Deciding for the coast: a guide for effective decision making

Would the owners of this boat shed be given a permit to build now, knowing what we know about sea-level rise around Western Port?


Title : Making decisions now for future climates: getting the process right

 G Hunt, South East Councils Climate Change Alliance, Vic

P Kinrade, Marsden Jacob Associates, Vic


Local councils are at the front line for many climate change impacts. This is particularly the case with coastal councils dealing with sea level rise, storm surges and storm tides. As the statutory planning agency, the provider of community safety through drainage measures and assets managers dealing with materials degradation, to name just some climate change impacts that require response, councils must work over the long-term in carrying out their important work.

 However, over the long term the precise nature of these climate change impacts cannot be determined with great accuracy, nor can their magnitude and frequency. Despite this, councils must make decisions which are appropriate, proportionate and safe from challenge.

 In this presentation, decision-making guides for climate change response will be presented. They were developed through a collaboration of groupings of local governments in NSW and in Victoria with socio-economic consultancy Marsden Jacob Associates. Decision Support for Adaptation was developed for NSW’s Hunter and Central Coast Regional Environmental Management Strategy while Deciding for the Coast – a guide to effective adaptation decision making was developed for Victoria’s South East Councils Climate Change Alliance. Both guides help councils make rigorous and defendable coastal management decisions in the face of climate change.

 DeciThe first part of the presentation will focus on the climate change issues that councils are dealing with and some of the responses that they are making. Focus will then turn to the decision-making process developed through the collaboration. There will be an in-depth look at the steps in the decision-process and the tools that have been developed through which good decisions can be made. Using these tools can give council and communities alike the confidence that the most-soundly based responses are being made to the climate change impacts that are now becoming apparent but will become a bigger challenge in the future.


In jurisdictions across Australia, local government is the responsible authority for the operation of land use planning. Local government is the provider of community services, from aged care to children’s services, local government provides local roads and drainage systems, recreation facilities and emergency preparedness and response. Climate change impacts can affect local government’s delivery of all of these.

To find out what effects climate change might have on councils’ delivery of services, SECCCA, the South East Councils Climate Change Alliance (see, conducted a project reported upon in People, Property and Places: Impacts of Climate Change on Human Settlements in the Western Port Region, June, 2008  (1) and in Impacts of Climate Change on Human Settlements in the Western Port Region: Climate Change Risks and Adaptations, released in October 2008 (2).

Through the project, CSIRO was commissioned to develop projections for likely climate change impacts with respect to sea level rise, storm surge, extreme rainfall, windiness and storms, average rainfall, average and extreme temperatures and fire weather in the Western Port region to Melbourne’s south-east. Marsden Jacob Associates then applied the projections and assessed the impacts on the communities and the infrastructure on which they depend for five councils that surround Western Port. An example of the impacts and the consequent risks can be found in Appendix 2. Each council then conducted risk assessments to identify the high-priority risks that required them to respond.

Table 1. Priority Climate Change Risks, Western Port Region

Risk Risk description Climate variable(s)
1 Uncertainty over or lack of planning controls in areas affected by coastal inundation and/or flooding Sea level rise / intense rainfall
2 Loss or degradation of beaches and foreshore areas Sea level rise / intense rainfall
3 Flooding of essential public infrastructure in low lying areas Sea level rise / intense rainfall
4 Loss of road access due to coastal inundation and/or flooding Sea level rise / intense rainfall
5 Increased flash flooding due to drainage system being overwhelmed Intense rainfall
6 Increase in frequency or intensity of wildfires Fire weather
7 Increased community anxiety about climate change and loss of wellbeing, especially amongst vulnerable groups Various
8 Loss of use of sports grounds and other recreational areas Temperature / average rainfall
9 Loss of biodiversity, especially coastal and freshwater biodiversity Various
10 Health impacts of extreme temperatures Temperature

 Page 8, Impacts of Climate Change on Human Settlements in the Western Port Region: Climate Change Risks and Adaptations October 2008

Challenges for councils

In conducting their statutory obligations and in providing for their communities within the context of these projected changes, councils face significant challenges.

How can coastal planning be managed when the coast itself is eroding and there is regular inundation? How should new residential developments be designed to collect rainfall, protect local biodiversity and provide shade? Can outdoor staff avoid the health impacts of extreme temperature and deliver meals on wheels when the temperature is over 38o C? Should roads be upgraded to raise them above flood levels and what diameter culverts should be used? Can playing grounds be resurfaced with drought-tolerant grasses? How and where could fire refuges be sited to help communities survive more frequent and intense bushfires

These are the practical implications of climate change for the responsibilities of local government and for which they must make provision. But how do they provide? There are heavy resource implications in making decisions and they had better be good decisions. Is the proposed response to a climate change impact proportionate? Timely? Effective?

