Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 581–593

Integration, synthesis and climate change adaptation: a narrative based on coastal wetlands at the regional scale


  • Jennifer G. Burley
    • CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences
    • CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences
  • Kerry A. Collins
    • CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences
  • Catherine E. Lovelock
    • School of Biological SciencesUniversity of Queensland
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10113-011-0271-4

Cite this article as:
Burley, J.G., McAllister, R.R.J., Collins, K.A. et al. Reg Environ Change (2012) 12: 581. doi:10.1007/s10113-011-0271-4


The idea that integration and synthesis are critical for designing climate change adaptation and mitigation is well entrenched conceptually. Here, we review the concepts of adaptation, synthesis and integration and apply them to the case study of coastal wetlands in South East Queensland, Australia. The distribution and condition of coastal wetlands will change as climate changes. This will create conservation challenges and economic costs, but these can be minimised by drawing from a broad sectoral perspective in undertaking adaptation planning and by ensuring integration into policy. Our review indicates that adaptations to sea level rise that are focussed on wetland and biodiversity conservation are likely to have impacts for urbanisation patterns. Planning regulations that provide spatial buffering around wetlands may give rise to more compact urban forms that may lead to reductions in the cost of defence against sea level rise, reduce energy usage per person and provide more green space. However, more compact urban forms could exacerbate heat island effects and place greater burden on the economically disadvantaged as, for example, single-family homes become more expensive. Planning for climate change needs to balance these equity and cross-sectoral issues in order to reduce the likelihood of unforeseen negative consequences.


Regional planningMoreton baySunshine coastGold coastGovernanceBrisbaneMangrovesSalt marsh


Humans adapt to changes in their conditions, but human adaptation is complex and prone to some degree of failure. Underlying this complexity is the fact that human adaptation occurs across scales of time and space and involves the interactions between institutions, societies and environmental drivers. A looming new ingredient to add to the underlying complexity of adaptation is climate change. Climate change will test and strain many of our existing mechanisms for adaptation. Adaptation has been well studied—but climate change will force us to readdress our understanding and to rethink and expand our theoretical and practical toolkits (Jäger and Moll 2011; Klein et al. 2007; Nelson et al. 2007).

Here, we explore concepts and terminology employed by the climate change adaptation literature, and we apply these to the case of adaptation of coastal wetland management. Adaptation and the related concepts of synthesis and integration are still fairly nebulous in climate adaptation science. We unpack these concepts to help structure what types of lessons their application may yield for the management of coastal wetlands with climate change. Globally, coastal wetlands are at risk, both from human changes to coastal systems, including urban, agricultural and aquaculture developments, and because of climate change (Alongi 2002; Day et al. 2008). Complex interactions among sea level rise, other climate change impacts (e.g. changes in rainfall, temperature and intense storms) and human modifications of the coasts place wetlands, and the biodiversity that is dependent on them, at risk (e.g. Hartig et al. 2002; Silliman et al. 2005).

At one level, how humans implement strategies for adapting wetlands to sea level rise will be narrowly focused at local scales (e.g. on particular wetlands or particular structures that defend against sea level rise). However, the success of adaptation can be evaluated by using the principles of effectiveness, efficiency, equity and legitimacy. To achieve success, toolkits for adapting to climate change need to be broader in their thinking. Coastal wetland management goals focussed on the maintenance of wetlands alone can have unanticipated affects across sectors. We argue that these effects need to be integrated and synthesised in order to develop robust and successful adaptation strategies for communities.

South East Queensland is a 22,890 km2 region on the east coast of Australia. The region includes 160 km2 of coastal wetlands comprised of melaleuca swamp, mangroves, salt marsh and salt pans that provide a range of ecosystem services, including the support of commercial and recreational fisheries (Fig. 1). An International Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (‘the Ramsar convention’) site occurs in the region, as do a number of wetlands of national significance (which are subject to National legislation). The wide variety of coastal wetlands are contained and managed within: (1) State parks (managed by the Queensland Government, e.g., Moreton Bay Marine Park); (2) local parks (managed by the six coastal local councils of the region, e.g., Tinchi Tamba Wetland Reserve); and (3) privately owned land and unallocated state land (where wetland management is regulated by the Queensland Government).
Fig. 1

Wetlands of South East Queensland

Climate change will affect how wetlands are managed through a range of processes. Sea level rise in particular will influence coastal wetlands as they migrate inland (upslope) and as habitats change, e.g., mangroves invade salt marsh (Lovelock and Ellison 2007; Saintilan and Williams 1999). But land management (e.g. urban expansion on the coast, clearing upstream, agricultural practices) and the effects of climate change in the catchments (e.g. which influence nutrient and sediment run-off) will also influence how wetlands will be affected by climate change. These catchment level factors involve an additional suite of stakeholders (beyond those directly on the coasts).

