Natural Hazards

, Volume 67, Issue 2, pp 591–609 | Cite as

Stay or leave? Potential climate change adaptation strategies among Aboriginal people in coastal communities in northern Australia

  • Kerstin K. Zander
  • Lisa Petheram
  • Stephen T. Garnett
Original Paper


Coastal northern Australia is largely owned and occupied by Aboriginal people who are strongly connected to their traditional country. We assess the views of Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land on the impacts of climate change and their possible precautionary responses to both sea level rise and a potential increase in the intensity of tropical cyclones in coastal communities. All respondents had heard about climate change, and 48 % had already seen environmental changes, particularly sea level rise, which they attributed to climate change. Fifty-eight percent of respondents would consider relocating in the future for safety reasons, although most respondents perceived living close to the sea as highly important for their future well-being, emphasising their strong connection to their traditional sea country. Many of those willing to relocate would consider moving inland, either temporarily or permanently, provided that community facilities could also be moved. Other respondents who said they would be unlikely to relocate in the future because of climate change impacts, and would prefer to adapt in situ with government support (e.g. building more shelters for severe cyclones, building sea walls and better roads for quick evacuation if necessary). We recommend that the diversity of adaptation preferences among Aboriginal people should be accommodated in policy to minimise social impacts of climate change and to take advantage of potential opportunities that could arise from moving.


Cyclones Destination choice East Arnhem Land Precautionary adaptation Relocation Sea level rise 

1 Introduction

The impact of climate change is one of the most significant environmental challenges facing humans (e.g. Burke et al. 2009). Updated climate change projections suggest that climate change is occurring beyond previous projections (e.g. Domingues et al. 2008; Vermeer and Rahmstorf 2009; Rogelj et al. 2012). This emphasises the need for more ambitious precautionary adaptation targets as even a massive mitigation effort initiated today would be unable to prevent the impacts of climate change that is already under way (Richardson et al. 2009). Some climate change costs can be avoided if appropriate precautionary adaptation is implemented now (Parry et al. 2009). The UNFCCC (2007) has estimated the global annual costs of climate change adaptation to be US$ 40–170 billion with the largest cost accruing to developing countries and for infrastructure investment. Moreover, Parry et al. (2009) estimate additional costs of around US$ 350 billion a year for protecting natural resources. Tropical coastal communities are among the most vulnerable1 to climate change impacts as, in addition to the effects of the more pervasive changes in rainfall and increases in temperature, coastal communities are likely to be affected by sea level rise and an increase in the number of severe (category 4 and 5) cyclones (IPCC 2012). Coastal Aboriginal communities in Australia are particularly vulnerable because of existing social and economic disadvantages (Braaf 1999) and the strong dependence of Aboriginal people on their traditional country2 for food (Altman 2004), health (Green 2008; Garnett et al. 2009a) and culture (Altman et al. 2007; Hunt et al. 2009). This strong dependence may reduce the resilience of these communities’ to climate hazards (Adger et al. 2005).

This research is based on previous work in the same area on general climate change perceptions (Petheram et al. 2010). Participants in this previous study mentioned sea level rise/coastal flooding and more frequent and severe cyclones as the two major impacts of climate change which they had already observed or were afraid would affect them in the near future. Workshop participants mentioned relocation as one likely adaptation measure to cope with these two impacts. The topic of relocation (also referred to as migration or displacement) as an extreme form of adaptation has recently been debated extensively. Relocation can be seen as either a failure because in situ adaptation3 has failed or a part of a portfolio of different adaptation measures (Bardsley and Hugo 2010; de Sherbinin et al. 2011). Most climate-change-related relocation studies are from the developing world (e.g. McSweeney and Coomes 2011), and the issue has not been discussed in the context of Aboriginal Australia.

The aims of this study are to investigate empirically (1) whether and in what manner Aboriginal people in coastal communities have perceived climate-related changes in their communities and on their traditional country, (2) perceptions about adaptation measures that could be adopted by Aboriginal people living in coastal communities and (3) whether Aboriginal people in coastal communities would consider relocation as a precautionary measure.

We were motivated to undertake this study by the general lack of literature on climate change adaptation at a household level in Australia, particularly among Aboriginal people. While there are many studies on climate change vulnerability, perceptions of adaptation measures and of the capacity of indigenous people to adapt (e.g. Berkes and Jolly 2001; Sakakibara 2008; Byg and Salick 2009; Turner and Clifton 2009; Ford et al. 2010), including examples from Australia (Green 2008; Green et al. 2010), few studies present empirical information on potential adaptation measures, particularly attitudes to relocation. The few studies on perceptions of (e.g. King et al. 2006; Li 2009), and vulnerability to tropical cyclones in Australia (e.g. Anderson-Berry 2003), did not include Aboriginal communities.

