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A sinking continent?

A new report has parts of coastal Australia falling into the ocean, unless a little political will — and finance — is employed.

Waves wash over rocks that fringe Sydney Harbor, Oct. 27, 2009. Australia needs to adopt a national policy to combat rising sea levels, which may see people forced to abandon coastal homes and banned from building beachside homes, according to a parliamentary climate change committee. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

GOLD COAST, Australia — The prediction is dire.

Coastal towns will be left to fall into the sea by governments in Australia that won’t cough up the money to combat rising sea levels over the next 50 years. Billions of dollars will be wiped from the value of almost 250,000 homes at risk of flooding by the end of this century, including some of the most exclusive addresses in the country.

Property-owners could face the prospect of selling their land to governments in cut-price deals and leasing it back while they make alternative arrangements to move to safer areas in five- or 10-year relocation plans.

A bleak report by the Department of Climate Change has predicted a 1.1-meter sea level rise around the coast of Australia over the next 100 years. The study outlines the stark dangers of climate change.

About 80 percent of the Australian population lives near the coast, and more people continue to move closer to the ocean as global warming raises temperatures, making a beach lifestyle even more attractive.

As President Barack Obama made the historic step of visiting China in his first term and the two nations agreed to cooperate on climate change in next week's crucial U.N. summit in Copenhagen, are the Australians finally taking global warming seriously?

Australia’s Labor government headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wants a 40 percent carbon reduction target set for 2100, but Climate Change Minister Penny Wong has denied claims that she is mounting a fear campaign to pressure the opposition into a carbon-trading deal.

The destruction of picturesque coastlines and tourist trade aside, sea level rises and storm surges will have a huge impact on infrastructure for trade, transport and industry. Planning for those changes will require huge capital investments.

Tropical cyclones and storms are also expected to intensify, which could lead to major destruction — and cost.

Geoff Withycombe, of Sydney Coastal Councils, which represents 15 local governments, says property-owners have to accept that no investment is guaranteed and that multi-million dollar values for beachfront property will be unrealistic in the future. He said some small coastal towns would inevitably have to be left to be reclaimed by the sea.

“In a changing climate, nothing is certain. The problem with a lot of private and public properties at the moment is their values do not reflect the risk in terms of climate change.

“We need to make a comprehensive assessment of the hazards and risks involved with rising sea levels and set those out to the stakeholders.

“Let’s use the coastal zone while we can. We can’t sterilize land. In a country like Australia, we can’t afford to compensate everyone and we have 60,000 kilometers of coastline, so we can’t put sea walls up around the country.”