The effects of climate change, including rising mean sea level, pose significant challenges for coastal communities and are argued to require a collective adaptive response to address the impacts. Consequently, the Australian government, in its adaptation and hazard management policy, has assigned households shared responsibility for adapting to the impacts of climate change. Further, it is acknowledged that information regarding the needs, strengths and vulnerabilities of communities is required to inform capacity development strategies. Yet despite a policy emphasis on household capacity for adaptation, research on the capacity of coastal households has been limited; with studies more frequently quantifying projected impacts and evaluating the capacity of local government authorities to respond. This study addresses this gap by contributing to an understanding of the nature of household adaptive capacity in Australian coastal communities. Through mixed method case-study research in two peri-urban coastal communities, risk perceptions, perceived capability, capacity needs and current responses to manage climate change and its associated hazards are uncovered. The results indicate that Australian coastal households are coping with climate hazards and mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Adaptation to the impacts of climate change is limited. The characteristics associated with action (e.g. risk perception, past experience, home ownership) vary based on the type of action taken (i.e. mitigating GHG emissions, lobbying for change or impact orientated adaptive responses). Perceptions that a hazard is a low risk, perceptions of adequate capability for familiar hazards, and perceptions of limited household responsibility beyond coping are barriers to adaptive action. These barriers are influenced by: (i) past experience with climate hazards; (ii) the efficacy of coping strategies previously deployed in response to experienced hazards; (iii) social narratives of capability to prepare for and respond to climate hazards; (iv) the availability of external support services (e.g. State Emergency Services); and (v) acceptance of climate-related risks. However, a willingness to take responsibility for managing climate hazards and requests for further information on household exposure to risk and strategies to adapt provide opportunities to build capacity for climate change adaptation. The findings demonstrate that relying on generic determinants of capacity to identify those vulnerable and evaluate their capability to adapt provides only a partial understanding of the barriers to and capacity for adaptation—perceptions at the household scale are critical.
Submitted in the fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of the Sunshine Coast, 2016.