Research on climate change adaptation is particularly important for the Northern Territory because (1) Aboriginal people make up about 30 % of the population, compared to the national average of 2.5 % (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012), and (2) approximately 84 % of the coastline in the Northern Territory is owned and occupied by Aboriginal people (Yununpingu and Muller 2009). The results of this study will provide policy makers with an understanding of Aboriginal peoples’ willingness to relocate and the economic, cultural and environmental implications of such a move. This can further ensure that the views of Aboriginal people are accommodated in national policy decisions concerning adaptation investment.

2 Methods

2.1 The study area

All interviews were conducted on the Gove Peninsula on the eastern coast of the Northern Territory, Australia, 650 km east of the Territory’s capital city, Darwin (Fig. 1). The Peninsula has been mined for bauxite since 1972 and has two main settlements. Nhulunbuy, with about 4,000 people of whom one-quarter are Aboriginal (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012), was established in 1972 to house mining employees. Yirrkala, about eight kilometres away, has more than 800 people, 80 % Aboriginal (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012), and was originally established in 1935 as a Christian mission. Both mine and settlements are embedded in Arnhem Land, nearly 100,000 square kilometres of undeveloped savannah woodland owned by the Yolngu people (Williams 1986; Muller 2008). Occupied clan estates away from the towns are referred to as ‘homelands’ or ‘outstations’.
Fig. 1

Map of the study area in East Arnhem Land (the two areas Nhulunbuy and Yirrkala are highlighted in red)

The relationship between the Yolngu people and their traditional land is very strong, underpinned by a landmark process in which the Yolngu people fought the establishment of the bauxite mine on their land. Many Yolngu people were strongly opposed to the development of the mine, taking legal action in March 1969 in an attempt to protect their community and to have Aboriginal land rights recognised (Howitt and Douglas 1983). In 1971, in what has since been referred to as the ‘Gove Land Rights case’ (see e.g. Howitt and Douglas 1983; Williams 1986; Cleworth et al. 2008), the judge (Blackburn) ruled in favour of the mining company, because Australian common and property law did not recognise indigenous rights to land. Although this loss was unsettling to many Yolngu, this process was pivotal in the establishment of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA) in Australia in 1976 (Cleworth et al. 2008). However, as a consequence of the lost case and the subsequent extensive mining activities, many people were displaced from or lost access to their homelands.

In the short-medium term, climate change is likely to affect the study area in two main ways—sea level rise and increasing numbers of severe cyclones (CSIRO 2012). The sea level in the north and northwest of Australia has been rising between 7 and 11 mm per year since 1993, two to three times the global average (CSIRO 2012). Cyclones have always been a deadly hazard for northern Australia. Darwin has been severely damaged on three occasions (1897, 1937 and 1974). On the last occasion, Cyclone Tracy killed 71 people and destroyed or damaged 95 % of houses (Walker 2010; Australian Bureau of Meteorology 2012). Since 2000, there were 17 tropical cyclones in the northern and eastern regions of the Northern Territory, five of which were severe (Australian Bureau of Meteorology 2012). One severe cyclone (Cyclone Craig, March 2003) caused damage in and around Nhulunbuy and the strongest cyclone ever to make landfall (Cyclone Monica; Cook and Goyens 2008) passed about 100 km from the town in April 2006. Though it caused minor damage to the Gove Peninsula, it felled most trees over an area of 650 km2 when it crossed an uninhabited section of coast nearby (Cook and Goyens 2008). Around 350 people had to be evacuated within a day because of cyclone Monica from their community in Warruwi on Goulburn Island in the Northern Territory (Veland et al. 2010), showing that increased cyclone intensity or frequency represents a genuine threat.

2.2 Data collection

Quantitative and qualitative data were collected between February and October 2009. Qualitative data were gathered through discussions during organised workshops. We conducted four workshops with a total of nine male and 12 female participants. Aboriginal co-researchers helped facilitate the workshops and were also present during the face-to-face interviews to minimise the impact of language and cultural barriers. This approach helps bridge cultural gaps and share knowledge by better engaging respondents (Garnett et al. 2009b; Marika et al. 2009).

Quantitative data were obtained through face-to-face interviews using structured questionnaires including closed and open-ended questions. Interviews were carried out in Nhulunbuy, nearby coastal Aboriginal communities (e.g. Wallaby Beach and Ski Beach, 8 km from Nhulunbuy center) and in Yirrkala. In total, 93 people were interviewed: 48 in Yirrkala and 45 in Nhulunbuy and associated communities. The Aboriginal co-researchers chose respondents within each community. Their choice depended on kinship4 rules that precluded conventional standard sampling techniques. Aboriginal co-researchers were trained in the conduct of the specific method that we applied (choice experiment), and four trial runs were undertaken under supervision. The questionnaires were in plain English but if necessary were translated into the respondents’ local language by the Aboriginal co-researchers. The questionnaires had four parts: (1) questions about perceptions of climate change and possible adaptation measures; (2) a stated choice experiment to elicit respondents’ preferences among hypothetical scenarios; (3) follow-up questions from the choice experiment investigating respondents’ degree of understanding of the choice questions and how they processed the attributes; and (4) questions about the respondents’ demographic background. Each interview took between 30 and 40 min, and respondents were provided with a cash payment (AU$5 25) as compensation for their time.

