Shorelines: flooding, and the science of imagination

Take a walk up the coast of Suffolk or stand on the quay side in Hull and imagine the two metres of sea level rise which will, if we don’t radically change, be there in 2100. Add a high tide and five meters of storm surge and it becomes hard to sleep well in your bed.

Climate change is a crisis of our own making because for 30 years we’ve been clear about its causes and likely impacts. We have had all the technical solutions to reducing carbon emissions at our fingertips. We failed as a society to act. As a result, there is now no scenario where climate change won’t have dramatic consequences for future generations. The question now is how to secure the practical changes to our economy and society necessary to give communities like Hull a fighting chance of a hopeful future. We cannot afford the kind of fatal muddle we currently experience in the UK which is leaving us critically unprepared for the future.

So, what do we do about it? Well we are not short of data and in fact as each year passes we have more detailed and robust insights into our future. Neither are we short of solutions. We know how to reengineer our towns and cities to make them more resilient to climate and, because this involves greening our homes and streets, improving people’s health and wellbeing.

Why don’t we do this? How can we know so much and do so little? Bluntly because politicians simply don’t care enough about the future to act. There is also a real fear that if we tell people the truth about the future of some places it will demoralise communities who already have enough on their plate.

Flooding and the future

But this denial won’t work because even the government’s own science is pretty shocking.

The Environment Agency’s new figures estimate by 2080 :

  • 105% cumulative increases in river flows in the South East
  • 70% increases in the Severn
  • 50% in the Humber

Estimates of sea level rise are as much as 1.6 meters for the South East and the South West over the time period 2000 to 2125. Rainfall intensity, critical for surface water flooding, may increase by 40% by the 2080s. As a result, the extent of flood plains will change and so will our coastline. We need to plan for at least 100 years ahead to be ready for the challenge.

And these figures are not worst-case scenarios. The data is subject to genuine scientific uncertainty about some aspects of, for example, sea level rise. The science is evolving rapidly but there remains significant variability between studies of global mean sea level even when using the same carbon emission scenarios. The source of this variability is our incomplete understanding of the rapid changes to the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets with both marine ice sheets and marine ice cliffs showing increasingly rapid instability. Because of these uncertainties current projections do not fully consider the impact of the break-up of these ice sheets on global mean sea level rise. Thinking about the future of coastal communities over the next 100 years we need to be clear that the current higher estimates could well be exceeded if the rate of climate change intensifies. And of course, sea levels will go rising after 2125.

The Shorelines Project

All this can seem overwhelming, but understanding what’s ahead is essential to work out what to do about it.

The technical solutions are out there but they should be applied in the context of knowing our final destination and not as desperate sticking plasters. The English reliance on piecemeal, adrenaline fuelled improvisation simply will not do the job. Imagining the worst-case outcome is the most useful, honest and the most hopeful thing we could do in tackling climate change.

Rights : Community : Action’s new Shorelines Project – launching soon – will talk honestly with  communities about flooding and the future and to support them to have strong voice in the action we desperately need to take. In Hull, our pilot city, this is about using art to support imaginative conversations about the future of the city.

Why art? Because imagination is key to our future. If you can’t imagine the future you can’t be ready for it. The Fukushima nuclear disaster was principally a failure of imagination. Planners and engineers simply could not envisage the scale of the impact of the tsunami nor the multiple failures to backup safety systems. We need to ensure that we have comprehensively imagined reasonable worst-case scenarios for individual places. There is no benefit whatsoever in trying to play down the potential impacts on many of our most vulnerable communities.

Having imagined the future, we can develop the solutions as part of long-term and hopeful story of a community.

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