Coastal Futures 2020

A report by Sally Campbell on the Coastal Futures Conference in London, January 2020

The annual Conference covered many aspects of the marine environment. It was day One which provided a wake-up call to us all as it covered Climate Change and the marine environment.

The Climate Emergency
2019 may well go down as the year when we finally woke up to how serious the climate emergency is. Wildfires in the Arctic, California, Africa and the Amazon and to end the year on an unprecedented scale, the bushfires in Australia put images on to our screens daily. Changes to the ice sheets and glaciers and unprecedented melting of Greenland’s ice sheet were also notable.

The cut backs to Government environmental agencies through austerity over the last decade have been severe – 50% or more. Also staff have been diverted to Brexit related work and managing the changing administrative arrangements caused by Brexit. One cannot help but get the feeling that Brexit is sucking the life out of any other Government activity – not least the 25 year environment plan.

Climate change and the ocean – A call to action by Professor Ralph Rayner, of London School of Economics; he talked about the Arctic being the canary in the ecosystem, and it is expected it will be completely ice free in the summer by 2025. Reflectivity will drop, no white surface so more heat will be absorbed rather than reflected, as well as the mobilisation of the greenhouse gas methane from melting permafrost. This will alter high atmosphere jet stream circulation and more fresh water will enter critical areas of the North Atlantic. The scale of our response must be proportionately enormous. We do not lack the means but large changes in policy are needed and political will too. Climate projections of heating of the land surface show rainforests will disappear, mass migration of human populations will be driven by the search for water and food, and we need to recognise it is not other people’s problem but ours as well. We stand at a critical point in responding to the existential threat posed by climate change.

The ocean plays a central role in determining the extent of the risk to human populations and the terrestrial ecosystem as the repository for more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system and the sink for up to 30% of man-made or anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions since the 1980s. As well as impacting directly on ocean health, what happens as a consequence of this vast reservoir of excess heat and carbon will determine many of the impacts on the cryosphere, the atmosphere and, ultimately, the land and human populations. The ocean is also the location of possible irreversible tipping points in the climate system where there is no turning back. Actions over the coming decade will be pivotal in avoiding the risk of irreversible change and will determine the balance between mitigation and adaptation, including large scale geoengineering, as means of managing climate change impacts. Practical intervention is required now.

Unstoppable sea level rise demands adaptation now said John Englander, President, Rising Seas Institute. This speaker talked of the changes that are already happening with five flood factors – storms, rain, run-off, extreme tides, rising sea level which whilst slow, is irreversible, and erosion. We need to plan for multi-metre sea level rise this century.
John Englander is an oceanographer, and leading expert on sea level rise. His broad marine science background coupled with explorations to Greenland and Antarctica allow him to see the big picture of sea level rise and its societal impacts. To read more check out: High Tide on Main Street by John Englander ISBN10 0615637957

As the conversation around climate change and climate action becomes increasingly urgent, there is a need to understand how individual and collective action can be harnessed to address some of the challenges facing the natural world. At a global scale, recent talks in Madrid at COP25 recognised a disconnect between the urgent calls for action from the global science community and progress to limit the impacts of climate change, highlighting the complexity of galvanising widespread and meaningful action at a global scale. Indeed, COP25 concluded with a compromise deal and without reaching consensus – climate change, therefore, remains at the forefront of the minds of many, both within and outside the scientific community. While much has been said about the individual actions that people can take to adapt to and mitigate the scale of impacts of our changing climate, and recent years have seen a rise in public engagement in environmental issues (for example, through the School Strikes for Climate and the widely discussed Blue Planet 2 effect), questions remain as to the actual impact and effectiveness of this activism and the associated changes.

What are different communities and audiences currently doing to address climate change? Are we really seeing widespread change? If yes, what has triggered this response and how can it be harnessed? And if no, what more is needed to engender the multi-scale changes in policy and management needed to result in behaviour change at a more individual and societal level? What are we doing on Arran to produce a more sustainable island for the future?

In summing up key points from the conference:

• We are at a tipping point ecologically and politically
• New urgency coincides with a new UK government position
• Sea rise is not 1mm per year but 5 mm per year and rising. What will happen to Arran’s coast roads? How will Arran become sustainable?
• The failure in the UK to meet Good Environment Status for 11/15 marine indicators by 2020, including fish, birds, and seabed is a disgrace
• The new Environment Bill at Westminster is defective as it makes no mention of the marine environment. Marine obligations need to be included.
• We need more Marine Protective Areas for the high seas
• We, as marine communities and scientists need to create a strategy and vision for low impact fisheries, not based on “historical rights” but “environmental need” with sustainability paramount

Sally Campbell,
January 2020