Adaptation to sea level rise on the coast is likely to include new approaches to coastal management, including improved planning and design of coastal defences. However, conceptual thinking on adaptation to sea level rise in the coastal zone calls for more innovative thinking. There is a need to synthesise understandings and to look at the opportunities and barriers across sectors and scales. Here, we analyse how key concepts of climate adaptation can be employed to help structure this challenge. First, we provide the background concepts of adaptation and synthesis. We then apply these concepts to the adaptation of coastal wetlands to climate change, considering the impacts and options for adaptation of coastal wetlands to climate change derived from the literature. Following this, we explore the possible outcomes of the adaptation options in terms of their integration across sectors (and barriers to integration) and potential impacts on equity within our society.


Defining adaptation

Adaptation is a continuous process concerned with relationships between characteristics, processes and outcomes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change define adaptation as the natural or human system adjustment in response to climate stimuli or their effects (IPCC 2007a). Adaptation either moderates harm or exploits opportunity. It can be categorised according to the timing of planning decisions, whether it reduces sensitivity and/or exposure or increases the resilience of affected systems (Adger et al. 2005). Adaptation measures can also vary along a number of different dimensions, such as spatial or temporal scale, sector, type of action, actor, climatic zone and baseline income (IPCC 2007a).

Different types of adaptation processes can be distinguished, including anticipatory, reactive, planned and autonomous adaptation. Anticipatory adaptation (or proactive adaptation) takes place before the impacts of climate change are observed, pre-empting the action that is required (Tol et al. 2008). Reactive adaptation consists of measures that are taken in response to climate change after the fact (Fankhauser et al. 1999). Planned adaptation results from deliberate policy decisions in response to either actual or expected change, where policy actions are required to return to, maintain or achieve a desired state (IPCC 2007a). Autonomous adaptation (or spontaneous adaptation) does not constitute a conscious response to climatic stimuli. Rather it is triggered by ecological changes in natural systems and by market or welfare changes in human systems (Adger et al. 2005 p869; IPCC 2007a; Nelson et al. 2007).

In practice, the distinction between types of adaptation can be unclear. Adaptation measures are characterised as anticipatory or reactive depending on their timing. However, given the continuous nature of climate change and adaptation, there is uncertainty surrounding timing and thus a mix of anticipatory and reactive responses are undertaken (Fankhauser et al. 1999). Similarly, the distinction between autonomous and planned adaptation can be blurred and dependent on the perspective from which the measure is observed. For example, when primary producers switch crops and management practices, the government perspective is that this action is autonomous, but from the producers’ perspective, this is very much planned (Fankhauser et al. 1999). An environmental change framework reconciles some of these definitional tensions by treating adaptation as an ongoing process of negotiation where decision making depends on the power of certain actors to implement those decisions (Nelson et al. 2007).

Underpinning all types of adaptation is the concept of adaptive capacity, which is the precondition for adaptation to disturbances based on the abilities and resources of all levels of society (see Adger et al. 2005; Nelson et al. 2007). Latent capacity to adapt is demonstrated by society scale institutions that buffer climatic variability (e.g. dryland institutions, Oba 2001). The recent pace of climate change is exposing shortcomings in adaptive capacity, particularly in the most vulnerable societies (e.g. Inuit communities, Ford 2009). Adaptive capacity is not a fixed trait of a system but has scalar dependencies, being dependent on the length and frequency of perturbations, the spatial extent of perturbations and the organisational scale of focus (Nelson et al. 2007). Other case studies show that uncertainty surrounding climate change inhibits action (e.g. Ford et al. 2010).

Synthesis and stages of developing and evaluating adaptive options

Achieving effective adaptation requires a comprehensive approach to managing the full continuum of climate risks, regardless of their cause, and cross-sectoral integration of adaptation policies (Adger et al. 2005; Burton et al. 2006). This describes the process of synthesis.