2.3 The choice experiment

Stated choice experiments have often been applied to evaluate the use and non-use values natural resources since the 1990s (Adamowicz et al. 1994; Boxall et al. 1996). In a choice experiment, respondents are presented with a series of combinations of hypothetical scenarios (called choice sets; Hensher et al. 2005). The different scenarios are described in terms of attributes which differ in their levels, and respondents choose their preferred scenario in a choice set. The aim of the choice experiment was to reveal the order of importance of the presented attributes and to assess respondents’ preferences for a scenario given uncertainty about impacts of climate change. The final attributes that were used to create the choice sets (Table 1) were identified during the qualitative data collection phase of the study, mainly during the four workshops. The final attributes named the most important natural resources used by community members in their daily lives, which we used to create scenarios representing future living conditions under climate change. After the selection of attributes, five in-depth interviews were conducted with community elders to verify the appropriateness of the attributes and levels. Three of the five attributes finally selected related to the future environmental condition of the traditional country (‘turtles’, ‘creeks’ and ‘beaches’) and one to the availability of community facilities such as shops and health centres (‘facilities’). The fifth attribute (‘distance’) represented peoples’ preference for where they wanted to live in the future, either where they are now, close to the sea, or away from the sea following relocation.
Table 1

Attributes and levels used in a choice experiment to reveal what Aboriginal respondents in coastal northern Australia regard as important when living under climate change conditions in the future

Attribute (variable name in model)

Number of levels

Levels (coded in data sets)

Distance from housing to the sea (‘distance’):

The lowest level (0.5 km) is a proxy for the current situation; the distance many people in the study area live from the sea. The largest distance (100 km) is the distance many of the respondents would need to move to live on their remote traditional country


0.5 km

4 km

20 km

100 km

Existence of turtles (‘turtles’):

Turtles and their eggs are important sources of food for Aboriginal Australians as well as having great cultural significance (Limpus et al. 2003; Gunn et al. 2010). Workshop participants revealed that some beaches have disappeared, leaving cliffs and rocks and that as a consequence, beaches that have been used historically by turtles for nesting are no longer visited

Turtles are also vulnerable to climate change because of the role that temperature plays in the sex determination of embryos, turtles’ stage of maturity, their growth rates and their migration pattern (Poloczanska et al. 2009). Rising sea levels and increased storm intensity are also likely to increase the frequency with which turtle nests are flooded


As many turtles as before (1)

No more turtles (0)

Condition of creeks (‘creeks’):

Coastal creeks provide a large variety of food and source of protein for Aboriginal Australians (e.g. fish, mussels, crabs). They also provide a place for being with family, and like hunting turtles and collecting turtle eggs, fishing has cultural meaning to many Aboriginal people (Gunn et al. 2010)

Saltwater intrusion as a result of sea level rise, changes in river flows and rainfall patterns that are predicted to occur as a result of climate change are likely to alter species composition of such habitats, with consequent impacts on resource availability (Bunn and Arthington 2002; Herron et al. 2002)


Healthy with lots of freshwater fish, mussels, crabs (1)

Dirty without freshwater fish, mussels, crabs (0)

Condition of beaches (‘beaches’):

Beaches provide recreational opportunities for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, including scenery and other aesthetic benefits. For Aboriginal people, however, they constitute much more. Shady trees on the beaches (in the study area mainly Casuarina trees) are important for connecting with the country and social interaction. Workshop participants confirmed that the loss of trees near beaches has increased

Rising sea levels and increased cyclone intensity are likely to cause beach erosion, coastal flooding and loss of coastal vegetation (IPCC 2007, Chapter 6)


Good, with wide sand banks and many shady trees (1)

Bad, depleted, narrow, sand banks and without shady trees (0)

Availability of community facilities (‘facilities’):

Unlike the other attributes, this attribute relates to a non-traditional Western standard of living with little reliance on the environment. Workshop participants talked about the high importance of shops and medical facilities, and a few about schools and training centres


As many community facilities as now (1)

No more facilities such as shops, health care, schools (0)

We applied a Bayesian approach to obtain an efficient design (e.g. Sándor and Wedel 2001) with 24 final scenarios, using the software Ngene (Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies 2007; Bliemer et al. 2008). These scenarios were blocked into three to obtain eight choice sets with three scenarios each (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Example of a scenario presented to respondents during the survey. They were printed out in colour and attached to folded cardboard, and most of the drawings were developed during the pilot study by Aboriginal people themselves. Three such scenarios were presented to respondents in so-called choice sets, and respondents were asked to pick their most referred scenario

