Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Don't leave coastal climate losers to twist in the wind

·         What kind of rises in sea level are expect around UK coasts?
·         Utilitarianism – why it’s OK for some to lose if the many will gain
·         Helping ‘crunch’ communities to adapt – time for government to commit

The Summary of Key Findings from the recently published UK Climate Change Risk Assessment[1] tells us that “…the UKCP09 projections for different parts of the UK suggest…by 2095 a…rise in sea levels around London, for instance, of between 20cm and 70cm.” (p6) Less optimistically, the Thames 2100 plan for consultation[2], concerned with future flood defences for the tidal Thames suggested that sea level rise in the Thames is likely to be between 20cm and 90cm” (p23). With a global rather than local focus, a summary from the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST)[3] draws on the most recent IPCC Assessment Report predictions of 18-59 cm in mean sea levels for the period 1990 to 2095 (p2).

Such variations reflect uncertainties attributed to a lack of knowledge with regard to future greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, importantly, the rate at which polar ice caps melt - and they may prove to be conservative.  The POST summary notes that the quoted IPCC projections “excluded possible rapid changes in the net rate of discharge from ice sheets as there was a lack of scientific understanding of the relevant processes” and that it is plausible that those in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report – due in 2013 – will be higher. (p.2) Recent published models, it suggests, “have predicted much higher sea level rise that suggested in the Fourth Assessment Report, with change in global mean sea levels in the next century exceeding 1 metre or more if greenhouse gases continue to escalate.” (p.3) 

This makes chilling reading for some of us although, interestingly, by no means all living in low-lying coastal areas. By way of example (and with apologies for my parochialism), the Thames Estuary 2100 Plan[4], designed to ensure that London is protected from the sea in the long-term employs the High++ scenario - a “low probability, high impact projection for sea level rise around the UK, carried out by the UK Climate Projection Report 2009” that “derives an upper bound of sea level rise around the UK of 1.9 metres in the next century.” (p.3)

Clearly government will take no chances with the integrity of the capital city (and by extension the prospects of those who live in it). By dint of no more their numbers and being in the right place at the right time (including proximity to capital and cultural assets and economic development muscle in the shape of the City), Londoners will be protected from these particular impacts of climate change for the foreseeable future. 

Wrong place, wrong time 

In extreme contrast, there are settlements, communities and people located on the coast facing very different and extremely worrying futures. The POST summary stresses that: “It is estimated that given current costs of building or maintaining coastal defences, there will be some locations where defences can no longer be sustained by government funding.” (p4) 

Utilitarian logic – concerned with maximising the well-being of the majority – is comfortable with the idea that some should lose in this way. O’Brien, and Leichenko[5], citing Nordhaus explain: “…it is the net balance of wins and losses across society that matters more than individual wins and losses…as this is considered the most efficient strategy that maximises net economic welfare.” By contrast, they suggest that egalitarians such as Rawls seek recognition that “winners and losers are socially generated” and that “it is the responsibility of society to address losers”. (p.99) Despite a little recent playing around the edges of its revamped FCERM funding strategy to lower the obstacles to the achievement of adequate sea defences for poorer communities (this is complicated, and I will return in a later post) the UK government appears stuck in the former camp.

The POST summary acknowledges that “The threat of loss of property and cultural heritage due to coastal change and from coastal defences that are determined to be unfeasible has resulted in friction between government policy and local communities.” (p.4) From my experiences as a community activist on this issue where I live – on the outer Thames estuary but out of reach of the security to be afforded those closer to the capital - I would suggest that ‘friction’ is an understatement. And from my experience as a member of the National Voice of Coastal Communities -  set up so that such ‘crunch’ communities might find a collective voice - I would also suggest that there are plenty more examples to be found. 
Beach Road, Happisburgh
The POST summary explains that “Defra will seek to support (such) communities in the process of adapting to the physical and social implications of coastal change.” This does not stretch to compensating those at risk of losing their properties, however. Instead, the summary continues, “Adaptation to coastal change in the UK is being generated through local authority and community-led ‘pathfinder’ programmes.” (p.4) This programme, set up under the last government, trialled funded approaches to helping people adapt to a range of coastal dilemmas including that of coastal erosion and resulting loss of homes. In Happisburgh, north Norfolk, public money has been used to pay 40-50% of the market value to owners of properties abandoned due to cliff erosion[6]. This is a welcome step in the right direction, but only that – government must now reassure all of those threatened with the impacts of rising seas as a consequence of man-made climate change that they not be left to swing in the wind as unlucky losers. Not doing so, and soon, risks a widespread loss of faith in the already fragile contract between government and citizens on this point, as Cllr Jane Evison at East Riding Council recently warned.[7]
Thank you, and good night.