In the context of climate adaptation, synthesis can be undertaken at a number of different levels. At the whole of government level, synthesis involves the collation of individual sectoral policies from across all sectors (that have already had climate adaptation strategies integrated into them) and developing them into a cohesive and consistent strategy that reflects the numerous different interactions between policies. At the sectoral level, synthesis can mean bringing together individual climate change policies (both adaptation and mitigation) and other policies, both from within the sector and from other relevant sectors, to form a cohesive strategy.

The process of synthesis can be conceived of as a separate cycle that feeds into the adaptive management cycle that occurs at the sectoral level (Fig. 2). Identifying the trade-offs and synergies of a particular adaptation strategy may involve an expanded process within adaptive management. Adaptive management subscribes a process of plan—implement—monitor and evaluate—adapt. To increase synthesis within the adaptive management cycle, the planning phase could include a loop of testing the impacts of the adaptation action in other sectors, and the monitoring and evaluation phases may need to be broader, for example, considering the attainment of goals in biodiversity and agricultural sectors concurrently. The key node in the new ‘synthesis’loop is in the development (and subsequent redevelopment) of the adaptive pathways.
Fig. 2

The process of synthesis under an adaptive management cycle

The modified adaptive management cycle provides scope, via the composite capacities of various stages, for the identification of impact and initial options for adaptation (indicated as stage ‘A’ in the following section). The modified adaptive management cycle also provides scope to improve synthesis, via:
  • Evaluation of the path to impact through integration into policy termed ‘mainstreaming’. This process is indicated as stage ‘B’ later.

  • Evaluation of effectiveness, efficiency, equity and legitimacy as a means of evaluating the impact of adaptive options across sectors (i.e. primarily consider impact of adaptation on income distribution). This process is indicated as stage ‘C’ later.

Synthesis aims to minimise policy trade-offs and contradictions and to maximise potential complementarities and synergies between policies (Kok and Coninck 2007; Mickwitz et al. 2009). To achieve this, the approach outlined previously, which includes testing the effects of adaptation actions in non-target sectors, a broader monitoring of outcomes (e.g. across sectors) and an assessment of success (including equity), is applied later.


Stage A: defining adaptation: impacts and options for coastal wetlands


South East Queensland’s ~160 km2 of coastal wetlands will be strongly affected by climate change, which will alter the distribution and diversity of these systems (Day et al. 2008; Gilman et al. 2008). Sea level rise will result in landward migration of wetlands as tidal boundaries move upslope. Loss of wetlands on the seaward margin is likely if wetlands cannot accrete as fast as sea level rises (Gilman et al. 2008). Barriers to landward migration of wetlands (e.g. seawalls, roads and other infrastructure on the landward margin of wetlands) will prevent wetland migration and thus could result in a reduction in wetland area (habitat squeeze) and loss of ecosystem services (Bulleri and Chapman 2010; Jackson and McIlvenny 2011).

Models of wetland change in South East Queensland indicate that with a 0.64 cm rise in sea level (A1FI scenario, 2100), 50% of the high intertidal and non-saline coastal wetlands may be lost by 2100 (Traill et al. 2011). Higher rates of sea level rise are likely to result in greater losses. Losses in wetland area (and wetland types) will result in losses in biodiversity and ecosystem services, although declines are likely to be non-linear (Barbier et al. 2008). The costs of losses in mangrove area have been calculated for the Gulf of Mexico as US$0.8 million/hectare in lost income over 20 years (Aburto-Oropeza et al. 2008). South East Queensland’s Moreton Bay has a total commercial fish catch of 2,700 t/year worth AUD$33 million, plus AUD$111 million in recreational fisheries per year (Fenton and Marshall 2001) which is strongly correlated with the area of mangroves and saltmarsh (Manson et al. 2005; Meynecke et al. 2008). Additionally, nutrient regulation and storm protection by coastal wetlands have been valued at US$450 000 and US$150 000 km2 year−1 (Barbier et al. 2008; Costanza et al. 1997). The loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by wetlands due to climate change and land-use change will also cause significant social and cultural losses.

