Coastal Lawscape

Western Alum Tayanah O’Donnell initially didn’t finish high school. She’s now a leading voice in climate change.

Dr Tayanah O’Donnell is a lawyer and social scientist whose work regarding ‘the coastal lawscape’ affects us all. Her PhD thesis and pursuant work looks at ‘how climate change adaptation strategies are framed by different policies and laws, and how these strategies are negotiated … between local councils, state policy and private property owners’.

Dr O’Donnell was bitten by the law bug at age six following a discussion with her grandmother about the traditional British breakfast bubble and squeak. ‘I was adamant there were no vegetables – because I hated veggies then, but loved her bubble and squeak! It was the only time I ever heard her raise her voice, when she said, “you could argue with a mouthful of marbles underwater. You should become a barrister!”.’

However, Dr O’Donnell isn’t your average high-achiever. She initially didn’t finish high school.

She returned to schooling as a 19-year-old single parent, attending Liverpool TAFE and completing a year 12 equivalent course in order to attend university. ‘My then TER was high enough to study law/social sciences at any university, but Western was my first choice’, she says. After graduating with her Bachelor of Laws/Social Science (Hons) and Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice, she practiced law for a few years. She then went to work as Tipstaff to the Hon Justice Sheahan AO in the NSW Land and Environment Court, where an interesting piece of litigation inspired her career in research.

‘That was the Vaughan litigation. Vaughan is a coastal property owner whose house is located in a high-risk coastal zone. He’s commenced numerous legal actions to protect his property rights.’ The 2009 case was about the conditions of a development consent for a sandbag wall, which was built but subsequently collapsed during a storm, taking with it several metres of Vaughan’s land and causing severe public asset and beach damage. ‘This case was interesting, because although it wasn’t about specific climate change impacts, it represented the types of legal cases we might see in the future’, she says.

‘Climate change will see a lot more of these types of impacts, with devastating legal, environmental and social consequences for coastal zones.’

Having completed her PhD in human geography, Dr O’Donnell now has ‘an equal love for geography’ as she does for law but says ‘I don’t see these issues as binary – they’re interrelated, a system.’

‘Through the lens of a “coastal lawscape” we can better understand the relationship between law, politics and culture in the context of coastal climate change adaptation.’

Dr O’Donnell is Director of Future Earth Australia hosted by the Australian Academy of Science, of which Western Sydney University is a member.

‘The team links science to sustainability’, she explains. ‘One example is our focus on sustainable urban systems. We’re running a dozen full day workshops around the country to build communities of practice on urban issues and opportunities, and to build an evidence base for a national strategy for Australia’s cities. The long-term sustainability of our cities is critical given the expected environmental, social, and economic changes we know are coming due to climate change. It’s also practical given the rapid rate of expansion of urban centres, here and around the world.’

So working in climate change, is Dr O’Donnell a pessimist or an optimist?

‘An optimist’, she says firmly. ‘I have to be for my children and future grandchildren. I want them to know I did everything I possibly could.’