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The Australian Coastal Zone and Global Change: Research Needs

Australian Academy of Science, Becker House, Canberra. Friday 16 December 1994

Opening Address

Professor Bruce Thom

Thank you, Graham, ladies and gentlemen. I think it is a tribute to Colin's energies and interests that we have been able to come together today to have these discussions, which I hope will be very fruitful and lead to action that would be of great assistance to the Australian community. Also I think Australia can be an example for other countries in the way in which its knowledge and understanding of coastal-zone processes and change can be used and applied in other areas.

I have been very privileged in recent years to have been involved, in one form or another, in various aspects of the coastal zone, in trying to determine and shape its future. In some respects, the perspective I bring on the coastal zone has now become quite schizophrenic. It has been fashioned from a foundation in science based on my training as a coastal geomorphologist and a love of discovering how various processes have, over time, modified and changed the coastal zone. This scientific interest is today being enhanced by a concern for the future as environmental forces, modified by human actions, have the potential for creating shifts in shoreline position, and increasing levels of coastal vulnerability and biotic conditions which need to be predicted. I guess the basis for the IGBP as a whole flows from that overlying concern that we all have for a future which is so uncertain, given the nature of forces which are causing changes to environmental conditions.

However, this mind-set has been disturbed by the realities of an involvement in the actions of governments, private entities, and individuals who seek to change the coast for their own ends. As a participant in government inquiries, as a member of a government policy and coordination committee and as an adviser on specific government actions in coastal-zone planning and management, I have been exposed to the machinations of political and bureaucratic processes that influence coastal-zone decision-making.

Thus, the experience of the past few years has offered me a chance to see just how effective can be the deliberations of the scientific community, in providing guidance to those empowered to make decisions on how the coastal zone is used.

The current state of affairs, in my view, is quite mixed. On the one hand there is clear evidence of an infiltration, or penetration, of certain scientific concepts related to global warming and climate change into the public domain. I think the most recent example is the broad understanding of ENSO on Australian climate, as seen now increasingly with the weekly graphs on television, highlighting movements in the Southern Oscillation Index. The use of this in the farming community in particular, in making decisions about the purchase of fodder - something that I am witnessing in my new life in the bush at Armidale - is something that the grazing community is taking very, very seriously and is showing quite considerable understanding about. However, the translation of the understanding of that phenomenon into changes in patterns of sedimentation on beaches is far from being understood, let alone communicated, to a wider community.

What I have identified is the existence of two separate cultures, with both cultures having interests in the coastal zone. These two cultures are responsible in different ways to society for leadership and direction in what will happen concerning the future use of the coastal zone. My general thesis is that, unless there is effective communication and a better working relationship between these two cultures, mistakes are inevitable and costs to society over the next few decades will increase.

We in this room are quite familiar with the first culture: that represented by the scientific community. It is based on the spirit of inquiry and on continuous development of an understanding of how the coastal zone, as a biophysical entity, functions. We use established methodologies to conduct our various studies and, through these studies, become more and more familiar with the scientific problems of coastal-zone research. Our interest as scientists is often quite specific and, traditionally, we communicate our findings through specialist conference papers and in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

The IGBP, through its various core projects, has opened up another avenue for communication and interaction and can assist scientists from different countries in addressing common issues of concern that are arising as a result of global change, for instance in problems of sea-level rise, changes in storminess, water quality fluctuations, impact of biotic destruction on coastal fishing productivity - these are all various matters that come under the purview of the studies associated with this core project of the IGBP which we will be discussing in various forms today, both from an international perspective and from an Australian perspective.

My involvement generally with the IGBP has shown two things that are relevant to the coastal zone. Firstly, there is an intense interest by scientists from many countries, especially those in the less developed world, in learning more about coastal environment change. I think at the IGBP level the interest shown by a great number of countries in the coast was one that dominated the thinking as to why this particular core project should have a vast outreach not only at the international level, not only at the national level, but right down to the local level, if that is at all possible.

Secondly, the IGBP is a capable organisation, which has proven over the last five years to be an effective forum for communication amongst the scientific community in an interdisciplinary way - that is how it was set up - and now it has to have that outreach into the broader decision-making community.