A major challenge for South East Queensland is that it is growing rapidly, and the settlement pattern already tends to be concentrated in coastal areas (GoQ 2009). Housing affordability is a serious social and political issue. Most of the scope for affordable housing is in new green-fill settlements, some of which will place additional development pressures onto coastal fringes. Even in this context, if adaptation of coastal regions were to be framed to include the protection of wetlands, then losses in biodiversity and ecosystem services may be reduced or avoided. In contrast, the widespread building of coastal defences to protect built infrastructure (e.g. seawalls) may accelerate ecosystem losses (Bulleri and Chapman 2010). This is acknowledged in the Queensland Coastal Plan, which states that coastal erosion controls can ‘result in intertidal habitats being squeezed between the sea and the hardened coastline. In extreme cases, sandy beaches on the seaward side of the structure can be lost altogether, along with the associated intertidal habitat and public access’ (GoQ 2011b, p. 46).


Due to the time frame required for the establishment of functional wetlands (5–20 years, Zedler 2000), the adaptation strategies outlined here (Table 1) are all considered to be planned actions undertaken by individuals, communities, governments and businesses, rather than autonomous action.
Table 1

Simple framework for characterising specific adaptations for coastal wetlands

‘Hard’ adaptation strategies for maintaining coastal wetland areas faced with sea level rise involve technical and engineering solutions, such as infrastructure design, removal and construction of walls/built structures and wetland restoration (Table 1). The ability of these strategies to maintain wetland cover depends partially on the accuracy of climate and sea level rise projections which, if accurate, can improve planning and lessen the risk of large losses of wetland habitat. However, large uncertainties about the rate of sea level rise limit investment in expensive infrastructure and other engineering activities.

Acknowledging concerns over coastal squeeze pressures from hard coastal defences (Bulleri and Chapman 2010), Queensland coastal planning documents already state erosion control needs to be a last resort:

‘Erosion control structures such as sea walls and groynes are only to be initiated as a last resort where erosion presents an imminent threat to public safety or infrastructure that cannot practicably be removed or relocated. Where erosion protection structures are necessary, maintaining physical coastal processes outside the area subject to the coastal protection works is required to avoid adverse impacts on adjacent coastal landforms and associated ecosystems’ (Queensland Coastal Plan, GoQ 2011b, p 46).

‘Soft’ adaptation strategies involve knowledge, knowledge generation processes (such as models, regulations, standards of practice) and information systems (models), and changing institutional, financial and legal infrastructure (Table 1) (Patwardhan et al. 2009). For example, re-zoning land that is prone to inundation and incentive payments for managed retreat are examples of ‘soft’ adaptation strategies that can improve the probability that there will be space for wetlands in the future. Case studies of river basins show the importance of participation and knowledge in the adaptation process (Huntjens et al. 2010). Given the current uncertainty in climate change projections and impacts, these ‘soft’ adaptation options, with their inherent flexibility, are being afforded increasing consideration (Hallegatte 2009). Other options include financial incentives for the development of ‘soft’ engineering options for coastal protection (Table 1). An example of a ‘soft’ adaptation being implemented is the new planning requirement for spatial buffers around wetlands. Wetlands are dynamic, and buffering both landward and seaward is designed to kept them functioning over long time periods by allowing them some room to migrate (e.g. GoQ 2011c). The spatial buffering requirements exemplify the interplay between wetland conservation and other urban land uses. It is worth noting that a sizeable proportion of adaptation options for wetland conservation from Table 1, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, has direct implications for how urban systems operate (e.g. waste water treatment, increase urban density to create room for wetlands, appropriate insurance policies).

Stage B: evaluation of the path to impact through integration into policy

Climate policy integration (also referred to as mainstreaming) involves integrating the aims, policies and strategies of climate adaptation (and mitigation) into all stages of sectoral decision making, development planning and policy-making (Klein et al. 2007; Mickwitz et al. 2009). If climate adaptation measures are effective without some form of pre-planned integration of this type, then it is probably only by chance. In order to increase the success of adaptation, it is critical to evaluate the ‘path to impact’ of the planned adaptation measure.

Analysis of ‘path to impact’ occurs in two dimensions—integration can be horizontal (across different government sectors and between government and NGOs) or vertical (across different scales or levels of government) (Bache and Flinders 2004; Mickwitz et al. 2009).

