It is almost certain that sea levels will rise by at least one metre because of climate change. Our coastlines will change too. We must prepare for this.

Sea-level rise is one of the major challenges identified in Global warming of 1.5°C, the special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Some models estimate that there will be a rise of one metre within the next 80 years. 

There are serious implications of this; infrastructure damage, loss of land and displacement of communities. Even if we succeed in limiting temperature increase to 1.5°, sea levels will continue to rise for centuries because of the emissions we have already locked in.

Living on the coast has always come with a certain level of flooding and erosion risk, and as an island nation, many of our major conurbations lie in coastal and tidal flood-risk zones. Climate change is bringing these areas a new reality.

Learning from experience

The UK is one of the first countries to have implemented a policy of managed retreat for a coastal community, at Fairbourne in Wales.

Managed retreat was identified as a policy in the local Shoreline Management Plan, but this implementation was initially very poorly managed. The council and Welsh Government support systems were ill prepared to deal with the community and media backlash. The Fairbourne community became known as ‘climate refugees’.

So, what is the solution for lower-lying coastal towns at risk of inundation?

  • Should we continue to ‘hold the line’ by raising and improving defences? Would it be a commitment to unsustainable futures and increasing risk for communities?
  • Should we relocate communities? Would it be possible to compensate communities fairly without putting an excessive burden on the state?
  • Should communities learn to live with the risk? Would it be feasible to make properties more resilient to flood impacts so that recovery is quicker and less expensive?

Recent experiences suggest there is institutional reluctance to tackle the big issues of coastal adaptation for climate change.

  • After Storm Katrina in 2005, New Orleans was reconstructed and re-inhabited despite remaining at significant storm-surge risk.
  • After the UK storm in 2013-14, coastal infrastructure was rebuilt in the same original locations, rather than further inland as suggested by both local communities and Shoreline Management Plans.

Decisions that fail to consider the future can lock in patterns of coastal development which may be impossible to undo without prohibitive expense and effort.

Even structural protection can have the knock-on effect of increasing vulnerability in the longer term. The perception of increased safety it provides can lead to further development on the flood plain and if defences then fail, the results can be catastrophic.

A whole society’s future

Responding to rising seas by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) considers alternative strategies for dealing with the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels on coastal communities. Examples are offered from around the world of how these issues have been tackled.

The OECD report advocates a ‘whole-of-society approach’ to build resilience in coastal zones, moving on from traditional approaches of increasing protection.

A whole-of-society approach involves all relevant stakeholders in the policy-making process, including individuals, households, government bodies and businesses.

The adoption of an inclusive risk management approach enables the development of a shared vision of the risks and the distribution of responsibilities between stakeholders. With this comes recognition that government efforts cannot be effective if private sector actors and individuals do not contribute their share in terms of risk-adapted behaviour and self-protection investments. This includes

  1. the provision of tailored risk information that is accessible in a manner appropriate to diverse communities, sectors, industries and with international actors
  2. the combination of targeted communication with incentives and tools for stakeholders to work together and take responsibility for self-protective and resilience-building measures
  3. providing notice to households about different scales of hazards and human-induced threats, and supporting informed debate on the need for prevention, mitigation and preparation measures
  4. informing and educating the public in advance of a specific emergency about what measures to take when it occurs, and mobilising public education systems to promote a culture of resilience.


The last word

Developing a shared vision with communities and other stakeholders is critical to avoid time-consuming and expensive work in reducing the impacts of poorly managed strategies and planning.

Some countries are implementing inclusive approaches to managing coastal risk, but much more is needed given the scale of future risks and the resources and time needed to respond to them.