But we are talking about the future and the uncertainty that that must entail. If the impacts cannot be quantified with any precision, is it possible to delay decisions and so redirect funds to immediate quantifiable needs? Can we be positive that we are not proposing a maladaptation rather than something that will be effective?

Responding to these challenges – effective decision making

The Australian Government’s then Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency conducted the Coastal Adaptation Decision Pathways Program to assist decision makers respond to current needs in coastal adaptation even though the impacts to which they must respond might be some time into the future.

The South East Councils Climate Change Alliance, on behalf of its four Western Port council members (Mornington Peninsula, Casey, Cardinia and Bass Coast) conducted the project Deciding for the coast as one of the thirteen national Coastal Adaptation Decision Pathways projects. Through the project, a decision support guide and support tools for implementing adaptation planning actions around Western Port was developed.

Climate change is indeed a diabolical policy problem, as Ross Garnaut claimed in his Climate Change Review Update (i). Decisions on such matters are needed now, as some of the impacts are already being felt, but many decisions are for future contexts. Given the asset life of, for example, a proposed coastal development, the decision to be made now must take into account the future conditions over the relevant time –period. How do we give confidence now that we have the future covered when we face uncertainty now?

But wait, there’s more! The decisions that we need to make will usually involve many different players, as planners, asset managers and risk managers talk to chief financial officers to secure provision for events that might occur. There might also need to be external agencies and third parties to be involved – and then there’re the proponents and community members who might claim an involvement in making and implementing decisions. To manage this potential maelstrom, clear processes and sound governance for focusing on the precise problem, for including those who need to be included and for aligning views and approaches are needed.

The very nature of climate change, including the unknowable magnitude and frequency of its future impacts, means that more and better data, while possibly helpful, isn’t the real issue. The decision-makers’ appetite for risk, their preparedness to exercise leadership and even the local politics surrounding the decision, comprise real issues.

Where there are different futures there’ll inevitably be different priorities for one over another, and therefore different pathways in achieving one’s preferred future. Because of the contested nature of planning, there are many, many questions that must be answered. What is the objective? Over what timeline? How much money is available? Whose responsibility anyway is it?

Getting the process right involves finding agreement on these and many other questions. As anyone will tell you, the planning stage of a project is crucial; as the adage has it ‘this is important so we must go slowly’. There is a strong need to enter the process with an aligning of views regarding the objectives to be decided. Only then can the decision workbook and guide that is discussed in this presentation be opened and work can start!

The intention of the decision guide is to build practitioner and community confidence that the decisions being made are going to be effective, practicable and affordable. Decision-makers have difficult things to do and we must be prepared to support them as they do them. With high confidence in a competent, formal and transparent process comes a preparedness to accept and support the results, recommendations and actions that it produces. The decision guide is to stiffen the resolve of the decision makers for doing this.

Overview of the guide and underpinning framework

The intention of the Guide is to assist coastal decision makers undertake a consistent and rigorous approach to assessing and implementing adaptation responses in vulnerable coastal areas. The focus of the Guide is on strategic decision making, with a particular focus on land use planning and infrastructure.

The Guide sets out 10 main stages in the decision making process (Figure 1), providing detailed guidance at each stage as follows:

Structuring the problem

  • Stage 1 Define the issue or problem;
  • Stage 2 Clarify roles & responsibilities;
  • Stage 3 Establish the decision-making objective;
  • Stage 4 Assess hazards and risks;

Analysis of adaptation options

  • Stage 5 Identify options and pathways;
  • Stage 6 Establish thresholds and triggers;
  • Stage 7 Assess options;
  • Stage 8 Manage risk and uncertainty in the assessment;

Managing adaptation response

  • Stage 9 Select and implement preferred options;
  • Stage 10 Monitor and evaluate outcomes.

Each stage involves a number of steps, with each step setting out a range of choices and thereby potential adaptation pathways.

Figure1. Stages and steps in the adaptation decision-making process

 Guide development was directed by a number of core principles notably that decision making on long term, strategic issues such as climate change, should be objective focussed. Guidance is provided to decision makers with the purpose of ensuring that coastal management objectives (whatever they may be) can be achieved efficiently and effectively given the uncertainties and vagaries of climate change. 