Five key criteria are outlined by Mickwitz et al. (2009) that can be used to assess the degree of climate adaptation policy integration: inclusion, consistency, weighting, reporting and resources (Table 2). Institutional structures that integrate can vary temporally, spatially and sectorally (Mickwitz et al. 2009). Existing policy instruments must have their processes and decision-making timeframes audited and recalibrated to align with adaptation objectives and, ultimately, their aims reassessed. For example, the Regional Landscape and Rural Protection Area (RLRPA) of the South East Queensland Regional Plan (GoQ 2009) identifies land with regional landscape, rural production or other non-urban values. It protects this land from inappropriate development, particularly urban or rural residential development. The RLRPA’s intention is to ‘maintain existing land-use rights such that significant activities such as agricultural production, access to natural resources, water storage, tourism, outdoor recreation and nature conservation can continue’. However, this policy could prevent conversion of agricultural land to wetland with rising sea level, which would be in direct conflict with Objective 2.1 of the Strategy for the conservation and management of Queensland’s wetlands, that is, to ensure representation of all natural wetlands ecosystem types in reserves large enough to protect their biodiversity and nominate internationally outstanding sites for listing under the convention on wetlands (GoQ 2009). Including a broad range of policies in a synthetic analysis and investigating consistency and conflict among them is important for increasing integration and thus effective adaptation.
Table 2

Criteria for climate change adaptation applicability (Mickwitz et al. 2009) and the potential adaptation responses that address the criteria for the case study of the management of the maintenance of coastal wetlands with climate change

Adaptation responses were identified by Abel et al. (2011) or arise from our analysis (see text)

New policies should ideally integrate climate adaptation aims from the outset and give ‘no regrets’ policy stronger statutory support (Urwin and Jordan 2008). For example, the RLRPA could be altered to explicitly indicate that land-use change to wetlands should be considered if land is flooded by the sea or river, or if the elevation of the land is within a certain range of the mean high water mark. Mechanisms for assessing which land should be relinquished (e.g. triggered by evidence of flooding or by continuous updating of the high water mark benchmark by statutory authorities), under which conditions should land be relinquished (e.g. only certain sorts of lands or land holders) and importantly who (e.g. national, state, local, private) would pay and how much, are among the plethora of issues that cut across a range of actors and sectors. Clearly, new policies require careful consideration of budgets across a range of institutions. The entire budgeting life cycle, from planning expenditure priorities to the implementation and evaluation of the budget, should be aligned with climate adaptation policy and presents an opportunity for integration throughout the entire policy cycle.

The complexity and interconnectedness of climate issues across our socio-environment systems suggest that climate-related issues could be most effectively considered above (or beyond) single-sector policies, potentially increasing the weighting given to climate change issues in society. Although conceptually this is justifiable, given the cross-sectoral effects of climate change, there are a number of crucial barriers to achieving such deep integration of climate adaptation into policies, processes and institutions.

Barriers to policy integration

Fundamental barriers to integration have been identified in the literature. These include a lack of capacity to identify and address synergies and contradictions between adaptation and other sectoral policies and secondly a lack of political will to follow through on commitments to weight climate above other sectoral policies (Mickwitz et al. 2009; Urwin and Jordan 2008). Additionally, there exists significant uncertainty and lack of understanding in the literature of the interactions between non-climate policies and climate adaptation policies and how they might support or constrain one another at different levels of integration (Urwin and Jordan 2008).

Barriers to adaptation

The barriers and limits to adaptation have physical, ecological, technological, financial, informational, cognitive and sociocultural elements (IPCC 2007a). In order to overcome these barriers, successful adaptation must strengthen the capacity in the technical and planning disciplines, have access to the best available data on the cost and efficacy of possible response measures, have access to adequate financial resources for climate monitoring and forecasting and develop institutional focal points that can drive the development and integration of strategies across sectors (Burton et al. 2006; Howden et al. 2007).

In the context of achieving on the ground action for planning for climate change, a major barrier is the planning frameworks’ inability to incorporate the uncertainty associated with climate science (Leitch et al. 2010). Key statutory planning tools that guide developments around South East Queensland wetlands not only have climate change embedded, but they have some consistency across key instruments (Table 2, GoQ 2009, 2011b). While this embedding is critical, climate impacts are largely embedded into tools as deterministic projections (e.g. 80 cm of sea level rise by 2100). Breaking down adaptation options into staged, discrete parts (so called ‘pathways’) can reduce complexity and better target adaptation (Stafford Smith et al. 2011). On the whole, not only do planning tools need to incorporate climate change, but the planning process itself needs to adapt (Leitch et al. 2010).

