We all know that climate scientists are saying that global warming is causing significant climate change and that this will have severe impacts upon the UK. We also know that weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense, and this was dramatically illustrated by the ‘wettest winter ever’ that we had in 2013/14. We also know that the melting of the ice caps is leading to a rise in sea level which threatens the viability of coastal town and cities around the world, including the UK. But up until now the predictions for sea level rise have been worrying but apparently safely beyond the time horizon of most of us living today; the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise of about 1 metre by 2100. Difficult, but not impossible to cope with, given enough money and political will for adaptation measures like improved sea defences.
But that has probably all changed now: a new paper by a group of climate scientists, the most famous of which is James Hansen, was published last week which predicted that sea level rise may become exponential and increase by as much as 3 metres within the next 50 years. If true, that is a game-changer, a potential death-knell for many towns and cities around the world, including Eastbourne. A large part of Eastbourne and its surrounding countryside is at, or just above sea-level, and was always going to face a challenge adapting to a 1 metre sea-level rise, but now it is facing the truly enormous, possibly insurmountable, challenge of a 3 metre sea-level rise within the next 50 years! That is a real existential challenge for Eastbourne, a real call to arms for the urgent action that is needed not only to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions as quickly as possible but also to implement the adaptation measures that will be needed to protect the lives, homes, and businesses of Eastbourne residents. Adaptation planning has to start now and proceed in all seriousness, not only at local government level but across the whole local community. There is no time to waste, as 50 years is not long at all when it comes to defending an entire town from the power of nature unleashed on this scale! And bear in mind that long before the 50 years is up Eastbourne will be feeling the effects of the rapid sea level rise through more frequent and more intense storm surges that will be much bigger than 3 metres! The Pevensey Bay sea defences very nearly got over-topped in the storms of last winter!
- an Eastbourne Flood Forum should be established urgently, along the lines of the successful Coastal Futures Group set up in the Ouse Valley, bringing together all community and business representatives and statutory bodies, to look at adaptation options and flood protection measures.
- there should be an immediate ban on all new building projects in Eastbourne anywhere below 1 metre above sea level, and building anywhere up to the 3 metre mark should only be allowed if the very best flood protection measures can be demonstrated.
- there should be urgent discussions undertaken with the Environment Agency and other relevant government departments to look at what help can be provided to Eastbourne in developing the most robust flood protection measures possible, and how vital transport infrastructure, like the south coast railway, can be better protected. That help must include a significant increase in the funding available for improving flood defences and whatever additional flood protection measures may be needed.
- Eastbourne should form alliances with other coastal towns in the UK and around the world to share information and advice on how sea level rise and its impacts can be adapted to.
- Eastbourne should start thinking the unthinkable and start looking at which areas of the town are just too difficult to defend in the long term, planning now for the gradual evacuation/reconfiguration of those areas.
These are just some initial ideas and no doubt the above list can be extended or altered as discussion about the urgency of flood protection for Eastbourne gets underway. But a meaningful conversation that leads to meaningful action we must have, and we must have it now!
Of course, the paper by Hansen et al has only just come out, and the peer-review process on it has only just begun, with the predictions of the paper possibly turning out to be not quite as valid as the paper’s authors claim. But the paper is based on the latest real world observations and data, much of it available only after the IPCC published its latest report. Most of that data indicates a speed of ice melt that is far larger and far more rapid than even the most pessimistic predictions of the IPCC indicated. Already the first peer-review of the paper praises its thoroughness and the depths of its insights. So the probability is that the climate science will be more on the side of Hansen and his colleagues than it will be against. And anyway, the 3 metre sea levels rise prediction is a serious prediction by serious climate scientists based upon a thorough review of all the available evidence. So it should be taken as a serous possibility and acted upon seriously by all those concerned about the future of Eastbourne. We knew we were all in a climate emergency, but now we know that Eastbourne is about to go into the intensive care unit of the climate A&E!