[3] Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology. 2010. Sea Level Rise. Postnote. September 2010. No.363.Available at
[5] O’Brien, K.L. and Leichenko, R.M. 2003. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 93(1), pp. 89-103.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Notes on the costs of adaptation

Whilst I’m interested in climate change science and the debate that surrounds it, my main preoccupation lies with how the effects of change might be dealt with in just fashion.  It seems to me that unpicking the positions around the climate change science debate requires an understanding of natural science methodologies and a virtually unlimited amount of time - neither of which I have. Nonetheless, there are aspects to climate science that are hugely important in considerations of just societal responses to the impacts of climate change.   

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report[1] argues both that “Warming of the climate change system is unequivocal” (2007, p.30) and that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperature since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.” (2007, p.39) The largest growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 1970 and 2004, it proposes, came from energy supply, transport and industry, during which time emissions grew by 70%.
Coasts – my area of interest – “are projected to be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion…and sea level rise” (2007, p.46).  The “densely populated and low-lying megadeltas of Asia and Africa” and “small islands” are identified as especially vulnerable in this regard.

The 2007/2008 UN Development Report Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World[2] also flags up coastal zones in this regard, adding that the “consequences could be apocalyptic” (2007-8, p.3) for the world’s poorest people, an observation that is accompanied by the assessment that “those who have largely caused the problem – the rich countries – are not going to be those who suffer the most in the short term.” (2007, p.5)
In rich countries, the report suggests, “coping with climate change to date has largely been a matter of adjusting thermometers, dealing with longer hotter summers, and observing seasonal shifts” As sea levels rise, it continues, “Cities like London and Los Angeles may face flooding risks…but their inhabitants are protected by elaborate flood defence systems.” (2007, p.9)
Quite rightly, the report urges that “the world’s poor cannot be left to sink or swim with their own resources while rich countries protect their citizens behind climate-defence fortifications. Social justice and respect for human rights demands stronger international commitments on adaptation” (2007, p.13) if we are avoid what Desmond Tutu has called “drifting into a world of adaptation apartheid.” (2007, p.24)  We might exercise caution, however, in assuming a uniformity of insulation against the effects of climate change for those who live in the ‘rich’ world -  for example, those residents of New Orleans whose lives were shattered by the flooding that attended the arrival of Hurricane Katrina.  The report correctly observes that even those in the richest countries can be vulnerable, and that this is exacerbated when “impacts interact with institutionalized inequality.” (2007, p.16) 

The IPCC proposes that even if emissions of GHGs were to be stabilised (which to my untrained eye looks most unlikely any time soon) “anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries” (2007, p.46) which means that a focus on adaptation involving a just distribution of costs and benefits is an urgent priority. Adger[3] argues that the real justice question in what he describes the “one of the most contentious issues of global governance” (2010, p276) is not about the “distribution of rights to emit” (2010, p.278) which so preoccupies governments but “the avoidance of catastrophic harm” (2010, p.278). And he suggests that if human activities are the cause of climate change (and this seems to be accepted in the relevant UK government discourse at least), “then adaptation involves issues such as compensation and liability.” His “human-centred view of security” (2010, p.281) foregrounds personal  well-being and “individuals  and localities having the options to respond to threats to their human, environmental and social well-being imposed by climate change, and having the capacity and freedom to exercise these options.” (2010, p.281)

Around England and Wales in recent years, people have learned that the cost of protecting them and their homes from the sea will at some point outweigh the benefits offered to the public purse - assuming it doesn’t already. For these people – resident in the rich world – the prospect can look devastating, and I’m sure that as one of them I’m not alone in having found my options to respond to Adger’s threats limited indeed. All of us whose well-being is threatened by sea level rise as a consequence of man-made climate change - whether in the megadeltas of Asia and Africa, in New Orleans or perched on eroding cliffs in Norfolk – warrant a better shake.