Maladaptation, which exaggerates the opportunity costs of adaptation, occurs when adaptations contradict and create obstacles for each other or other sectoral policies and objectives (Lim and Spanger-Siegfried 2004). For example, regional planning in South East Queensland calls for more affordable housing (GoQ 2009), but inner city land prices prohibit this in many existing settlements. There is a risk that such drivers to open up new areas to urban development do so at the expense of coastal environments. Successful adaptation strategies minimise such opportunity costs and contradictions, are consistent with other policies and have put in place the incentives, resources, knowledge and skills for individuals to adapt efficiently (Fankhauser et al. 1999). Government planning is central to managing the trade-offs across various stakeholders, particularly in terms of managing the location of urban development, but market-based instruments still have a role to play (Harman and Low Choy 2011).

The success of an adaptation strategy is dependent on the criteria used to measure the outcome against the objectives of the adaptation activity. It is not sufficient, however, for an adaptation strategy to address only these narrow, single scale objectives. There must be recognition that sector-specific adaptation actions, when considered in the context of broader spatial and temporal scales, can produce negative externalities. These may range from shifting the impacts onto others, rather than actually reducing them, to reducing the capacity of other sectors to adapt (Adger et al. 2005). The tendency for such externalities to appear reinforces the importance of policy integration and synthesis in driving successful adaptation.

Coastal wetlands and the evaluation of integration

The integration of possible adaptation measures for the maintenance of coastal wetlands can be assessed against criteria outlined in Table 2 (Mickwitz et al. 2009). Clear, overarching objectives for wetlands management, based on negotiations between national, state and local governments should be embedded within regional plans (Abel et al. 2011). For example, statements within the South East Queensland Regional Plan could consolidate regulation at different levels of government by specifically stating the objectives of maintaining a target total area of wetlands (e.g. the area existing in 2011) with a target proportion (e.g. 30%) of wetland types to be preserved within protected areas. The Regional Plan could specifically recognise that land-use change must occur to achieve these objectives.

Stage C: evaluation of effectiveness, efficiency, equity and legitimacy

Effectiveness, efficiency, equity and legitimacy can be used as criteria for the evaluation of adaptation (Adger et al. 2005). As social processes adjust attitudes and expectations, these criteria can be applied (with suitable weighting) to different spatial and temporal scales (Adger et al. 2005).

The effectiveness of an adaptation strategy or action is based on its ability to limit exposure to climatic impacts and their consequences (Adger et al. 2005). The effectiveness of adaptation activities can be assessed, on a case by case basis, according to their robustness to the uncertainty inherent in the response of natural systems to adaptation options and by the flexibility of the system in the face of changing circumstances (Adger et al. 2005; Baron et al. 2008). Adaptation must be addressed across scales. Adaptation vulnerabilities, impacts and responses are based on local context, but are driven by national policies (Burton et al. 2006).

The economic efficiency of adaptation projects is affected by the distribution of the costs and benefits of the project. The timing (and location) of the adaptation compared to the climate change impact is absolutely critical in determining the effectiveness of the action (Adger et al. 2005). The accurate measurement of the economic efficiency of an adaptation action is hampered by the lack of suitable cost-benefit analyses. These analyses must consider the costs and benefits of changes in ecosystem services and biodiversity provided by natural environments, as well as those resulting from the effects of climate change adaptation actions. For example, while the costs of constructing seawalls and other defences have been estimated for the globe (Fankhauser 2010), the additional costs of such actions resulting from losses of coastal wetland biodiversity and ecosystem services have not been assessed in the same analysis. Including all the costs and benefits (e.g. where coastal wetlands may increase in area) will improve assessments of efficiency, as well as equity.

