Coastal communities left at sea in new government report

A new report from the Committee on Climate Change looks at the effects of a changing climate on coastal communities, and what needs to be done to mitigate against the negative effects of sea level rises. Writer and researcher Dr Chris Blunkell reveals how the contents of the report suggest that many coastal communities may be left to face the rising tide alone.

Coastal community
Coastal community
Dr Chris Blunkell

Dr Chris Blunkell is a writer and researcher, and was a founder member of the National Voice of Coastal Communities.

In late October the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a statutory body which, amongst other things, advises Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change, published a new report, ‘Managing the coast in a changing climate’.

Dr Chris Blunkell
Dr Chris Blunkell

The authors paint a bleak picture for some coastal dwellers – climate change is causing sea waters to rise and is melting glaciers, and we will almost certainly see one metre of sea level rise at some point in the future, possibly within the lifetimes of children alive today. We learn that policies and practice are not facing up to the inevitability of future change, and that we must decide where to protect and where not.

For the majority of people living in places on the coast, the value of assets in their areas such as houses, commercial interests and infrastructure means that that government will continue to invest in their protection. For some, however, a very different future looms.

Professor Jim Hall states in the report’s foreword: “…in places where it will no longer be affordable or sustainable to protect, timely action is needed so that assets can be relocated or decommissioned in a sensitive way”. What it doesn’t say is that government doesn’t compensate those who lose their homes, so what this ‘sensitive relocation’ might look like for them is less than clear.

‘Adaptation’ is a key word in this report. People who live on the coast, we learn, ‘are not engaged in the process of planning for future change and are not taking pro-active steps to adapt’. But what does the word really mean? In 2006, researchers Smit and Wandel suggested that whilst there are numerous definitions to be found in the literature on climate change, they are mostly variations on a theme: ‘Adaptation in the context of human dimensions of global change usually refers to a process, action or outcome (system, household, community, group, sector, region, country) in order for the system to better cope with, manage or adjust to some changing condition, hazard, risk or opportunity.’ In talking about who or what is required to do the adapting, then, this appears to be a moveable feast. And this requires more critical attention than it receives in the report.

We need to think more deeply about how climate stresses are framed by human activities. A simplistic reading of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, for example, might be that the Joads and their neighbours had to leave their Oklahoma homes and move on simply because drought had rendered their farms no longer viable. It was just bad luck, and theirs alone to bear. A broader and more sophisticated reading might understand the Joads’ plight more in terms of changing agricultural practices and their effects, the Great Depression and the policies and practices of the banks in foreclosing on them. It is about much more than just climate, then.

To return to the matter at hand, ‘Managing the coast in a changing climate’ speaks vaguely of the need for ‘long-term funding streams’ and ‘sustained engagement…with affected communities’, and the idea of compensation even rears its head momentarily. However, I fear the truth lies in the authors’ assertion that  ‘…central government has a particular responsibility to ensure that risks are realistically assessed and to provide the frameworks and targets that will drive change.’ The risks, it seems, must be articulated and managed by government, but the effects borne by coastal communities.

I started campaigning for a better deal for coastal dwellers in 2007 – first locally on behalf of my neighbours on the north Kent coast, and then nationally with the National Voice for Coastal Communities. In the time I have spent dealing with those who make and discharge policy I have concluded that when they talk of ‘adaptation’ in this context they really only mean those people and communities for whom the sums for state investment in sea defence don’t add up, and so must shoulder the resulting loss. By way of contrast, the London dweller who will benefit from the protection afforded by a new (and publicly-funded) Thames Barrier may never have heard of it, or ever need to.

Buried within this report, then, is the perpetuation of an unpalatable orthodoxy – that although climate change is broadly accepted by the scientific community as the result of collective human activity, the state will protect only some whilst others must ‘adapt’ at massive personal cost and with no or little meaningful government help. And I don’t think that is fair.