Before presenting the choice sets to respondents, the enumerators (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal co-researchers) provided some background on climate change and mentioned the potential threats of sea level rise and intensified cyclonic activities in the future. Emphasis was placed on the great uncertainty about the likelihood and magnitude of effects of climate change and therefore, while the damage to infrastructure and human well-being from cyclones could be severe, the risk is low. At this stage of the interviews, respondents often discussed changes they had witnessed and attributed to climate change. The choice sets were then presented after respondents assured the enumerators that they had understood what was meant by climate change, namely the possible damage that can occur in the future from sea level rise and severe cyclones. Each respondent was then presented with the eight choice sets. The following statement accompanied the presentation of the choice sets:

If you think about climate change and what damage it might do to you and your community in the future, and if you had the opportunity to choose, which scenario would you prefer for you and your community? A, B, C or none of them? Please look carefully at all three scenarios and choose the one that has the most things that you think will be important for you and your community in the future. The living distance to the sea varies across the scenarios. If it is greater than 0.5 km, it means that you are leaving where you live now and moving further inland. The further the distance to the sea, the more you need to travel to go back to the sea.

2.4 Analysis

Discrete choice data have to be analysed using probabilistic models which are based on Lancaster’s theory of consumer choice (1966) and the random utility framework (Manski 1977; McFadden 1974). Choice data are estimated using a basic multinomial logit (MNL) model, or extensions of it such as random parameter logit (RPL), latent class (LC), nested logit (NL) or error component (EC) models (see Hensher et al. 2005). We estimated a panel RPL model which has the advantages of relaxing the stringent assumptions underlying the MNL model, accounting for preference heterogeneity in the sample and allowing for the use of panel data during which each respondent answers a series of choice tasks. In a RPL model, random variables are included that vary across the sample with a density function which represents the individual preference. The researcher then chooses a distributional form for the random parameters, commonly a normal, lognormal or triangular distribution (Hensher and Greene 2003). The attributes with two levels were dummy-coded. For the attribute ‘distance’ with four levels (see Table 1), we created three dummy variables and estimated coefficients for ‘0.5 km’, ‘4 km’ and ‘20 km’, all relative to the reference level ‘100 km’.

3 Results

3.1 Respondents’ demographic background

Five of the 93 respondents (5 %) chose ‘none’ for all of the eight choice sets. These respondents explained that they chose ‘none’ because they did not understand the choice questions. We deleted these five respondents from the data set, leaving 88 respondents. The mean age of all respondents was 35 years (SD 13; range 16-60), which is comparable to a national median age of 37 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012). More female than male people were interviewed (70 % female). This was because most Aboriginal co-researchers available at the time the interviews were held were female. Because of kinship rules, female researchers were only able to interview female respondents and male researchers’ male respondents. About half (52 %) of all respondents had children and 68 % had finished grade 10 at school. Thirteen percent of respondents had or still worked for the bauxite mine, and 9 % were involved in a job in the environmental and conservation sector, for example, as rangers.

3.2 Observed environmental changes

An open-ended question was asked about changes respondents had noticed on their country in the last 10–15 years. Fifty-eight percent of respondents listed at least one change that they had noticed in that time, 26 % had not seen any change, and 16 % either could not answer the question or were not asked because they were too young to have noticed long-term changes. From these 58 %, roughly a third mentioned only non-environmental changes, mostly regarding their social structures (e.g. changes in government policies impacting family and community life) and increased development and infrastructure, one-third noted only environmental changes and the other third named both. We grouped these environmental changes into five categories (Table 2). Changes related to sea level rise were mentioned by 33 % of all respondents and made up 90 % of all environmental changes noted. Respondents thought, for instance, that ‘the water is coming really close’, ‘water comes in at the roads’, ‘beaches are washed away’, and that ‘the coastline looks different with narrower beaches’. People also mentioned the death of beachside trees. About a third of the environmental changes named were related to the weather, mostly that it has been ‘getting hotter’ and that there have been ‘longer and more hot spells’. A few respondents mentioned that the weather and the seasons were mixed up. Only three respondents felt that there had been changes in the intensity of cyclones. When respondents were asked what they thought had caused the changes, they mentioned climate change as the cause for sea level rise, the change in weather and cyclone intensity. Changes in communities and the loss of hunting grounds (mentioned in about 22 % of the cases) were attributed to the bauxite mine and associated developments. The mine was also blamed for a change in the taste of natural sea food (e.g. ‘smelly oysters’) and for a decline in fish and turtles.
Table 2

Environmental changes named by respondents grouped into five categories, percentage of respondents who named the change out of all environmental changes and out of the total sample, and the cause respondents attributes to the change

Environmental change

% of all environmental changes

% of all respondents

Perceived cause

Getting hotter/more and longer hot spells



Climate change

Sea level rise (water getting closer, beaches washed away, trees on beaches dying)



Climate change

More severe cyclones in cyclone season



Climate change

Loss of land and hunting ground




Change in taste of sea food and fewer animals in the sea and creeks




3.3 Likelihood of relocation

Over half of the respondents indicated on a four-point Likert scale that they would be very likely (47 %) or likely (11 %) to relocate as a consequence of climate change impacts or if it became dangerous to stay where they were. A further 8 % said they might consider relocating with just 20 % saying they would be unlikely to move. The remaining 14 % did not answer this question. The likelihood of relocation was not significantly correlated with gender, age, education or location (Yirrkala or Nhulunbuy).

