Where to draw the line: understanding responses of Australian coastal communities to sea level rise adaptation policies



Publication Details

Alexander, K. S., Ryan, A., Gorddard, R., Wise, R. & Leitch, A. (2012). Where to draw the line: understanding responses of Australian coastal communities to sea level rise adaptation policies. Planet Under Pressure 2012 Elseiver.


The public tend to be poorly equipped to deal with scientific uncertainty, confused by expert disagreement, and tend to lack a personal connection with complex, long term 'global' issues. Consequently, controversial, unpopular and socially divisive climate change adaptation policies are unlikely to be accepted over the longer-term. In this situation it is important for policymakers to understand more about community concerns, match policy to community needs and to give the community a greater sense of ownership over development of adaptive sea level rise policies. Stronger links and improved communication between mangers, policy makers and scientists is needed to reassure the public that policy decisions will be informed by the bestavailable science, and that the public's interests have been taken into account. This paper explores public responses to an interim sea level rise policy imposed on a small coastal community, in Australia. A meta-theoretical social functionalist framework has been used to decipher responses where people appear to act intuitively as scientists, economists, politicians, prosecutors and theologians when considering adaptation policies. In this framework, the pragmatic politician reserves commitment to a position while confronted by the uncertainly of others' views. The principled theologian espouses moral community viewpoints that enshrine sacred values and moral codes which regulate lives and has transcendental significance. The prudent prosecutors seek to defend rules and regimes that are seen as socially legitimate. The research found that individuals used these multiple functional perspectives in forming attitudes towards adaptation policies. The findings reinforce the need for further public debate on how to respond to sea level rise, and emphasize that different individuals frame the purpose of those debates in distinct ways; to reach the most accurate, optimal and socially acceptable or morally appropriate response, depending upon what is inherently important to them dictated by their social functionalist position.

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