With best wishes


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

[2] United Nations. 2007. Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World. New York.
[3] Adger, W.N. 2010. Climate Change, Human Well-Being and Insecurity. New Political Economy. Vol 15, No 2, pp.275-292.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

What might social justice look like?

So what will this blog be about? Well, potentially many things within what is a broad interest.

In recent years government has gone in for a process known as Shoreline Management Planning, with the second generation of plans now more or less complete. Whereas it was once broadly the case that government would look to defend wherever needed defending (despite being under no legal obligation to do so), it has been observed that the new orthodoxy is to look for areas of coastline that might be allowed to ‘realign’ in natural fashion. The second round of Shoreline Management Plans, then, sets sea defence policy for the entire coast of England and Wales – both by area and over the short (0-20yrs), medium (20-50yrs) and long (50-100yrs) terms. One of four options is possible for each of area (or policy unit) over each of these epochs, although essentially these boil down to whether the area will continue to be defended or not. For example, where I live will see a policy of ‘Hold the Line’ pursued in the short and medium terms – meaning that the coast will be protected to the current standard for a minimum of 50 years – with a switch to a policy of ‘managed realignment’ some times after that. What will happen, or when, is unclear. However, we have been told we can expect to lose our homes – a fate that awaits many others. What happens to us ‘losers’ is also less than clear.  Until recently we could expect to be presented with a bill for the cost of demolishing our homes, although that policy was recently withdrawn. A report is also due on Coastal Pathfinder projects which explored ‘adaptation’ schemes, one of which saw payments made to those losing their homes in North Norfolk. Whether or not this will become an orthodoxy (and for whom), however, I have no idea.

Having been introduced in sharp fashion to the question of what happens to people whom government policy suggests can expect to lose their homes to the sea at some point in the future, and met many others who have been similarly perplexed at the prospect of this, I've developed an interest in what might be considered 'fair' in this context. For example, is it fair that the public purse should stand the burden of either defending or compensating the relatively few individuals whose homes rising sea levels are likely to claim? The utilitarian logic favoured by government says not, and many agree. Conversely, however, we might argue that we relatively few individuals are ultimately the victims of sea level rise caused by the polluting activities of the developed world -  a view for which support might be found in the relevant policy literature. In this case, does a utlitarian logic suffice, or do we need to look at models of social justice that foreground the needs of the vulnerable rather than the well-being of the majority? 

Of course this is only to scratch the surface of a hugely complex subject, and as I read and write more as part of the research I'm doing I'll be kicking these and other ideas around on this blog. My study ‘Informed, Engaged and Empowered? A thicker description of community participation in the setting of coastal climate change adaptation policy’ will look at how communities experience the business of trying to influence decisions around sea defence policy – a key part of how government sees just outcomes being achieved. This, of course, is very much in tune with ideas of ‘localism’ in terms of policy decision-making, which seek to involve citizens in decisions of direct importance to them and has appealed to recent administrations. Inspired by my own experience and valuable conversations with my peers in other threatened communities, my concern is that smaller, less well-off groups of people are inhibited in a variety of ways in terms of influencing policy decisions, and so are less likely to see outcomes that they like.

So, through this blog I’ll be looking at many of the ideas that are relevant to the subject as I try to make better sense of what socially just outcomes might look like. I’ll also write about the information I collect through my own research, and what I think it means. In part, this is a selfish act – I think the best way for me to work is to write regularly and to a deadline, and I’ll be looking to blog once a week. But I also hope that what I come up with may be useful – to others who risk being disadvantaged and who want to argue the toss, policy makers, the officials looking to work with communities under threat, and academics. And if anybody cares to join in the discussion all the better.

With best wishes