In The Sands of Time I concluded that “hysterical claims about climate change, rising sea levels and erosion, do little justice to a complex subject, and ignore an awful lot of inconvenient history.

In fairness, while I hold to that view, there is no doubt that just as the UK’s coastline has always changed, it will continue to do so. There will be winners (from longshore drift) and losers (from erosion and from sea-level rise). Now a new and serious report has been seized upon by the usual suspects at the Guardian and the BBC to warn us that these ongoing issues are – of course – all the fault of climate change.

The Guardian article is headlined “Sea level rise in England ‘will put 200,000 homes at risk by 2050’”) and carries a secondary headline (in case you hadn’t quite got the message) to the effect that “Due to the climate crisis, within 30 years these coastal properties will be potentially unsalvageable, researchers say”. The BBC article doesn’t mess around with secondary headlines, but instead goes straight for the jugular: “Climate change: Rising sea levels threaten 200,000 England properties” it screams, in duly tabloid fashion. Neither article offers a link directly to the report on which their claims are based – the BBC doesn’t bother with any sort of link at all (clearly it wouldn’t do if the oiks bothered to educate themselves by taking a look), though it does tell us that “[t]he study is published in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management”; while the Guardian offers a link to that journal, but not to the report itself. The Guardian does name the lead author, Paul Sayers, and thus I am reasonably confident I have correctly located the study in question.

The critical claim is to the effect (per the Guardian) that:

Sea level rise will put about 200,000 coastal properties in England at risk within 30 years, new data suggests, as the climate crisis takes hold.

These are the homes that may not end up being saved because it would be very expensive to try, by measures such as seawalls and other coastal defences. Some of the areas most at risk include North Somerset, Sedgemoor, Wyre, and Swale.

The Guardian has taken some pains to report correctly (in its view) as the original version of the article now carries a correction:

This article was amended on 15 June 2022. An earlier version erroneously stated in the headline and text that sea level rise would force the abandonment of 200,000 homes by 2050, according to the research. The study actually suggested these homes would be at risk of abandonment.

The BBC put it thus:

Nearly 200,000 properties in England may have to be abandoned due to rising sea levels by 2050, a report says.

Fact-checking

However, here’s the thing: nowhere does the paper mention 200,000 homes. In fact the abstract is considerably more circumspect, telling us:

This paper explores the scale of the transformational challenge in England through to 2100. The combined influences of relative Sea Level Rise and the local lowering of the foreshore platform due to increased wave-driven surface erosion are considered. The realism of published shoreline policies (set out within England’s Shoreline Management Plans) are assessed based on projected changes in flood risk and benefit-cost considerations. The assessment suggests 1,600–1,900km (∼30%) of England’s shoreline currently designated as a ‘Hold-the-Line’ policy is likely to see increasing pressure to realign (assuming a rise in Global Mean Surface Temperature of between 2 and 4°C by 2100) with implications for ∼120,000–160,000 residential and non-residential properties by the 2050s. It is likely that a proportion of these properties will require relocation. It is not possible to say how many this will be. This will be a matter for government and the associated policy and funding priorities that will influence local outcomes.

Shall we fact-check the BBC and Guardian claims?

Claim number 1 – nearly (or about) 200,000 properties will be at risk. How strange that both the BBC and the Guardian use the same (incorrect) figure. The figure used is in fact c. 120,000 – 160,000 properties.

Claim number 2 – the properties in question are “homes”. Reality, the report refers not to homes, but to “residential and non-residential properties”.

Claim number 3 – this will happen by 2050. Perhaps it’s a small point, but the report doesn’t say that – instead it refers to “by the 2050s”, which is slightly different. Instead of a timescale of just 28 years, that embraces the possibility of up to 37 years (2059), or around 30% later.

Claim number 4 (per the Guardian) – “Sea levels around the English coast are forecast to be about 35cm higher by 2050. Added to this, foreshores are being eroded, which leads to higher waves, especially when there are storms.” Although 5 years out of date, this “Rising Sea Levelsresearch briefing by/for the UK Parliament would seem to cast serious doubt on the 35cm claim. As for the second sentence – seriously!

Climate change

In blaming all this (whatever “this” is) on climate change, it might be thought that the BBC and the Guardian are on stronger ground. After all, the study in question is headed “Responding to climate change around England’s coast – The scale of the transformational challenge”. And it contains numerous references to climate change within the body of the paper. However, dig a little deeper, and perhaps things aren’t quite so clear-cut as at first sight.

We are told (without elucidation) that “[c]limate change is exacerbating these risks (i.e. coastal flooding) and that “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC,2014) highlights with very high confidence’ that sea level rise will increase coastal flooding and that the pressure on coastal zones will increase significantly in the coming decades due to population growth, economic development, and urbanization (with high confidence’).”

Well, even the average sceptic could probably agree with that (I certainly do) but sea-level rise has been a constant for a long time – to my mind it would have to be accelerating sea-level risein order to justify claims that this issue was one caused by CAGW.

We are told “that for some communities, climate change will have profound impact and support is needed to help them address the transitional challenge it proposes.” However, that just seems to me to be a bland statement without supporting evidence. And that’s about it in terms of references to these problems being in any way new, and the product of climate change.

Conclusion

The paper offers a serious and important review of the possible policy responses to rising sea levels around the English coastline, and is well worth a read, especially by those in positions of power charged with developing the appropriate policy response. There is clearly an important issue here, and the debate should start sooner rather than later. What a pity, then, that the report has been hijacked for the purposes of the usual suspects.

13 Comments

  1. Believing climate consensus predicions is like believing there is a gold coin in the corner of a round room. How many predictions do the hypesters get to make about an apocalypse that is always thirty years away. But the gullible mob is always running in the climate consensus circle, conviced that this time….unlike the literally dozens of previous times, there will finally be a corner with that truth coin hidden in it.

