Canary in the coalmine

By Amelia Costigan, Ann Khorany, Hannah Hammoud | 17 Mar 23

Gippsland’s industrial and economic past is returning to haunt it, with weather extremes and rising sea levels associated with human-induced climate change, driven by the use of fossil fuels.

Despite being flooded ten times in the last two years, Gippsland dairy farmer Craig Calvert has no plans to abandon the farm that has been in his family for six generations.

“My insurance has nearly doubled in the past three years,” he says. “I’ve lost close to about 800,000 dollars in the last 12 months.”

Climate projections from the Victorian government signal that  residents in Gippsland are racing toward a future of longer fire seasons and fewer frosts, more frequent and intense downpours, warmer and more acidic oceans, and rising sea levels. The result? More “extreme” events, such as Craig Calvert’s seven floods in a single year, are likely to become the new normal.

Human-induced climate change has been driven by the use of fossil fuels to power industrialization. Gippsland – a vast and resource-rich region of eastern Victoria, roughly the same size as Switzerland — has been the powerhouse of Victoria’s industrial history. And still today, Gippsland’s annual gross regional product of $18 billion is generated by key industries including  electricity and gas and agriculture.

While much of Gippsland’s wealth since colonisation has been driven by its coal and gas resources, their extraction is also to blame for much of its present and future climatic misery. It means the region is facing challenging schisms across a range of fronts. 

Cultural schisms between residents who are climate sceptics and those who see themselves as the state’s first climate refugees. Economic schisms between those whose livelihoods are linked to tourism and renewables and those who work in agriculture and resources. Housing schisms between those who can afford rising insurance premiums, and those attracted to properties made cheaper by uninsurable climate risk. Geographic schisms between those whose land remains viable and those who may be stranded by coastal erosion or flood risk.

The region is squaring up to a polluting past that powered its wealth but has come back to haunt it, the cost of a deal struck by forebears blind to its terms and conditions.

Gippsland beach
Pristine Norman Bay Beach in South Gippsland. Photo: Hannah Hammoud

Powering Victoria

It is no understatement that Gippsland has long powered Victoria. The region produces 85 per cent of Victoria’s electricity and 97 per cent of Victoria’s natural gas. But Gippsland’s long relationship with fossil fuels is drawing to an abrupt close with the September 2022 announcement that the Loy Yang A power station in the Latrobe Valley will close in 2035, 10 years earlier than expected. The nearby Yallourn power station is also due to shut in 2028. The closure of Gippsland’s coal industry has resulted in thousands of job losses since the 1990s.
Renewable energy companies will only partially offset those losses. The Star of the South offshore wind farm in South Gippsland, for example, is projected to create 2000 new jobs, including 760 local jobs during construction. The wind farm is expected to start delivering power in 2028.

A culture of coal

Gippsland’s role as Victoria’s “energy capital” has also left a legacy of scepticism and social resistance to global warming among some residents and farmers.

Chief Executive Officer of Gippsland Climate Change Network Darren McCubbin says that there is an observable resistance to renewable energies in the region due to a cultural connection to coal.

“We had a couple of people who were embarrassed to have solar panels on their roof,” Mr McCubbin says. “They didn’t want to upset people who worked in the coal industry to think that they were supportive of renewable energy.”

Mr McCubbin says the cultural powerhouse of Gippsland’s fossil fuel history has been a difficult hurdle to overcome in addressing the region’s climate change awareness.

Climate activism features on Gippsland industrial chimney. Photo: Tony Peck

Craig Calvert’s family has not only endured repeated flooding. His farm was also badly burnt in the devastating 2019–2020 Black Summer fires that resulted in four deaths and the loss of over 400 dwellings and businesses in Gippsland.

But he doesn’t blame human industry for what is playing ou. “Everyone says it’s climate change doing the fires, well it’s not climate change at all,” Mr Calvert says. 

“If you take away the feelings and the emotions of the subject, you can look at history and see that, there are droughts, there are floods, there are fires, but what we’re seeing now is more extreme weather events.”

Despite increasingly frequent natural disasters, Calvert, whose family have been dairy farmers in East Gippsland for 200 years, says he is prepared to stay.