Narrabeen was the first coastal lagoon on the Australian east coast for which climate adaptation options were explicitly costed with consideration given to the trade-offs between amenity values and infrastructure risks (AECOM 2010). The Narrabeen lagoon is valuable for recreation, tourism and biodiversity. The lagoon is near the ocean, but the entrance to the lagoon is frequently blocked by an accumulation of sand which influences flooding of associated residential areas. With the intensity of future storms expected to increase and sea levels expected to rise, adaptation options were considered that effectively traded off benefits across stakeholders with various interests. Opening the lagoon to the ocean, building levees and planning control were all adaptation options that were considered (AECOM 2010).

More recently, and in the South East Queensland region, a major study has been completed which explores the impact of adaptation on residential assets (Rambaldi et al. 2011a, b). This study used a household scale simulation model of human settlements to analyse the net economic benefit of protecting residential infrastructure and land values. Interestingly, both ‘hard’ (i.e. seawalls) and ‘soft’ (i.e. building codes) adaptations can ultimately yield net benefits (pers. com, Fletcher, McAllister, Collins, Rambaldi). What differs is who bares the costs of adaptation, and who benefits. Seawalls protect the most vulnerable properties, but may reduce amenity values for all local residences. Changing building codes is a cheaper option to implement and can reduce residential infrastructure damage, but does little to protect land values. Staged retreat appears to be very expensive with only slight benefits in terms of land and infrastructure assets. However, studies show that proximity to green space can increase house prices (Hatton MacDonald et al. 2010; Rambaldi et al. 2011a). Retreating opens up more land for green space, so in fact in this case study, the least vulnerable properties will actually benefit the most from the staged retreat option.

Adaptive capacity, critical to the success of adaptation actions and the burden of adaptation are distributed heterogeneously across different stakeholders and different spatial scales (Adger et al. 2005; IPCC 2007a Chapter 17: 728). Natural and man-made capital assets, social networks and entitlements, institutions, governance, national income, health and technology all combine to influence adaptive capacity (IPCC 2007b). Given this, considerations of equity and legitimacy are critical to the success of adaptation policies and must address issues of distributive and procedural justice and equity of process and outcome (Nelson et al. 2007). Adaptation policies must not be held hostage to the inherently unequal distribution of power within institutions, but instead, if they are to be successful, must ensure that the vulnerabilities of the most marginalised segments of society are minimised (Adger et al. 2005; Nelson et al. 2007).

Functionally, coastal wetlands provide a range of ecological services to human communities. The process of adaptation needs to consider what types of policies and measures are required to reduce or even neutralise the impact of climate change and to maintain ecosystem functionality. In Table 1 below, we characterise specific adaptation strategies for the management of coastal wetlands as either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ and as anticipatory or reactive in their timing relative to climate change. The distributional impacts of adaptation options that cut across sectors and also across mitigation drivers frame the impacts on equity.

While economic studies are being developed with the potential to inform a debate on the equity impacts of adaptation options (see above AECOM 2010; Rambaldi et al. 2011a), in practice, the debate in South East Queensland is in its infancy. Legitimacy requires ownership of the debate by key stakeholders. Input into key planning documents (GoQ 2009, 2011a, b, c) is an important vehicle for public feedback. The urban development industry will need to be a key partner and the industry itself has a preference for greater participation in the governance of urban development (Taylor et al. in press). The urban development industry’s role will be important, not just for wetland management, but also for legitimacy in addressing the interplay between pressures for affordable and climate-sensitive housing.


Climate change is driving considerable research to identify innovative analytical frameworks that provide the necessary tools for analysing human adaptation. New applications of scenario planning are an example of this (e.g. Bohunovsky et al. 2011). Such models are informed by a range of disciplines, including ecology, psychology and anthropology (Klein et al. 2007; Nelson et al. 2007). Despite a deepening understanding of the adaptation of human society to climate change, the success of adaptation pathways could be enhanced if they were further broadened. This could be achieved by enhancing integration across disciplines (e.g. biodiversity and town planning) and including interactions with other non-climate-related economic, social and demographic drivers (Hall et al. 2009; Hallegatte 2009). Furthermore, research has identified benefits of concurrent analysis of adaptation and mitigation strategies for climate change, by explicitly identifying the interactions between adaptation and mitigation policies that can lead to innovations in integrated design and assessment mechanisms (Hallegatte 2009; Parry 2009; Wilbanks 2005).

