Why we’ll never see preventative action on sea-level rise …
So far Tassie’s coastal communities haven’t suffered from Collaroy-like storm surge damage (above), though for a couple of decades we’ve been warned that the first of such occurrences is just around the corner.
The thing is, if you dig a little into how the various state authorities are managing the threat you find that not only is little being done, but at a site in southern Tasmania a mining operation is in full swing that seems to be hastening just such an event – with the full blessing of state and local government.
But it’s not my intention in this article to expose the authorities’ lack of action on sea level rise (Resign! Resign!) nor to incite a campaign for action. I’m far more interested in the underlying reasons why such a pivotal entity as a state government seems able to repeatedly sidestep important issues like climate change and sea level rise, all the while appearing – at least on the surface – to have matters fully in hand.
Part I – A case study
I have a story for you. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll probably need a break to go to the lavatory. Its conclusion neatly highlights my proposition that preventative action on sea level rise simply won’t happen.
Though it’s carefully hidden from view, if you look carefully you’ll find a sand mine at South Arm, half an hour south of Hobart. Of all the mining types, sand mining is probably the least environmentally contentious. It’s just digging up and washing sand before it’s carted away. Virtually no chemicals are used and the ‘damage’ is restricted to quite a small area. Unlike, say, coal, even the product is harmless. It’s just sand.
So sand mining hasn’t got a lot of critics. But in this case there’s something a little amiss, namely the mine’s location. This particular operation is on a narrow sandy spit that connects the townships of South Arm and Opossum Bay with the mainland.
At first glance (and second, and third) this seemed a little crazy to me. Is it wise to be actively removing large chunks of the natural sea wall that keeps Storm Bay – an infamously ferocious body of water – from inundating the highway?
But presumably they know what they’re doing, right? In this era of climate change awareness, surely someone must have done the sums and deemed the operation to be non-threatening? I decided to find out.
My first port of call was DPIPWE’s environmental protection division. There I spoke to David (not his real name), having emailed him a screen grab from a Google map of the area in question.
He told me that I shouldn’t be concerned, that the large ponds I can see in the photo were the result of mining operations spanning back to the 1930s and hadn’t been caused by the current operators. I was a little baffled. Surely, whatever the reason for the ponds’ existence, taking more sand away is hardly helping. I also learned that while there had been a ‘survey’ of the area done back in 2007, that survey did not include a climate change/sea level rise component. No-one had even considered it.
Not to worry, said David, the EPA was conducting a review as we speak, which would be available soon.
When I asked where liability would lie in the event that the mining operation was one day shown to be responsible for a road-severing storm surge, David said that he wasn’t sure, and that I should ask the local council. I did. Their response was that they weren’t sure and that I should ask the state government.
This was late in 2014. I did some digging (pardon the pun) and found an interesting map on TheLIST, which marks the area in question in big red lines as ‘most vulnerable to climate change’ 1.
Then on Clarence City Council’s website I found a report from 2009 written by the University of New South Wales 2. It found that the sand dune buffer along that stretch of coast is sufficient to prevent the ocean breaking through even in the face of a 0.9 metre sea level increase and a once-in-a-hundred-year storm event. But – and this is the important point:
“The dune elevation and sand volume should be monitored and maintained to prevent oceanic breakthrough … as the consequences of such a breakthrough are serious.”
It’s my understanding that no such monitoring or maintenance has taken place. I wonder if the authors are aware that this particular volume of sand is being diminished at the rate of 75,000 cubic metres per year (the amount the operator is allowed). There certainly was no mention of a mining operation in their report.
Imagine my relief when, in early 2015, I was alerted to the outcome of the EPA’s review process. Phew, someone was finally on to it. But it made for frustrating reading. There was plenty of detail on the plant species in the area (conclusion: no endangered species to worry about) and surface water quality (within guidelines, though the quality of water in the settling ponds, which have been dug well below the summer water table, was ‘unknown’). Plenty of detail about which parts of the site are to be excavated next, and even an explanation of the different types of sand they’d be digging up. It also notes that in terms of eventual rehabilitation “every effort will be made to establish a local provenance colonising plant community”.
Terrific. It’s a sand mine. It’s harmless.
