia (2012) Sea Level Rise Maps, OzCoasts, Australian Government. 2. Bailey, Tara, 2012 ‘Understanding community perceptions of Sea Level Rise in the Borough of Queenscliffe, Victoria' , Research Paper, Prepared for RMIT University, Undergraduate Program: Bachelor of Social Science (Environment), Course work for Courses: Designing Research, Doing Research 3. and 4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011) Census Quickstats: Queenscliffe (B) Local Government Area, all people usual residents. 5. and 6. Geoscience Australia, 2012 (op cit) 7. AECOM (2010) Preparing for Climate Change in the Borough of Queenscliffe, Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan

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