Most (66 %) of the respondents who indicated that they would relocate said they would go to homelands (‘out bush’) and live there, even if they had not lived there before. Only 13 % said they would move to a city like Darwin, and a few respondents (5 %) could not answer the question of where they would go. Some of these undecided respondents considered it the responsibility of the government to provide new houses in safer places and that this is where they would move while a few others wanted to build new houses on their own a bit further from the sea but in the same area.

3.4 Preferences for in situ adaptation strategies

To better understand respondents’ perspectives for in situ adaptation measures, we asked what they would like to see improved in their community to cope better with climate change impacts if relocation should prove not to be feasible or desired. The most desired improvement was the provision of more shelters designed to withstand category 4 and 5 cyclones, the strongest categories of cyclone on a scale from 1 to 5 (58 % of respondents; Fig. 3). Respondents could tick multiple answers and the building of sea walls, better roads for quicker evacuation, early warning systems and a secure freshwater supply were each chosen by around a third of the respondents (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Preferences for infrastructure improvements to alleviate the impacts of climate change in communities (% respondents; bars showing standard errors)

When asked if respondents would miss anything when leaving their current coastal location, 68 % stated that they would miss their traditional country, including the sea, seafood, hunting, the wind, the beach, family, the community and sacred sites, just to name a few examples given by these respondents. Twenty-three percent said that they would miss nothing, a few respondents (5 %) stated that they would only miss the community facilities like shops, training centres and health care facilities, and the remaining 5 % stated that they would miss both their traditional country and community facilities.

3.5 Results of the choice experiment

The final RPL model, estimated using simulated maximum likelihood with 200 Halton draws, had a McFadden’s R2 of nearly 0.2 (Table 3), which was considered reasonable (McFadden 1974). The coefficients for the three environmental attributes and for community facilities were highly significant and had the expected positive signs (Table 3). This indicates that respondents preferred the existence of turtles, community facilities, healthy creeks and wide beaches over no more turtles, a decline in community facilities, unhealthy creeks and narrow beaches. The variables ‘0.5 km’ and ‘20 km’ were perceived as positive compared to ‘100 km’ distance to the sea, indicating that respondents were more likely to choose the scenarios in the choice sets that resulted in living closer to the sea. The coefficient for ‘4 km’ was insignificant and dropped from the final model, indicating that respondents had the same preference for ‘4 km’ as they had for ‘100 km’. Results were heterogeneous across respondents for ‘0.5 km distance’, ‘20 km’, ‘turtles’ and ‘facilities’, suggesting a diverse opinion about their importance in the future. The preferences for ‘beaches’ and ‘creeks’, on the other hand, were the same across all respondents. The magnitude of coefficients suggested that the attribute ‘0.5 km’ was most preferred, followed by ‘20 km’, ‘facilities’, ‘turtles’, ‘creeks’ and ‘beaches’.
Table 3

Results from a choice model among Aboriginal people in coastal northern Australia and the odds ratios of choosing attribute levels against the reference levels

Variable (distribution)




Odds ratio

95 % CI

0.5 km from sea (triangular)






20 km from sea (triangular)






Many turtles (normal)






Many facilities (normal)






Healthy condition of creeks






Good condition of beaches






Log likelihood function



McFadden Pseudo-R2



Number of observations



Number of respondents



SD standard deviation of random parameters, CI confidence interval of odds ratios

*** denotes 1 % significance level

The greatest odds ratio between a characteristic and its converse was for ‘0.5 km’ over ‘100 km’ (7; Table 3), and the lowest for choosing a scenario with wide beaches over narrow beaches (1.2). The odds of choosing a scenario with ‘0.5 km’ over one with ‘20 km’ were 2.1 (calculated by exponentiating the difference in the coefficients of ‘0.5 km’ and ‘20 km’).

4 Discussion

4.1 Respondents’ risk perception about climate change

Many respondents were well aware of climate change as an issue from reports they had seen on TV or read in magazines about climate change–related events in other parts of the world. As noted by Petheram et al. (2010), however, concerns about long-term climate change had lower priority than more pressing concerns related to poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, social disfunction and government policies being implemented to counter these. Policies relating to climate change adaptation are only likely to be effective in communities if closely integrated with policies aimed at solving urgent problems (Scheffran et al. 2012; Veland et al. 2012). Nevertheless, while other issues may be more pressing, many respondents were able to describe environmental change around their communities and on their country. While changes in the abundance of marine life and the taste of seafood were commonly attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the relatively new bauxite mine, changes related to sea level rise and the erosion of beaches were clearly perceived as being caused by climate change. Sea level rise was a major current concern with a third of respondents having noticed changes. Some people had already been affected directly, having had to move from one beachside settlement that was being eroded to another deemed to be more secure. There is empirical evidence that sea level rise in northern Australia is two to three times higher than the global average (CSIRO 2012). Some people have also raised concerns that beaches where turtles had once come ashore to nest, and from which they had harvested eggs, were no longer suitable because almost all the sand had been washed away. The close proximity of many houses to the beach and the almost daily fishing trips to coastal areas undoubtedly contributed to people’s knowledge of changes in coastal morphology.

