Climate Adaptation Begins in the Mind


In many regions, adaptation to climate change is necessary, but nothing is happening. Why not? I went searching for answers in Cornwall, where the local cliffs are steadily crumbling, yet no one is lifting a finger. By Vera Köpsel

Godrevys coast is increasingly washed away.
Stop! Some paths are getting dangerous.
A parking place, a farm, outstanding landscapes and a fragile ecosystem.

A storm is raging on the coast of Cornwall. My interviewee John and I are standing on a rise, looking out at the Atlantic. Storms are common in Cornwall, yet the high frequency of extreme weather has begun troubling the locals. Pointing with his finger, John yells over the crashing waves, “You see the stairs over there? They used to go all the way down to the beach, but a storm washed them away. Now there are only fifty centimeters to the brink. Soon the access road to the headland will crumble into the sea!”

John works for the National Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving nature and culture in Great Britain, and is tasked with keeping that from happening. This stretch of coastline is called Godrevy, and was formed during the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago. The cliffs consist of soft sediment, deposited by glacial rivers, and pose a major challenge for John: the coast is increasingly being washed away by the sea. In the course of the past few decades, this erosion has accelerated, and the edge is now retreating half a meter inland every year. The National Trust attributes the rapid erosion to climate change and is currently seeking adaptation measures to preserve access to Godrevy. There’s a great deal at risk; though the headland isn’t populated, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Cornwall. Visitors take their families there to hike, catch a bit of sun, or go swimming; after all, Godrevy offers unspoiled nature, the sea, and an escape from the daily grind.

To ensure that Godrevy remains accessible in the future, the National Trust plans to relocate a street and two parking lots farther inland. In this regard, John has been involved in negotiations with various local stakeholders for the past ten years. For example, the organization Natural England has classified Godrevy as a nature conservation area; an association for the preservation of visual aesthetics is more focused on preserving Godrevy’s natural beauty, while another initiative wants to protect the local dune system. To make matters even more complex, the area is actively farmed. This constellation of conflicting parties and interests makes adaptation difficult, and makes the negotiations on the new infrastructure a painfully slow process. Yet the coast continues to erode, and adaptation is desperately needed – so why haven’t they been able to find a compromise in the past ten years?

In my dissertation, I explored precisely this question. Here, the example of Godrevy is part of a broader context: our climate is changing; that’s the internationally recognized consensus of scientific opinion. In this regard, human beings are both partly responsible for climate change, and are directly affected by it. Droughts can ruin harvests, storms can sweep away entire villages, and coastal areas are increasingly subject to flooding. And climate change will also have consequences for Europe. In areas where it produces particularly extreme changes, adaptation measures have to be developed. But despite the urgency, in many cases adaptation is delayed. Why?

For one thing, costs are certainly an important aspect. Yet the real barrier is often to be found in our minds. Many studies from the past several years show: simply being aware of environmental problems rarely leads to a solution, and findings on the causes and potential consequences of climate change only slowly translate into societal and political action. Beyond technical considerations, it’s the social norms and values, anchored deep in every one of us, that shape our actions. These values can vary considerably, e.g. between European and Asian cultures. Yet even within our western societies, phenomena like climate change aren’t always perceived in the same way. Further, the actors involved often have various goals and interests. Conservationists have different priorities than city planners; the tourism and agricultural sectors often clash. Further, the local context and the history of a given area are extremely relevant. All of these factors determine how we perceive climate change, and whether or not we decide to actively address it.

The goal of my research was to determine how these disparate perceptions affect the implementation of adaptation measures. As a geographer, for me the focus was on those values that concern the interactions between humans and their environment. What perspectives do people have on nature and the landscape, and how do these perspectives shape the various approaches to climate adaptation? To find answers to these questions, I traveled to Cornwall and interviewed local actors who are responsible for adaptation to the coastal erosion. The interviewees represent a range of social groups: organizations like the National Trust, municipalities, farmers, and nature conservation lobbies.

How human beings perceive climate change isn’t something you can test in a lab. For the purposes of my work, I selected an unconventional method: what are known as walking interviews. Classical interviews normally take place in an office; walking interviews take place outdoors. Equipped with a recorder and microphone, I let the interviewees lead me on walks along the coast – an approach that gave me insights into their personal perspectives on Godrevy and climate change, on the landscape, nature, and on how to best adapt to the erosion. By trying to see things through their eyes, I came to understand why the different actors are so far apart when it comes to climate adaptation.

It’s now mid May, and I’m standing once again on the coast of Cornwall. This time I didn’t invite John for an interview, but Emma instead. Today, Godrevy is shining in all its splendor: an azure sky above, and a turquoise, calm sea below. Emma works for the nature conservation organization Natural England. What she has to tell me about Godrevy and climate change sounds very different from what John said. As she explains, “Coastal erosion is perfectly natural, and good for the ecosystem.” She doesn’t see any need for adaptation measures, especially since they would only worsen the true problem at Godrevy: the droves of tourists, who harm the landscape and disturb the sensitive local fauna. The interviews make one thing clear: here, the word ‘landscape’ has very different meanings for different people. For John, Godrevy is a tourist landscape, and his priority is to keep it accessible. For Emma, the most important thing is to protect the fragile ecosystem and keep the harm done by tourists to a minimum. In my talks with further local actors, I learned that there were plenty of other views on Godrevy’s landscape: for some, the chief aspect is the coastline’s beauty. They see climate change as a threat to the ‘unspoiled’ nature. Accordingly, it is important to them that any adaptation measures be visually unobtrusive. Others primarily view Godrevy’s landscape in the context of agriculture and efficiency. For them, the goal of climate adaptation is to increase agricultural production, not to preserve natural beauty or protect certain animal species.

The concrete suggestions on how to preserve Godrevy’s infrastructure vary just as widely as the standpoints regarding its landscape. The National Trust wants to shift the street inland and preserve the parking lot. Natural England, in contrast, feels there is no need for a parking lot. On the contrary: the erosion is a natural process, they claim, and should be supported. At first blush, this lack of consensus is confusing, since all of the local actors want to protect Godrevy’s landscape from the effects of climate change. Yet they all have different definitions of ‘landscape’ and ‘protect.’ For some, landscape means the coexistence of humans and nature, and tourism is a desirable thing; for others, landscape refers to a mosaic of flora and fauna that human beings should protect and preserve. As a result, the opinions on how to respond to coastal erosion are correspondingly disparate.

My research clearly shows: both ‘landscape’ and ‘climate change’ mean many different things to different people. There may be a broad consensus on how climate change is transforming our planet, but how these effects are perceived and judged by local actors can vary considerably. Whether or not a given person is prepared to take action with regard to climate adaptation depends to a great extent on precisely these individual perspectives. In the case of Godrevy, this has resulted in lengthy negotiations over how to respond to the retreating coastline. The only way that we’ll succeed in finding appropriate measures for places like Godrevy that will be accepted and actively supported by everyone involved is by understanding these local contexts and taking them into account in political adaptation strategies.  

Vera Köpsel investigated the coasts of Cornwall in 2016, and subsequently completed her doctoral studies at Universität Hamburg’s Cluster of Excellence CliSAP (Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction). At the CEN, she is currently responsible for Stakeholder Engagement and Public Relations in connection with PANDORA, an EU project exploring sustainable fishing management.