The guide is not prescriptive however. The focus of the guide is on ensuring that the process is rigorous, consistent, transparent and consultative rather than making any assumptions about coastal management objectives or how those objectives are best achieved.

Another important principle underpinning guide development is that the decision making process will be iterative. This means that the order in which the stages are applied by decision makers will vary from issue to issue, that the process will often jump backwards and forwards between stages and that the process will be subject to frequent review with the potential of changing adaptation responses over time. Given this, considerable emphasis is placed in the guide to maximising the flexibility of adaptation responses so as to ensure that actions implemented now do not curtail the potential for different actions in the future should new information or changed circumstances warrant a change in direction.

Reflecting these principles the decision framework set out in the guide is not fundamentally different to the framework that could (and arguably should) be applied to strategic decision making on a range of other, non-climate issues. However, there are some features of the framework that are particularly significant for climate change adaptation, especially coastal adaptation.  These are emphasised in the guide and include:

  • the value of grouping adaptation options into ‘bundles’ or ‘portfolios’ of options recognising that a strategic response to coastal adaptation won’t be a achieved through any single action but will generally require a number of complementary actions;
  • mapping bundles into alternative adaptation pathways over time (see Figure 2);
  • distinguishing between ‘flexible’ and ‘inflexible’ options within adaptation pathways and the implications of this for different pathways and for options assessment;
  • considering the question of ‘thresholds’ and ‘triggers’[1], which are important for informing the timeframe for implementing preferred adaptation pathways; and
  • considering and selecting the most appropriate technique for managing climate and non-climate risks and uncertainties in the options assessment process.

The Guide is supported by a workbook, which provides checklists of the major steps to be completed in the decision-making process and worksheets to assist decision-makers step through the decision-making process and record key relevant information.


Figure2. Illustrative example of coastal adaptation options ‘mapped’ as a flowchart, so as to provide a visual representation of alternative adaptation pathways. Depending on the circumstance and specifics of options, a green pathways could be regarded as flexible, an orange pathway as less flexible and a red pathway as inflexible.

Application of the guide and workbook

The guide and workbook are now being applied by coastal councils in NSW and Victoria to assist them with decision making on coastal planning and adaptation. A number of councils in the central coast of NSW for example, are drawing on the guide to develop their coastal zone management plans. The plans are prepared in accordance with the NSW Coastal Protection Act (1979) and provide a context for land use and development in areas affected by coastal hazards. Coastal hazards, like coastal erosion, that are already happening are considered in the plans as are hazards, like sea level rise, that are expected to take effect in the coming decades.

While specifically developed for coastal councils in NSW and Victoria, the fundamentals of the guide could be applied by coastal councils elsewhere and by other coastal decision makers (e.g. state government agencies or other service providers).  Moreover given, as previously noted, that the decision framework established in the guide is not fundamentally different to strategic decision making on a range of other, non-climate issues, there is no reason why the guide could not be applied to any number of issues that are strategically focused. Indeed, aspects of the guide have already been used to assist with developing a heat wave strategy for parts of the Central Coast and Hunter Valley region of NSW and also with the development of a regional waste management strategy.  Likewise, a similar framework to the one outlined here is currently being used to assist with developed a water security strategy for the Pacific Island Country of Tuvalu.


Local councils are at the front line for many climate change impacts, especially coastal councils dealing coastal hazards such as erosion and sea level rise. For those councils, as with other levels of government and service delivery agencies, response to climate change has now moved beyond understanding the potential impacts and risks associated with climate change to how to make decisions on climate change response that are rigorous, robust and have the support of the community.  The decision support framework presented here provides guidance on this important question.


  1. People, Property and Places: Impacts of Climate Change on Human Settlements in the Western Port Region, June, 2008
  2. Impacts of Climate Change on Human Settlements in the Western Port Region: Climate Change Risks and Adaptations, October 2008
  3. Garnaut Climate Change Review Update 2011 
  5. Deciding for the coast: a guide for decision-making on cost effective adaptation, Guide and Workbook, Marsden Jacob Associates, September 2014



The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility has been supporting a very wide range of research and other projects that will be of assistance. These can be found on the Local Government portal on NCCARF’s website < >. Look particularly under the Research and Publications tabs to see material of relevance to your issues.

[1] A threshold can be defined as a point or minimum level at which a possibly irreversible change or unacceptable level risk happened. In the case of decision-making, a trigger is used to indicate when a management response is required and/or an option implemented to ensure that the threshold is not crossed.