Using a Social Functionalist Framework to Understand Responses to Projected Sea Level Rise and Managed Retreat Policies in Australia

By Kim Alexander and Anthony Ryan.

Published by The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Managed retreat is one of the few policy options available to the Australian government to mitigate the risk of sea level rise for coastal communities. A structured withdrawal from areas inundated by rising sea levels may be the only viable option for some jurisdictions and in many cases may be the most cost effective defensive approach. At present, little is known about community opinions on managed retreat options. The authors present a social functionalist framework to analyse the range of personal concerns and understand more about how people may respond to predicted changes to coastal shorelines. The meta-theoretical social functionalist framework suggests people can intuitively act as scientists, economists, prosecutors, theologians and at times as politicians, when subject to situations that require judgment and choice. Qualitative responses to an online survey were used to categorise participants according to their social functionalist decision-making styles. The study compared the decision-making style of three groups of participants: those concerned, unsure and unconcerned (sceptical/rejectionist) about sea level rise risks. The research demonstrated that the majority of participants used more than one social functionalist framework to intuitively assess managed retreat policies. While all risk profile groups tended to express intuitive scientist concerns, the emotive expressions of intuitive theologians and prosecutors were evident and could undermine policy processes and adaptation initiatives. These findings reinforce the need for further public debate on how to respond to sea level rise. They emphasise that different individuals frame the purpose of those debates in distinct ways; to reach the most effective, equitable and socially legitimate or morally appropriate response, which depends upon what is inherently important to each individual. A major advantage of employing a social functionalist framework analysis is the flexibility to identify the range of positions (more than one worldview) that can be held by members in a community and to be cognisant of the importance of firmly entrenched beliefs, and hence the barriers to constructive dialogue.

Keywords: Social Functionalist Frameworks, Climate Adaptation, Coastal Management, Community Engagement

The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, Volume 3, Issue 4, pp.127-138. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 969.023KB).

Dr. Kim Alexander

Research Scientist, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia

Kim Alexander is currently the National Research Manager at Royal Life Saving-Australia, after previous research experience at CSIRO, University of Melbourne and Charles Sturt University. Her research interests include (i) social aspects of agricultural change in Lao PDR, (ii) participatory research in rural and urban communities, (iii) water-related research including; community perceptions of public health risks from recycled water; urban water demand management; urban, rural and global water availability; and community perceptions of on-site wastewater systems, (iv) coastal adaptation to sea level rise, (v) water governance issues in Northern Australia, (vi) sustainable communities in Victoria and the (vii) social aspects of the introduction of managed aquifer recharge water reuse schemes in South Australia. She has contributed to several projects international projects on vulnerability, conservation and watershed appraisals. She has co-authored a UNEP report on global water patterns, and conducted international research with AusAID and IUCN.

Dr. Anthony Ryan

Research Scientist, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

Dr. Anthony Ryan is an economic psychologist who completed his Ph.D at ANU and his post doctorate at CSIRO. He has specialised in examining the way in which people construct environmental value. He has also published on the ways in which people psychologically formulate monetary valuations of non-market environmental assets.


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