There was less certainty about cyclones. Many respondents were too young to have experienced severe cyclones, while some respondents did think that they were receiving more cyclone warnings than in the past. This may be, however, that more warnings are now issued for the same number of cyclones. While some respondents during both the workshops and face-to-face interviews expressed a fear of severe cyclones in the future, only a few thought that cyclones had already become more severe. Nevertheless, some respondents disliked the uncertainty about severe cyclones and said that they might relocate if warnings became still more frequent. The severe damage to Darwin caused by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 has sensitised many people in the Northern Territory to the dangers of severe cyclones, particularly those who were alive at the time (Li 2009). This sensitivity has been heightened by the number of severe cyclones recorded in the region since 2000.

4.2 Permanent and extended temporary relocation: implications for policy

The results of the choice experiment suggest that Aboriginal people prefer scenarios where they live close to sea, as they do now. At the same time, only 20 % of respondents completely dismissed the thought of relocating in the near future to avoid the consequences of sea level rise and severe cyclones. This indicates that respondents probably thought about relocation as being temporary and that they can return to where they live now once immediate danger is over. Respondents also preferred scenarios where they would live 20 km away from the sea, which would probably reflect a longer, if not even permanent relocation with the opportunity to visit the sea regularly. There was a strong dislike towards moving as far away as 100 km, a result also found in other climate change relocation studies (Faist 2000).

Permanent relocation of population centres away from the coast is a realistic option in northern Australia. For example, following the evacuation ensuing cyclone, only 10,000 of the 45,000 people in Darwin remained and many families that left never returned. Fifty-eight of respondents said that they would be very likely or likely to relocate. For comparison, a nationwide study of urban non-Aboriginal Australians concluded that 77 % of respondents would voluntarily relocate if their water supply ran out (Hurlimann and Dolnicar 2011). Although permanent relocation ‘should only be considered in cases where in situ adaptation is impossible’ (de Sherbinin et al. 2011), for Aboriginal Australian communities, planning and capacity building should be undertaken now to minimise disruption if relocation is adopted as the favoured adaptation strategy. One implication of our study is that policies designed to facilitate climate change adaptation among coastal Aboriginal people in northern Australia may need to differ between those wishing to stay and those willing or wanting to relocate, either permanently or for extended periods. While we did not differentiate between permanent and temporary relocation in the survey design, many of those respondents willing to relocate explained that they would only be likely to leave temporarily, even if that meant for a long time and that they would return should the situation improve. Peoples’ willingness to relocate is the result of a multitude of factors the understanding of which was beyond the scope of our study which was also limited by the number of factors we could explore using the choice experiment method. A particularly important reason for staying or moving that we could not explore concerned the influence of family ties, communal decision-making and cultural obligations such as funeral attendance (Morphy 2010).

A major motivation for the decision to move or stay may have been the attachment of respondents to traditional country (Williams 1986; Christie and Perrett 1996), a decision that would reflect the degree of ancestral connection to the place where respondents live now and where the survey was conducted. While our survey could not distinguish between local traditional owners and those with traditional country elsewhere, it is quite likely that many of those who would relocate are currently not living on their traditional land and there is no spiritual connection that would impede them from leaving. The reason why these people or their parents or grandparents left their country/their homelands in the first place and moved to Nhulunbuy or Yirrkala could be related to better provision of community facilities. As pointed out in Petheram et al. (2010), infrastructure, health facilities and education services are often inadequate on homelands, so many people have reluctantly left their traditional country to take advantage of the facilities offered in towns.

Indeed, until recently the ‘back-to-homelands’ movement had government support and allowed many people to live on their traditional country rather than impelling them to relocate to larger communities on the traditional country of other Aboriginal groups. While no longer favoured in government policy (Kerins 2009), a revival of support for homelands might provide an opportunity for some people, reducing their vulnerability, as has happened in other societies following climate change–related natural disasters (e.g. McSweeney and Coomes 2011). As it is, policies that stop or hinder relocation to homelands could be seen as reducing Aboriginal people’s capacity to adapt (Petheram et al. 2010), as is also the case in Alaska (Marino 2012).