“It’s a legacy I want to pass on to the future generation of our kids and their kids,” he says.

Rail bridge in Gippsland reads ‘climate emergency’. Photo: Tony Peck

Risky business 

As extreme weather events increase, insurance companies are steadily raising premiums on assets deemed risky, creating a crisis of accessibility and affordability.

While Mr Calvert’s farmland is insured, his cattle are excluded from his cover, meaning that in the event of floods, he cannot lodge a claim for loss of the livestock that is essential to his business.

Financial stress stemming from insurance exclusions and affordability pressures is a burden shared by homeowners across the country. According to the Climate Council, millions of Australians will be affected, with one in 25 homes to become uninsurable in the next 10 years.

Fish Creek resident Jeanette Pierce has seen her insurance premiums increase by nearly $1000 in the last 12 months. “They went up by $400 in 2021 and now they’ve gone up another $500 in October 2022,” she says. “And we’re zero chance of being flooded and very low bushfire risk.”

Research from the Actuaries Institute of Australia reveals that low income earners currently spend more than one month of their gross annual household income on home insurance. People in this category and also living in climate-vulnerable properties are more likely to be older, retired and renting – characteristics shared by many Gippsland residents. They face an impossible choice: forfeit one month’s income for insurance protection each year or risk losing everything.

“We need to make sure that we understand that natural perils only become natural disasters when they intersect with vulnerable communities,” Actuaries Australia report author Saroop Philip says.

Rail bridge in Gippsland reads ‘Solar Power. Clean Jobs’. Photo: Tony Peck

A planned retreat

One mitigation strategy that may seem unimaginable to the average homeowner in the face of climate disasters is “planned retreat.” This involves moving or abandoning assets and homes as part of a coordinated and permanent relocation of communities out of harm’s way.

Retreat is one of the adaptation actions contained within the Gippsland Regional Climate Adaptation Strategy, released by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in 2021.

The strategy identifies publicly and privately-owned buildings and transport infrastructure as at risk from extreme weather, sea level rise and coastal erosion. At particular risk is poor quality and “thermally unsafe” private and public housing and education and commercial buildings, essential utilities such as sewerage, water and power, and community and tourism assets such as surf-life saving clubs, ports and jetties. 

“Those most affected are the vulnerable and disadvantaged within the community who have less capability to address and resolve the issues,” the report states.

“Planning for current and future land use as well as asset adaptation, or a managed retreat, is necessary in the immediate future to ensure that action can respond in time to emerging threats.”

South Gippsland Shire Council’s draft Coastal Strategy mentions “retreat” as one of six possible adaptation “actions,” but it does not detail when, where and how such a retreat may occur. Instead, the draft flags the council’s intentions for new controls for no more than one dwelling per lot, no further residential subdivision and the removal of our greenfield residential growth areas for coastal townships. 

A spokesperson for the council said adaptation is listed in the draft strategy discussion paper as background information only at this stage and no “actions” are finalised until the drafting and community comment processes and Council vote on the strategy are complete.

Bairnsdale resident and climate activist Tony Peck assumes that people will leave areas that become too difficult to live in.

“The reality is people will do without insurance or they will decide they can’t live there

anymore and move to somewhere that feels safer,” he says.

Others are not so sure. Experts say prices will decrease as houses become more risk prone and uninsurable, prompting those priced out of metropolitan housing markets to opt for more affordable options.

“Climate vulnerable properties tend to have lower prices, and that tends to attract people, obviously, who can [only] afford cheaper property,” Head of Impact at Climate Risk Georgina Woods says.

The implications of erosion

The Climate Council estimates that sea level rises will reshape the sandy beaches on the Gippsland coastline, and increased erosion will threaten roads, bridges, power lines and homes.

The regional Catchment Management Authority recommends the South Gippsland Shire Council refuse land subdivisions and new multi-unit developments in areas at risk in order to reduce the number of people subject to flooding and other climate-related risks.

For coastal towns like Venus Bay and Loch Sport, where road access is severely limited, flood can trap residents, locking out emergency services and essential supplies, such as food and prescription drugs.