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  2. “Nearly 200,000 properties in England may have to be abandoned due to rising sea levels by 2050, a report says.”

    So if their scaremongering makes 200,000 properties unsaleable or slashes their value, and come 2050 sea-level rise is just a continuation of current trends, are the scaremongers (BBC!) liable for financial losses by those properties’ owners?

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  3. Sorry Joe but many of the 200,000 properties are at risk or are doomed not because of sea-level rise but because of continued coastal erosion. This erosion would continue even if sea-level were falling!

    But the BBC (and other purveyors of “news”) in a wish to visually dramatise the scare, broadcast the message from Happisburg, a well-known Norfolk village set upon an easily erodible cliff with available film of houses falling into the sea. The fact that these instances have nothing to do with sea-level rise seems to have escaped everyone: as also was the long list of “drowned” villages, lost to the sea in earlier centuries, not by sea-level rise but by old-fashioned cliff erosion.

    Also when will the public be told that sea-level rise is not accelerating and so is not a product of any man-made climate change?

    We know so much about these phenomena that to distort or hide this knowledge, as is being done here, is truly criminal.

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  4. The thought that struck me is that the Guardian and BBC articles are sufficiently similar in the fundamental(ly incorrect) details, that the information they wrongly included must have come from somewhere, if not from the Study on which they were reporting. Well then, from where? The obvious conclusion (or so it seems to me) is that there is a go-to organisation obsessed with climate change which rushes out press release-type summaries about all such reports and the BBC and the Guardian (and no doubt others) hoover them up and regurgitate them.

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  5. Sea cliffs are all products of erosion and most continue to retreat. Those composed of hard rock retreat very slowly primarily because the sea can only slowly remove rock falls from the foreshore and this material forms a protection for the cliff line. For cliffs composed of uncemented gravels, sands and finer-grained materials, erosion produces loose sediment. If this were retained in front of cliffs, the cliffs would be protected. But in most cases the sediment moves offshore or more commonly along the coast by longshore drift. In Victorian and later times, publicly used beaches retained their sand by the use of groins. These barriers to longshore drift have largely fallen into disrepair. It’s cheaper to replace lost sand with a truck.

    Coastal protection in Norfolk is rather odd. Any groins have been abandoned. At vast expense huge quarried boulders have been placed as a line in front of the cliffs but to little effect. The boulders are stable where they have been placed, the cliffs still retreat. The cliffs don’t need that form of protection. Without longshore drift the eroded material would simply build up in front of the cliffs affording it protection. If anything the boulders cause enhanced scour around them increasing rates of sediment movement. Slowing longshore drift might protect the cliffs but would cause problems down flow. Pleasure beaches would suffer being deprived of sand moving towards them and replacing their own losses.

    She who should be listened to has reminded me that as a postgraduate my fellow students and I had t-shirts with the words “BAN LONGSHORE DRIFT”, which I suppose wasn’t very effective in East London.

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  6. OK, so the study is Responding to climate change around England’s coast – The scale of the transformational challenge.
    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0964569122001624

    They say that a 2C rise in GMT by 2100 will raise sea levels by 350 mm; a 4C rise 700+ mm. (slight differences in localities)

    From Tides and Currents there are five good UK tidal gauges (long continuous service). Here are the observed trends compared to IPCC forecasts from 2C warming

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  7. Alan drily notes: “This erosion would continue even if sea-level were falling!”
    Similarly floods, droughts and wildfires would continue even if carbon dioxide levels were falling. Greta travels the world to “see the effects of climate change” and for every significant weather event, the media continue to peddle the facile climate change narrative ignoring the history of extreme events and coastal erosion that have always happened. For me the number one reason to be sceptical.

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  8. Hi Alan
    Further around the coast, in Suffolk

    “In the Anglo-Saxon period, Dunwich was the capital of the Kingdom of the East Angles, but the harbour and most of the town have since disappeared due to coastal erosion. At its height it was an international port similar in size to 14th-century London.[1] Its decline began in 1286 when a storm surge hit the East Anglian coast,[2] followed by a great storm in 1287 and another great storm, also in 1287, until it eventually shrank to the village it is today.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunwich#cite_ref-mus_16-0

    PS – ‘Happisburgh’ – for readers unfamiliar with how locals pronounce it, it’s ‘Haysboro’ 😉

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  9. Joe:

    At its height it was an international port similar in size to 14th-century London.

    Now that I didn’t know. Imagine starting a 14th century trading business and wondering whether to site it in London or Dunwich.

    Things can go very wrong for innocent people due both to unexpected weather and (then little understood) geology.

    But that of course has nothing to do with CO2.

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  10. Mention of the demise of Dunwich during storms reminded me of yet another aspect of cliff erosion around East Anglia. Most erosion occurs during winters. Usually eroding cliffs have sand beaches in front of them which exhibit seasonal changes. They are affected by two types of waves. During winters and especially during storms waves are destructive removing sand to deeper waters, exposing the foot of cliffs to erosion. In contrast during summer, waves are constructive moving sand back to the beach. After winter storms, cliffs are undermined as the beach sand moves offshore and cliff falls occur. Rebuilt summer beaches are more protective, although the occasional summer storm can instigate cliff erosion.

    I don’t recall any effective measures that prevent or slow winter offshore sand movement.

    Finally, climate change could increase the frequency of winter storms causing increased coastal erosion. However, if it causes winters to become more benign….

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  11. Joe I believe the combination of my last two sentences indicates the low confidence I place in attributing changes of storm frequency to climate change. Yet that doesn’t prevent some…. I also suspect that if there were to be changes that they are likely to be beneficial, and as we all know too well, climate changes must all be BAD.

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