Ideally, push situations,6 where people are forced to move, should be avoided (see Hugo 2010). Forced relocation is a particularly sensitive issue among Aboriginal people in general and among the Yolngu in particular, following the dispute with the bauxite mining company and the subsequent loss of their country (see chapter 2.1.). In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, before a formal recognition of Aboriginal land rights, governments and private companies paid little regard to the strong ties to country among Aboriginal people. For instance, governments often removed Aboriginal people from potential mine sites to allow unimpeded development (Altman 2009). Similarly, emergency management has historically been ‘command-and-control’ largely without any community involvement (Ellemor 2005) and without drawing on local traditional knowledge (Howitt et al. 2012). Thus, forced relocation to avoid climate change impacts is likely to contribute further to mistrust, disempowerment and higher community vulnerability (see Petheram et al. 2010; Veland et al. 2012). However, for many respondents, it was apparent that pull situations could be created in collaboration with traditional land owners by offering incentives. Incentives could include, for instance, the provision of housing and community facilities in areas less likely to be affected by climate change. Ideally, these would be in places where people already have cultural ties to their country, such as homelands, since only 5 % of respondents said they would prefer to move to cities like Darwin. There is currently a substantial research effort aiming to understand Aboriginal peoples’ mobility as a guide to the efficient and timely provision of community services, such as health, education and housing (e.g. Taylor and Bell 2004; Kainz et al. 2012). While currently not the dominant reason behind Aboriginal peoples’ high degree of mobility, it could be that in the future climate change is as important as other factors in driving migration, adding to the challenges in service provision for providers. Our study showed that peoples’ willingness to relocate was affected by the provision of community services. More research is needed to ensure the provision of these in the future when Aboriginal peoples’ mobility might increasingly be affected by climate change. A comparison of the multiple drivers of migration can help efficient service provision. More research is also needed to deepen the understanding of what relocation really means for Aboriginal people and the time frame behind this, in order to be better prepared should any large changes occur as people avail themselves of the services provided in towns or communities.

Governments may be discouraged by the expense of relocation. For instance in Alaska, where 86 % of villages are, to some extent, affected by flooding and coastal erosion, the direct costs of village relocation was estimated to be US$ 100–400 million per village of 400–600 people (GAO 2004, 2009). In Arnhem Land, however, moving back to homelands can have multiple benefits for the health and well-being of traditional owners (Green 2008; Garnett et al. 2009a), particularly if it means a greater involvement in managing country (Campbell et al. 2011). It can also lead to greater capacity for involvement in provision of environmental services (Altman et al. 2007; Luckert et al. 2007), something not currently possible for people living away from their traditional country (e.g. for people who have moved to Nhulunbuy for community services).

4.3 In situ adaptation measures

People expressing a strong preference for living near the sea could be mainly traditional owners of the area where we conducted the interviews. People whose traditional country is entirely coastal may not have homelands further inland to which they can move permanently or even temporarily. For these people, strong spiritual connections would hinder them from relocating at all. Those not wanting to relocate showed a particularly strong preference for the continued presence of turtles. This may be because turtles have totemic significance, something that cannot be substituted should people move inland. Thus, a strong connection to sea country might eventually be one of the main constraints to relocation, as there is no substitute for the traditional country that people would lose.

If climate change does long-term damage to coastal areas, people wishing to stay have to adapt in situ to mitigate this damage and to manage the uncertainty of future climate change–related disasters. The preferred policy is the construction of new houses and community facilities a little further inland, sea walls and, particularly, more category 4 and 5 cyclone shelters. Respondents also sought support from the government for travel, particularly for old and sick people who cannot travel long distances by foot, and for hunting should resources near communities become scarce because of climate change. While resilience to climate change can be fostered by creating jobs, diversifying income sources and creating alternative activities (Adger et al. 2005), increased government investment will be needed whatever policy options are adopted.

4.4 Aboriginal coastal communities: vulnerable or resilient?

Social and ecological linkages have been emphasised by many researchers (e.g. Adger et al. 2005; McLeman and Hunter 2010). Some concluded that vulnerable people become more vulnerable because of the dependence on a narrow range of natural resources (McLeman and Hunter 2010), whereas others believe that vulnerability is overestimated (McSweeney and Coomes 2011). This study was motivated by the assumption that coastal Aboriginal communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts (Woodward et al. 1998; Braaf 1999; IPCC 2007, Chapter 11). This might, however, not be true for all. While having a strong attachment to their country, Aboriginal people have traditionally travelled extensively to secure essential resources. The willingness of most people to consider at least temporary relocation reflects a history of movement by Aboriginal peoples’ (Green 2008). As some respondents noted, traditionally their lifestyle involved a high degree of mobility between resources. They suggested that such a lifestyle has always given them the flexibility to respond to climate change impacts in the past. Thus, Aboriginal people in the study area may be more resilient to climate change than non-Aboriginal Australians living permanently on the coast (Green et al. 2010) which is reinforced by the historical exposure to changes caused by the bauxite mine. What is needed to enhance this resilience is the opportunity for people to exercise self-determination (Muller 2008; Marika et al. 2009) and to assert Aboriginal protocols while imposing on them as few structured processes as possible (Veland et al.2010).