The final section of the report is titled “projected sea level rise”. Its one-third-of-a-page analysis concludes “sea level rise over the next 85 years is … unlikely to significantly impact any infrastructure or surface water quality across the site”. (It’s probably just clumsy wording, but note that they’re considering the integrity of the site itself, not the adjacent roadway.) Never mind that recently yet another peer-reviewed article was published suggesting that severe storm surge events are becoming increasingly likely, and our coastal communities are at more risk as a result 4.
Still, the authors are the experts. They’ve got a logo and everything. The operation is fine, surely? Just to be on the safe side I decided to call the lead author to see if she could expand on the findings, in particular the sea level rise component. She told me that there hadn’t been the budget to undertake any investigation into the potential for storm-surge inundation. That section in the report simply comes from topographical data and sea-level rise projections that are available to the public on TheLIST – the very TheLIST, you’ll remember, that declares the area as most vulnerable to climate change. The problem with the analysis is that it considers sea level rise like a bath being slowly filled. Even if the water level comes to an inch from the top everything is dandy. It doesn’t help us understand what happens when someone jumps in.
Who set the criteria for the assessment? You guessed it – the state government.
So let’s recap.
Me: Is this sand mine safe in terms of sea level rise?
State government: Yep!
Me: How do you know?
State government: Umm … well we don’t really know, but we’re doing a report. If you’re concerned about liability ask the council.
Council: No idea – ask the state government.
Report: Plants – check. Maps ¬– check. Atmospheric emissions – check.
Me: Did you check for storm-surge risk?
Report: No! No-one asked us to. But there are no Aboriginal sites being disturbed and that’s the main thing.
You know what could fix this? A single visit by an independent sea-level-rise expert. A geomorphologist. There are lots of these folk around but no-one seems willing to invite one to the party. This sand-mining operation might pose no risk whatsoever but we cannot possibly know that unless we ask an expert.
Anyway, I said at the outset that this article isn’t about campaigning for action (though I would heartily join in if so called upon), so for now let’s leave our case study and move on to my main point: why inaction on sea level rise (and no doubt on many other environmental issues) is precisely what we should expect.
Part II – Somebody else’s problem
You might be familiar with the notion of the tragedy of the commons. It’s where you derive a personal benefit at the cost of everyone else. Say we’re each allowed one cow to graze on the “common”, and everyone chips in to feed and look after them. But if I sneak another cow onto the paddock late one night, I get two cows worth of milk while everyone else foots the hay bill. The tragedy of the commons is one of the underlying principles behind greed and corruption, and also simple social matters like not picking up my dog’s poo. Someone else will do it because it’s their land too and they’ll happily work to keep it tidy. I win.
But there’s more to our sand-mining issue than this kind of tragedy, and it has to do with isolation, both geographical and temporal. My mate at the Department is not, and will never be, personally affected if a storm washes away South Arm Road. He doesn’t live down there, the repair costs won’t come out of his pocket, and in any case when that day comes he’ll be long retired or at least working in another job.
Will we blame him retrospectively for not looking into the matter with more vigour? Fat chance. And because the question of liability has been avoided, chances are that someone else – maybe the Feds? – will cover the cost of repairs anyway.
In fact, he could argue (I say “he” but I’m talking about the department as a whole) that he did his due diligence, by commissioning that report way back in 2015. From a bureaucratic point of view, box ticked, job done. On the face of it, “we commissioned a report and it came back all clear”, is enough. Indeed most of the time it is enough because, for the same reasons of isolation, no-one is ever going to properly interrogate the foundations of the report nor its findings. We simply don’t care enough. Or at least, the people with any influence don’t care enough. What they might care about, perhaps, are the ramifications of making waves that could harm someone’s commercial operation.
I briefly mentioned the Clarence City Council’s stance on this. On my request they kindly looked into the issue of responsibility and subsequently sent me a report which said, it’s got nothing to do with us, ask the state government. Once again this is a case of job done, case closed. They took my request, looked into the matter, then sent me a written report to the effect that they couldn’t help. They did everything correctly; the fact that there was no real investigation into the matter is utterly irrelevant.
The alderman and staff member who handled my query are isolated from the problem too. When the road floods at some point in the future they’ll be long gone. It’ll be some future, unknown council’s problem to deal with. What then became of the suggestion from UNSW, seven years ago, that the area be monitored? Pretty much zero it seems, despite the council’s proudly displaying the report on its website as evidence that they’re doing something about climate change.