Beachfront residents in Loch Sport have experienced over four metres of foreshore erosion in recent years, with a state government report revealing that by 2050, at least 45 private blocks will be partially or fully inundated under flood waters.

“People down here have been complaining about the erosion for 20 or 30 years,” Secretary of the Loch Sport Business & Tourism Association Tony Patchell says.

According to Mr Patchell, the erosion is so distressing that residents have been forced to build their own tea tree groynes, (a type of barrier), at personal expense. These structures interrupt water flow and limit the movement of sand sentiment, which causes erosion.

Coastal erosion on sections of The Boulevard in Loch Sport. Photo: Tony Patchell

Government-funded erosion prevention strategies like artificial sand build up have been ineffective, lasting only six months, and residents have had piles of sand blown into their properties, according to Mr Patchell.

Whether erosion might diminish the appeal of the region to holidaymakers is a big concern for residents. “People are moving here because of the lifestyle, but tourism is our only industry,” Mr Patchell says.

The first climate refugees

The term climate refugees usually brings to mind people displaced from from Pacific Island nations. But for Tony Peck, a retired nurse from Bairnsdale, it described his friends and neighbours during the 2019-2020 Black Summer fires.

The experience was one of the things that drove him to join the local branch of Extinction Rebellion and advocate for increased action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

“Over the course of those fires we had between 10 to 14 people staying with us every night, escaping the fires. We had seven or eight dogs most nights,” he says of an experience he fears is a harbinger of things to come.

“We said at the time, across the east coast of Australia we were experiencing the first climate refugees in our own country.”

Snapshot of Gippsland’s demographics

Gippsland is a region with unique vulnerabilities to the climate crisis. In an area already subject to numerous forms of disadvantage, it points towards a future of increased inequality.

Census data from 2021 reveals the median income of a house in Gippsland is $521 less than the average Victorian household. The average Gippsland household runs on a weekly income of $1,238, compared to Victoria’s $1,759.

Just 14 per cent of Gippsland’s community has a university degree compared to 29 per cent of Victorians. Gippsland is home to an older population, with a median age of 46, compared to Victoria’s median age of 38.

Executive Director of the Centre for Just Places Susie Moloney says populations with existing inequalities are going to be those which suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of climate change.

“There’s a real inequitable and unjust future ahead in the context of climate change.”

What is planned retreat?

Planned retreat, also known as managed retreat, involves the purposeful relocation of communities from areas most at risk of events like floods, fires or erosion. This may involve density restrictions that limit development, setbacks that require new developments to be a minimum distance from the shore, minimum elevation policies to accommodate potential sea rise, or abandoning homes and assets altogether. It is an unsettling subject for many communities who could be permanently economically disadvantaged by their displacement. 

Planned retreat raises economic, logistical, and cultural questions. It is no longer a “last resort” strategy but a powerful tool to ensure public safety and reduce risk associated with coastal erosion and inundation.

Where is planned retreat happening or planned to occur?

Planned retreat is a strategy in consideration globally as the threat of sea level rises endangers coastal communities. Managed retreat was successfully achieved in Grantham, Queensland, after twelve people died in 2011 during a catastrophic flood. Today, almost 90 families have moved to higher ground. The retreat took just 11 months and cost the federal and Queensland governments $18 million.

Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, is one of the most prominent cities to use planned retreat as its climate-adaptation strategy. With sea levela rising and turbulent storms swelling water levels for coastal communities, the Dutch have built what is known as “wikkleboats”. These are small floating houses, made of cardboard, entirely waterproofed and supercharged by rooftop solar panels. A Dutch team is leading similar projects in European countries, such as France and Norway, as well as counties with high flood risks, including the Maldives and French Polynesia. 

What human adaptations are required with planned retreat?

Planned retreat remains a controversial management strategy in Australia, uprooting individuals from their homes and abandoning entire communities can be a difficult trade-off for coastal populations that have built close attachments to their local area and its lifestyle. These sensitivities are underscored by Australia’s cultural legacy of attaching economic security to property ownership.

This investigation is by students at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, supported by independent media not-for-profit Right Now.