Storms, surges and the sea: Coastal Habitats 2100
The RSPB was well represented at a fascinating meeting about what the stormy weather brought to wildlife habitats along the eastern England coast. That’s not surprising given that some of our best known nature reserves are in this area – particularly Minsmere in Suffolk, Titchwell in Norfolk.
We heard that wave heights varied from around 4 metres at Blakeney in the north, to 1.5 m at Sizewell in the east, giving the Norfolk coast considerable more of a battering. Our recent coastal realignment work at Titchwell basically did its job, which is good news. Other sites were not so lucky and the damage range across loss of sand dunes, salt water inundating freshwater wetlands, loss of hides and other infrastructure, and erosion of cliffs.
The east coast battering was described as a one-in-fifty year event – and one gentleman recalled memories the 1953 floods as being worse, because they were exacerbated by much higher winds. With climate change, we may expect these events to become increasingly frequent. The pathway of climate change, and associated events, is on a trajectory, but a saw toothed one, and with fairly deep notches. To protect our coasts we should look at the trend in worst case events, and prepare for those – so I found the talk of medium scenarios, and the event’s title timeframe, Coastal Habitats 2100, providing a bit too much cotton-wool comfort.
Big questions remain about the frequency and magnitude of these type of events. With greenhouse emissions continuing at a 3% annual global rise since the millennium, we know we’re adding to the climate problem significantly, and so current climate trends will continue for 30 years at minimum. The IPCC’s report last September showed an increase in the rate of sea level rise, and possibly but we don’t know yet exactly how much this will bring forward the currently expected flooding and incursion projections. Will events expected in the 2040s now be with us in the 2030s? Or even earlier? We just don’t know yet, and we need to find this out,
There was also lots of discussion about ‘protecting’ our coasts. Is ‘protect’ the right word? Probably not, in many cases. The character of the east coast has always change – dunes move and even disappear, cliffs erode, and some areas accrete material, with new formations of sand and shingle. Wildlife too has its own dynamism amidst and additional to coastal change. As one delegate commented, the coast, and the changing climate, will control what happens as much as us. So how do we ride this underlying current of change, and still make the best of our coast for wildlife and for people?
There many reports of changing attitudes, more acceptance of at least some change, and developing from hard and fast line and defence. Perhaps helped by the knowledge of the subsequent Somerset floods, more people are now realising that making space for water often makes good sense. People in Norfolk could see flood water escape into newly made realignment areas, taking the worst away from settlements and infrastructure.
So the language of protectionism, of damage and repair, looks to be giving way to more realistic responses, that seek to understand and encompass change, and look to more natural and extensive solutions and ways forward. Finding the right way forward, balancing interests against this context of change, will be a challenge. The Coastal Habitats 2100 workshop showed there is lot of interest in new ways to meet this.
The awful floods we’ve had have re-awakened the some of the old climate change arguments. Were they, or weren’t they, caused by climate change? Are our greenhouse emissions really at the root of climate change? And what should we best do to address climate change?
The leading science institutions in the UK and the US have come together with a timely report that answers such commonly asked questions. Having our Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences teaming up with a joint report puts a great deal of weight behind what they say. The scientific process is at the heart of these bodies - meticulous methods and evidence based analysis leading to conclusions based on what we know, and not on what might believe.
So what does the report say? Well, actually, quite a lot that’s already familiar. It says that the evidence is clear, that it is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, accompanied by sea-level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes.
It’s also honest that, due to the nature of science, not every single detail is totally settled or completely certain. Nor has every pertinent question yet been answered. Scientific evidence continues to be gathered around the world, and assumptions and findings about climate change are continually analysed and tested. There are some areas of active debate - this is all good science, probing and questioning findings, seeking the most clear-cut answers. These areas include the link between ocean heat content and the rate of warming, estimates of how much warming to expect in the future, and the connections between climate change and extreme weather events.
Presented in the form of 20 key questions, the report is a good read, and good to dip into for information. Some of the questions are straightforward: is the climate warming? How much sea level rise? Are current levels of atmospheric CO2 unprecedented? Other delve a bit more deeply: why is climate change a concern now? Why is sea ice decreasing in the Arctic but not in Antarctica? Why does ocean acidification matter?
It’s not quite a pub guide to climate change, but certainly a great resource for thinking rationally about climate change, and to give context for all the related things we read in the media. And it’s good for arming yourself for discussion, whether at work, at home, for study and perhaps even at the pub. Climate change is one of the big issues of today, so why not – and it may make a change from talking about the weather...
Ivan Scrase Senior Climate Change Policy Officer, The RSPB.
National governments agree that greenhouse gas emissions must go down, but disagree on the policy details. In particular they disagree on the role of renewables and energy efficiency, and whether any new targets should be binding on national governments. What comes after the clear targets and policies for climate and energy up to 2020 in Europe, is stil unclear and some key decisions will be taken in the next few weeks, with huge implications for nature conservation.
BirdLife Europe and the RSPB support a switch to sustainable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. We recognise that will require a lot of grid development, and want to make sure both the renewables and the new power lines are delivered without harming nature. That’s why we are members of the Renewables Grid Initiative, a unique coalition of NGOs and progressive electricity transmission system operators (TSOs).
Today the RGI issued a statement supporting a 2030 climate and energy policy framework with clear, ambitious objectives for the development of renewables. The RGI calls on the European Council to agree on an ambitious and coherent set of binding targets for 2030 for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, energy efficiency and renewable energy. “Industry and civil society have come to a common understanding of what is urgently needed now”, said Antonella Battaglini, Executive Director of RGI.
I'd agree: it's great to see grid operators and green NGOs on the same page on renewables, energy efficiency and climate. It's essential that European leaders take notice and back an ambitious and binding framework for the coming decade, for the sake of nature and future generations.
"Climate change will drive mass extinctions if we don't switch to sustainable renewable energy”, said Angelo Caserta, Regional Director BirdLife Europe. “But nature is already in crisis, and the transition itself needs to take nature protection seriously too. With this statement the RGI and its partners have, once again, shown leadership in making sure renewables investment, grid development and nature protection are mutually beneficial."
So, it's up to the EU to make the right decisions for our energy future - it matters for wildlife. We'll be presssing them all the way.