Even the operator of the mine doesn’t have anything to worry about. Let’s say that one day soon a massive storm smashes the ever-thinning dune system and destroys the roadway. Is it his fault? Not in the slightest. He did the right thing – he got the experts to look into it and they gave their blessing. A more cynical person than myself might also add that even if he did suspect his operation might be a little risky in the circumstances, he, personally, will have benefitted from years of profitable activity. He and his family can afford to move away. The rest of us will be left with the bill. This is tragedy of the commons, writ large.
The point is that all this business takes effort. I have no doubt that the people involved are quite busy during their working day, commissioning reports, holding consultation meetings, responding to emails like mine. But what’s the point of doing all this work if the outcome has no meaning? From a sea level rise perspective, writing the environmental management plan for the site at South Arm was a complete waste of time, though it clearly took a long time and cost a tidy sum.
Why bother? Because it’s how our bureaucracy needs to work. Everyone must be kept busy doing stuff even though there’s not much point to lots of it. David does his job. The consultant is engaged. There are meetings. The mining operator pays some money. We get a report to show how everything is working smoothly. And around we go again, with the answer we’re really looking for remaining just out of reach (though you could argue that we’re not reaching very hard, nor in the right direction). Meanwhile, the lucky few who benefit from this lack of action are free to drive off into the sunset, their trucks loaded with the goods.
In biology there’s a concept known as ‘futile cycling’. To cut a long story short, imagine a reaction where two metabolic pathways run simultaneously in opposite directions and have no overall effect other than to dissipate energy in the form of heat. It’s actually a useful phenomenon, and has the result of generating energy, perhaps to power an insect’s wings or to keep a bear warm during hibernation.
Bureaucracy is a bit like that: lots of activity but not much to show for it apart from hot air. Does it serve a purpose? You betcha. Jobs and growth, mostly.
At a time when the rest of the world is building seawalls and preparing for more-frequent extreme coastal storm surge events, why the heck are we digging a big hole on a narrow sandspit – the only way in and out of the South Arm peninsula – without the blessing of a sea level rise expert? Sadly the answer is clear to me now. It’s somebody else’s problem.
I emailed David from the Department one final time with a question I hoped would bring the matter to a resolution.
“In light of the recent events in Collaroy, which demonstrate the sensitivity of coastal dune systems to storm surge and subsequent liability issues that can arise, is the Tasmanian Government satisfied that the sand mining operations on the South Arm spit do not pose a significant risk in terms of inundation of the spit/highway resulting from a storm surge event?”
For the first time in our long correspondence history I got no response.
One more piece of information that might tickle you. The sand mine I’m talking about is at one end of a narrow isthmus. Guess what’s at the other end? Another sand mine.
3 Environmental Management Plan Review for Males Sand Mine South Arm, July 2015, Pitt & Sherry.
*Bruce Ransley is a former commercial diver who got tired of being cold and wet. He now runs Impress, a communications consultancy, working with people of all shapes and sizes to help them get to the point: www.impress-cc.com.au
• William Boeder in Comments: Bravo Bruce Ransley …
• Denis Cartledge in Comments: Great article. This would appear to be along the lines of what Fisheries people are experiencing worldwide. I suspect the wrong people are being targetted. If you want action (slightly) quicker than State and Local Government, try alerting the real estate trade. They are the ones who do have something to lose – their commissions, when land in Opossum Bay slumps due to its untimely inaccessibility.;-)
• Duncan Mills in Comments: Great and valuable case study of systemic failure. Be interesting to take it further to risk and economic analysis. South Arm residents and their insurers might be interested. The council once notified of the risk, becomes legally obliged to act to mitigate the risk, otherwise they (and the state) may become legally liable for compensation to all who suffer loss. A letter to the Insurance Council of Australia with cost/risk estimates might get useful traction. This is the paradigm governments/ treasurers comprehend … their only way to understand complexity.
• Di Elliffe in Comments: Brilliant case study of systemic failure in natural resource management in Tasmania – well probably this could apply in many places. Everyone ticking the boxes and no-one asking the hard questions or making the tough decisions.