However, though Aboriginal people may be willing to pay to travel as an adaptation strategy, the cost of doing so may become prohibitively high. Transport is already very expensive in remote parts of Australia and is likely to become more so with rising oil prices. This will affect not just the capacity of people to obtain food from hunting and fishing should they relocate inland, but will also affect the cost of substituting such food. The cost for basic foods necessary to achieve good health from the supermarket is already higher in remote Aboriginal Australia than in urban areas and this, together with the low average income in Aboriginal communities, is likely to lead to increasing food insecurity as transport costs increase (Browne et al. 2009). Thus, increased government support is likely to be needed for people wishing to stay in climate change–affected areas, either by subsidising transport costs for people to go to hunting and fishing grounds or by subsidising food prices.

5 Conclusions

Climate change–related relocation is already under way in many countries (de Sherbinin et al. 2011) and has already happened to some extent in coastal Aboriginal communities in Australia because of cyclones (Veland et al. 2012). Given the latest predictions of sea level rise in northern Australia (CSIRO 2012), the Australian government needs to think about precautionary measures for those Aboriginal people living on the coast who are willing to relocate. However, when considering climate change–related relocation of coastal Aboriginal communities, any suggestion of movement away from their country is sensitive given the historical context in Australia of disempowerment and forced relocation for development or other reasons. It is therefore essential to work together collaboratively to develop precautionary climate change adaptation strategies that are culturally and ethically appropriate and that will be incorporated into contemporary climate change policy.

The majority of respondents (58 %) said that they would be likely to relocate from their current coastal settlements in the face of ongoing sea level rise and increasing number of severe cyclones, although at the same time they preferred not to move too far away. For some respondents, relocating would effectively fulfil their long-standing aspirations of returning to their homelands. A revival of support for homelands, particularly provision of infrastructure and services at locations away from the coast, could meet the combined objectives of satisfying the lifestyle aspirations of many Aboriginal people and contribute to climate change adaptation. Other people would be likely to move only temporarily or would prefer not to move at all. For people wishing to continue to have regular access to coastal resources, moving away from coastal communities, permanently or temporarily, will incur travel costs. Many respondents felt that financial support from the government for these additional travel costs would help them adapt to climate change. Respondents who preferred not to relocate at all need policies that help them to adapt in situ to climate change impacts. Many of these respondents wished to have additional government support for facilities such as better cyclone shelters, stronger houses and improved roads for evacuation as well as assistance with the provision of healthy food should it no longer be possible to obtain enough from native plants and animals (particularly seafood).


  1. 1.

    The term vulnerability in this paper embraces exposure and susceptibility to climate change impacts. The scopes of sensitivity and adaptive capacity which are also part of the concept of vulnerability (Adger et al. 2009) are beyond the scope of this paper.

  2. 2.

    We use the term ‘country’ for indigenous-owned traditional land and sea with which they have a special relationship. For indigenous Australians culture, nature and land are all intertwined (Fuller and Parker 2002; Altman et al. 2007). Country is home to ancestral beings which, according to Aboriginal creation stories, with the rivers, creeks, hill sides and other landscape and marine features they created on their journeys now being imbued with spiritual significance (Edwards 2004).

  3. 3.

    Insitu adaptation is defined as actions undertaken to reduce vulnerability in places where people currently live, whereas exsitu adaptation involves the movement of people, systems and/or assets from places of vulnerability (see e.g. Bardsley and Hugo 2010).

  4. 4.

    Kinship defines a ‘social organisation’ and provides strict rules on the ways in which Aboriginal people should behave towards each other, defining a person’s position within their network of relatives. Kinship relationships in Aboriginal culture are very different to any Western system (Ranzijn et al. 2009) with incompatibility between networks inhibiting some types of communication (Edwards 2004). For the sampling, this meant that the Aboriginal co-researchers were not allowed to speak to certain people, making the sampling procedure non-random. We employed three Aboriginal co-researchers with different networks (‘skins’), thereby maximising the number of people who could be approached.

  5. 5.

    1US$ = 0.96 AU$ (April 2012).

  6. 6.

    Reasons for relocation can be classified into push and pull situations (e.g. Adger 1999). Pull relocation is driven by the demand to move because of attractive circumstances elsewhere. Push relocation occurs if relocation is caused by detrimental living situation in the home locality.



We sincerely thank all Yolngu participants of this study as well as John Rolfe, Kevin Boyle and Deanne Bird for their valuable inputs. Field work was supported by Cindy Hutchery and Aboriginal co-researchers Dhanggal Gurruwiwi, Gunariny Gurruwiwi, Yululu Gurruwiwi, Fiona Y. Marika, Djapirri Mununggirritj and staff of the Women Resource Center in Yirrkala. We also thank five anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. The study was funded by an internal research panel grant by the Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Australia. The first author was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP0987528).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kerstin K. Zander
    • 1
    • 2
  • Lisa Petheram
    • 3
  • Stephen T. Garnett
    • 1
  1. 1.Research Institute for the Environment and LivelihoodsCharles Darwin UniversityDarwinAustralia
  2. 2.The Northern InstituteCharles Darwin UniversityDarwinAustralia
  3. 3.College of Arts and Social SciencesAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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