It is expected that disruptive climate change could start to become evident within the next twenty years. The disruptions caused by climate change are likely to manifest themselves through changes to the water cycle. Rainfall could become more extreme, whilst long periods where no rain falls also become manifest. For those communities based on the coast, this could imply threats from both river flooding and from tidal flooding resulting from stormier weather.
It is unlikely that coastal communities will experience an inundation from the sea due to rising sea levels by 2030. In this time, the level of the sea can be expected to rise by 6cm on average, which suggests that stories of parts of the coast becoming islands are something of an exaggeration. The root of this exaggeration lies in our inability to think in climactic timescales. A far more likely case is that the processes of sea erosion and deposition may act to reposition the coastline over this period.
The Suffolk coast ought not to be seen as a homogenous entity. Parts of the coast have a high industrial value, whilst parts of the coast have a high residential value. And yet again, parts of the coast have been scheduled to be abandoned to the sea on the grounds that the cost of sea defence is far higher than the economic value of the land to be protected. Whilst this may be an argument of economic efficiency, it is hardly likely to be seen as a good solution in terms of community equity. It is by no means certain that we have an adequate structure to balance the needs of equity and efficiency at present. This is unlikely to change too much as we go into the future.
It is also the case that, when we view the water cycle throughout Suffolk, a high degree of externality exists within current and future land use patterns. The construction of residential property on river flood plains has led to a much faster throughput of high rainfall onto coastal communities. The investment to protect the downstream communities from high peaks of river flow hasn’t been adequate for the job required, leaving the coastal communities to pay the external costs of development upstream. There is a case for a greater sensitivity to downstream impacts when planning applications are considered by the planning authorities.
The issue of the water cycle and the Suffolk coastal communities is one that is dominated by externalities. It calls into question what economic efficiency means, and leads us to ask where equity fits into that calculation. As we move into the future, we can expect key parts of the infrastructure, which reflect a different weather cycle, to be placed under severe strain. It is by no means evident that sufficient funds will be made available to fill those gaps in infrastructure. This suggests that we can expect the number of disruptive events to occur more regularly as time goes by.
© The European Futures Observatory 2012