Well, that then brings me to the second culture and this culture is, in some respects, more diffuse, but locally very powerful and capable of instigating changes in the human use of the coastal zone without recourse to the enormous efforts of scientists. I refer of course to the planning and management fraternity, backed by political pressures from diverse interest groups. This fraternity in Australia is based in local and state governments - less influential at the federal level - and is supported by a range of engineering and environmental consultants, who serve as the main advisers to these decision makers. Pressures from such groups, as well as special interest and community organisations such as the National Farmers Federation or the nature conservation councils in different places, has led to numerous inquiries and policy revisions conducted as a result of political action, often with minimal consultation with scientists. I think the recent Resource Assessment Commission inquiry is testimony to one of the myriad of inquiries that have gone on with minimal scientific input.

This inquiry that was set up by Federal Government which rejected the advice of senior members of the bureaucracy in Canberra to have a natural scientist as one of its three commissioners and replaced the nominated person by a second economist.

I have observed the gap between these two cultures - a gap which sometimes closes, yielding optimism, but can sometimes be quite wide, and that is frightening. These cultures publish in separate journals. They frequently attend different conferences. The background training is often not compatible with easy communication, or even trust, and they use different acronyms (DA, REP, LEP, SEPP, Section 117 direction compared to LOICZ, WOCE, TOGA).

Each culture then has its own aspirations. For many in science the end result is a publication, for the planner or engineer it is a new marina, or ocean outfall for sewerage to meet the demands of increasing population concentrating in the coastal zone.

My experience as Chair of the Coastal Committee for the New South Wales Government has been very revealing in this connection. It has shown an interest in the science, but is increasingly failing to communicate that interest, through its sponsored conferences, to local government planners, engineers and managers. It is a policy development and coordination committee driven by political pragmatism, whilst retaining certain principles which its specialist representatives bring to the committee. As a policy body it must advise the New South Wales Government on such vital matters as to what is the coastal zone. Definitions have to be practical and mappable. A lot in this particular document - the draft revised coastal policy for New South Wales - hinges in terms of its implementation on what will be the Government's coastal zone for New South Wales.

OH 1: option 1

Overhead 1

Currently the coastal zone is defined under the present coastal policy as a one-kilometre strip back from high water mark but excluding estuaries and coastal embayments (Overhead 1). The Coastal Committee in New South Wales has advocated or put forward a number of options, one of which includes the estuaries and the lakes (Overhead 2). There are many interest groups in New South Wales that would not wish to see that particular definition applied, and all matters associated with environmental change, such as that associated with sea-level rise and changes in storminess, that might be relevant to that broadened definition, would not apply if the first definition was retained.

OH 2: option 2

Overhead 2

The revised coastal policy is seeking public input on the coastal zone and its definition; interestingly, 200 submissions have been received since that policy has been on exhibition, and only five submissions have indicated retention of the current very limited definition.

Well, how do we overcome this gap between these two cultures? I think various measures can be proposed. There is a need for scientists to go beyond the publication of their scientific results in the peer-review journals. They must be prepared to publicise their findings in other fora. There must be opportunities for the scientists to meet more regularly with the key bureaucrats in government, as well as with the politicians, to inform them on the nature of their findings. It is very important for short courses to be offered through the universities to those in local government and state government who have responsibilities in advising their elected representatives about matters concerning environmental change. I would also suggest there needs to be opportunities, for secondments from the scientific community into various levels of government to assist in the processes of communication.

Greater awareness of research findings into the broader community is happening in the coastal zone arena, but is it happening fast enough and is it effective enough? I do not think it is. The Commonwealth Government can take a leadership role here. I welcome the initiatives coming out of the Commonwealth Government, particularly through the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and now coming through the Cabinet, in formulating a national policy which may assist in closing this gap. Thank you very much.

Professor Graham Farquhar: Thanks very much, Bruce. Now if I could call one of the key bureaucrats, and I do not use it as a term of abuse, Gerry. It is obviously important we do get better connections between science and government. We actually had a brief session on that on Monday. It is a thing that we need to go further on but I might just say, from a personal point of view, that Gerry Morvell at DEST is one of the few people that you can really contact at any time and get good straight answers from. It is a pleasure for me to welcome you here and ask you to speak on the national approach to coastal management. Thank you, Gerry.