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.

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