On Coastal Adaptation and Loss
I grew up in Norfolk, with big skies, sandy beaches, crumbling cliffs and the brown, ever-present North Sea. Freezing on beaches in winter, wrapped up in hat and gloves with seals, terns, and marram grass for company, and camping next to them in summer; sky larks, ice creams, dunes and picnics. The coast is in me, and those coastal communities form the backdrop to many many childhood memories; Holkham, Wells, Sea Palling, Waxham, Eccles, Happisburgh, Salthouse. Old windmills just inland, new windfarms springing up off the coast; not a wild landscape but one which people and their livelihoods have shaped over centuries, and communities which in turn have been shaped by their ever-shifting surroundings. And as I write I'm filled with images; the glow of a sunset, the wind whipping the clouds through the sky, crabbing off the harbour, and the feel of salt on skin.
I write the personal introduction as a way of situating my reaction to reading the latest report from the UK's Committee on Climate Change: Managing the Coast in a Changing Climate. The report is great – it's hard-hitting, doesn't sugar-coat its messages and is abundantly clear about the scale of the challenge facing our coastal communities. And reading it I felt sadness, and loss, and melancholy. It's not the first time that I've been emotionally moved by reading on climate change, and others have written far more eloquently than I can about the psychological challenges of working in this field. But reading through the key messages in the report this felt very personal, and very close to home:
- 1m of sea-level rise almost guaranteed, and that's not considering the higher end possibilities.
- Almost a third of England's coastline where on current formulas funding for coastal defences would be unlikely.
- And: 'In the future, some coastal communities and infrastructure are likely to be unviable in their current form. This problem is not being confronted with the required urgency or openness.'
The report is plain that the scale of the challenge, and the difficult decisions that will be required, are not currently being grasped. There is a clear and urgent need for a step-change in the attention paid to long-term coastal planning and management, and extensive engagement with affected communities, for some of whom relocation will be the only realistic option. This is the business end of Adaptation, the last resort, and just as we have seen the establishment of a Just Transition Commission in Scotland to aid an equitable transition away from fossil fuels, so we may need something similar to ensure realistic, sustainable, and fair coastal adaptation, which addresses the hard decisions needed.
These 'communities which may be unviable' aren't just names and addresses, they're memories, livelihoods, and deeply cultural landscapes. They're ice creams from the post office and crab-lines from the corner shop, walks through the dunes and football on the beach. Some of these places will be lost, and it's very hard to write that and face it head on. Places that once were, but will be no longer. Places that join Dunwich and Shipden underneath the brown waves, fading to folk memory and the ghostly chiming of bells
Again, this is a great report, and it sets out a number of strong recommendations around coastal planning in the UK which could lead to sustainable coastal adaptation and navigate the challenges ahead to minimise the impacts, and in some areas bring benefits. Ensuring that funding and support is available for long-term coastal adaptation is critical if the changes we face are to be managed in in a just and sustainable manner. There is loss, but there is also hope.