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.
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 Levels” research briefing by/for the UK Parliament would seem to cast serious doubt on the 35cm claim. As for the second sentence – seriously!
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.
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.