Climate change will swallow England’s coast – taking away not just homes, but memories too

A new report details the risks to England’s coast in a changing climate. But there are also losses which can’t be quantified.

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I will never forget the very first time I drove a car. It was a grey day and the iron-blue sea was breathing rhythmically along the shore. My dad had brought us to a car park halfway along a stretch of road known as the Slapton Line, in south Devon, which is bordered on one side by beach and on the other by a freshwater lagoon.

After a few stuttering laps, Dad suggested I try driving “the line” – all the way to Torcross village. I can still remember feeling the car’s energy build as my foot pressed down on the accelerator. So much so, in fact, that dad had to tell me to “slow down”. “But I’m doing under 30mph?” I asked, confused (and worried about being one of those overly-cautious learner drivers). “No, that’s the rev counter you’re looking at,” he replied.

I remember that stretch of road for other reasons too: for sitting in the front seat of a car belonging to my (secret) teenage crush. He was older and had already passed his driving-test, and was speeding down the line (probably to show off) - leaving me scared, thrilled and feeling thoroughly 16, all at the same time.

There are also the childhood ghost stories that my best friend and I used to share, about the Second World War soldiers who died on the beach, in a training practice for D-Day. And the time I sat watching for the humpback whale who had taken up residency in the bay, which I wrote about here.

In my mind’s eye, that road is a place of fearsome storms on the one side, and tranquil summer on the other – as divided, dramatic and yet as every day as the experience of growing up itself. But it is also a place that has always been perilously close to collapse.

Each time the winter seas pummel the coast, the road takes a battering. This year it has been partly closed since March, when Storm Emma tore away the tarmac at one vulnerable section.

The government swiftly promised funds for its repair and the Slapton Line opened again earlier this week, thanks in part to representation in parliament by local Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston. Yet councillors fear that if it is breached again soon then similar support will not be forthcoming and it will be abandoned to the sea for good.

That the road will go eventually – together with the freshwater ley and its array of wildlife – is almost an inevitability. Rising global temperatures are causing sea water to expand and ice to melt. A future rise of one metre is likely within the lifetimes of children alive today, according to some predictive models – leading to faster erosion and more frequent flooding.

And the Slapton Line is far from the only place at risk on Britain’s coast. A new report out this week from the independent Committee on Climate Change details just how unprepared the UK is to meet the challenge: a sea level rise of just 0.5m will put a further 20 per cent of England’s coastal defences at risk of failure (the report focused on England, but other parts of the UK also have coastal communities under threat).

The economic and social costs of this change will be staggering: 370,000 English homes already lie within areas that have a one in 200 annual chance of coastal flooding, and the direct economic costs from flooding and erosion are over £260m per year. By the 2080s, this could rise to 1.2 million homes, the report says.

Roads, railways, farmland, power plants and ports are also presently at risk, as are 3,400 hectares of potentially toxic historic landfill sites. Worryingly these don’t even seem to be high in the government’s concerns yet. “The benefits of protecting these different assets are not prioritised in the government’s coastal defence spending at present, which focuses on properties,” says the report’s executive summary.

Plus, there is also the emotional loss. Being able to revisit the unique landscape at Slapton I’m sure has helped me to hold so many memories intact. Few people stay rooted to where they grew up in this transitory modern world (especially with so few jobs in rural communities). Yet returning, every now and then, to the places that raised us can offer a powerful sense of connection.

And that’s just a place I like to visit. It is not even where I live, or my place of work, or the entirety of my nation. The western Pacific Ocean island of Tuvala will be uninhabitable by 2050, as will Kiribati by around 2100. In Bangladesh, a 1m sea level rise will put a fifth of the country under water and displace 30 million people. To summon the required urgency in cutting global emissions means understanding the scale of the threat these communities face – and realising what is at stake on our own shores may help Britain to do that.

In the UK’s case, solutions include dramatically reducing global emissions and raising awareness of the risks to homeowners, the report suggests. The government should also step in to help plan the flood insurance industry’s transition to “risk-reflective pricing”, and implement adaptation efforts that could help protect an additional 400,000-500,000 additional people from coastal flooding over the course of the century.

But government is far from prepared. “The actions in the recently published National Adaptation Programme do not adequately address the risks that we have identified in this report,” writes Professor Jim Hall, the Adaptation’s Committee lead for flooding and coastal erosion. Plus, under current plans, it believes that 149-185km of England’s coastline is not cost beneficial to protect or adapt.

So while local coastal authorities may aspire to “hold the line”, and protect the coast with hard defences, in many places this simply isn’t a viable ambition – especially with the deterioration of natural habitats, like wetlands and sand-dunes, also being squeezed by human development.

To stem this rising tide, central government must start paying much greater attention to local authorities’ needs – by providing funding for adaptation and monitoring their progress. Our homes and our natural environment, as well as our memories, deserve this much at least.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.