Environment – Nature will have her way

These days, every storm seems to bear down with unprecedented ferocity. Extreme weather events are a regular occurrence. High seas now wash boulders onto roads and coastal erosion bites huge chunks off our favourite beaches. Infrastructure can’t cope, causing floods and property damage. Inundation makes areas impassable.

Weather measurements reach new levels – the driest summer ever, the coldest night, the most rain or snow, the strongest wind … welcome to the new reality. Climate change, and the more extreme and frequent storms and droughts that it brings, is upon us. The climate change future is now.

But as yet there seems to be little attenuation of those risks or reduction of coastal development in response to the increased vulnerability of communities to climate change. We’re getting more coastal development, not less.

Suggestions of ‘managed retreat’ of public and private infrastructure from coastal margins are sometimes met with outrage. Responses often take the form of a clamour for yet more hard structures, coastal armaments, rock walls, and barriers, which are expensive to make, often ugly, and ultimately doomed to fail.

The future looks pretty precarious, too. Scientists are warning that even if we stopped emitting CO2 at unsustainable rates immediately, we’d still have seas a metre or two higher than current levels, by the end of the century. Some forecasters warn that some current coastal real estate will have to be abandoned altogether, uninhabitable because of climate change-induced storm risks. We’ve built houses and roads, and sealed over low lying dune and swampland, meaning many of our towns and villages are vulnerable already within the range of ‘normal’ storm events, and this can only get worse.

But despite obvious current risks, all indications are that we will continue to fail to change our own actions in response to the climate, putting expensive public and private development, infrastructure and assets in the path of the force of the sea. In natural coastal environments, dune ecosystems create a natural defence against storm surges, but now they’re severely modified.

Planning processes take a long time and much of our development sits on the coast, meaning current land use patterns are hard to change. People are worried about property rights and property values, but nature won’t care whether we take heed of scientists’ current warnings, she will continue to have her way, and we will pay.