Within the natural resource management sector, there are synergies and trade-offs between the different adaptation strategies identified in Table 1. Some of the most notable and informative interactions occur between the adaptation strategies characterised as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. There are also links between these, and other adaptation strategies from both within, and outside, the sector. More broadly, there are links across different sectors. Adaptation actions that are focussed on the maintenance of wetland area can create unintended consequences, perverse incentives and externalities. For example, salt marsh habitats can be breeding grounds for mosquitoes that transmit Ross River Virus (Willott 2004). A notable mangrove restoration project in Sydney, Australia, received opposition due to a perceived ‘loss in open space’ (McManus 2006). Other adaptation strategies can have conflicting outcomes in terms of the density of the urban form and the extent and type of wetlands supported (Abel et al. 2011; Hamin and Gurran 2009).

Following the synthesis process outlined previously, we observed potential trade-offs among the anticipatory adaptations for coastal wetlands that relate to planning and maintenance. Planning for wetland migration inland is in competition with other land uses, particularly for low-density (and low cost) urban development (e.g. housing and recreational facilities) and agriculture (e.g. sugar cane). Converting these lands to wetlands as sea level rises may increase the density of the urban footprint and hence reduce the cost of defence against sea level rise. However, increased high density housing presents a challenge to cultural aspirations in Australia (e.g. single-family homes), may drive up housing prices and increase heat island effects (Schmidt 2009), leading to greater social inequality. Maintenance of wetlands in urban areas may result in increases in the mosquito and biting midge populations as well as resulting in decreased diversity within the wetlands (Traill et al. 2011). Wetlands in urban areas may require increased public insect control and escalate public health burdens in some areas, (Bambrick et al. 2011; but see Russell 2009) as well as affecting property values (Dale et al. 2006). These impacts may increase inequality by adversely affecting communities in low elevation lands, as well as increasing the price of alternative housing locations.

Financial incentives for retreating from sea level rise, to accommodate wetlands, may be disproportionately attractive to low income groups, leading them to incur greater social costs. Additionally, defending high socioeconomic communities (along the coastline) may result in higher costs for emergency management, insurance, road maintenance and other services in high-risk environments.

Synergies among adaptation options for coastal wetlands suggest the need for more compact urban forms. Planning regulations and financial incentives (soft adaptation strategies) drive physical investment in higher density, more defensible urban areas that have the additional benefits of more green spaces, carbon capture and other ecosystem services. International evidence suggests higher inner city densities are also generally associated with lower energy usage, per person vehicle and gasoline usage (see review Dodman 2011). And even though higher density urban forms can lead to urban heat islands (Schmidt 2009), more compact housing is more efficient to heat and cool (see review Dodman 2011). Much of the housing across South East Queensland has very low density. While this suggests that wetland adaptations that lead to more compact urban forms may be synergistic for this region, the equity criterion demands we explore which segments of society stand to benefit and which stand to lose.


Based on the insights gathered from this case study, it is clear that an overriding framework for the evaluation of the success of adaptation strategies for coastal wetlands should not only focus on narrow objectives within the sector. The maintenance of coastal wetlands with sea level rise, particularly for low socioeconomic communities, must explicitly acknowledge and address issues related to the equity of housing and the wider sectoral implications of urban form on health and disadvantage (Dodson et al. 2006). Failure to do so will exacerbate existing social problems connected with employment, housing and education.

The success of an adaptation strategy, from a narrow, sectoral perspective, would be dependent on its effectiveness, efficiency, equity and legitimacy. However, to create a more comprehensive picture of the success of a coastal wetland adaptation strategy, it must be acknowledged that the real worth of an adaptation option is not judged in isolation, but in how it interconnects within its system, which includes other sectoral drivers and other adaptation strategies. The criteria used to judge the outcomes of adaptation actions are important for increasing the probability of successful adaptation and may include an assessment of flexibility, inclusiveness, consistency and equitability.


This paper is part of the South East Queensland Climate Adaptation Research Initiative, a partnership between the Queensland and Australian Governments, the CSIRO Climate Adaptation National Research Flagship, Griffith University, The University of the Sunshine Coast and The University of Queensland. The Initiative aims to provide research knowledge to enable the region to adapt and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Thanks to Laura Canevari for providing the map of wetlands, and to Mike Dunlop, Mike Ronan, Mark Stafford Smith, Bruce Taylor and Xiaoming Wang for critical feedback.

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© Springer-Verlag 2011