ARTICLES Before the flood: Building community resilience to climate change

Image: Flickr/Friends of the Earth International. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Before the flood: Building community resilience to climate change

The challenges presented by climate change may feel like a question for the future in the UK but they are far from a distant threat. The consequences of the changing climate are repeatedly being felt close to home, particularly in the form of severe floods, which have hit hard in recent years from North to South. We face uncertain futures – but there is not yet sufficient public and political debate about how we plan effectively for a climate resilient future.

In some parts of the UK, particularly along the coast, there is both a high risk of flooding and high levels of social vulnerability – a double whammy of ‘flood disadvantage’ where the impacts of floods are greater on already vulnerable communities. Cities facing relative economic decline are experiencing above average flood disadvantage which could undermine economic growth in areas which need it most.

Vulnerable communities

A whole range of social and environmental factors create vulnerability. People on low incomes are less likely to have flood insurance or the resources to cope with the impacts of floods when they occur. People in poor health receiving home care may be cut off from support if roads become impassable and those relying on electrical equipment for healthcare are also at risk if floods knock out power services.
Currently 1.5 million of those living in flood prone areas in the UK are in socially vulnerable neighbourhoods – over half of them in just ten local authorities. We’re not doing enough to address this: from 2008-14, around 40,000 homes were built in areas prone to flooding – and new developments in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods face a disproportional increase in future risk.

From national to local action

These issues need systemic responses. We need a national review of approaches to flood investment to ensure that social vulnerability is adequately addressed in funding decisions. We also need to change our approach to spatial planning, and give more consideration to the long-term risks of climate change in national policy and local development decisions.

We also need to consider the role of local communities. Building community resilience is a vital part of the response to climate change. Local social networks can be a critical part of emergency responses and the government has provided some support through a national flood community resilience pathfinder scheme which has helped establish local flood action groups, increasing communities’ capacity to respond to floods.

However, national policy has focused primarily on emergency planning, rather than the longer term more systemic changes needed. Currently there are few drivers in place to support longer term local level planning for adaptation to climate change.

Community resilience activities have also tended to focus more on energy measures supporting climate change mitigation, rather than adapting to the impacts. There are a plethora of groups working on energy efficiency, renewables generation and food growing activities. But far less is being done to prepare for impacts like extreme heat or water scarcity. While local flood risk groups have evolved in some areas, reflecting the real experience of floods at the local level, an issue that has been much more prevalent to date, there is still an issue about how community action joins up with and influences wider local planning and governance to reduce risk overall.

Communities can

A major challenge is building public understanding of the nature of climate change risks and the opportunities for action. There are ongoing debates about how best to engage the public. We need to recognise the psychological challenges and fears around planning for the future. We also need to understand what engages and motivates people to respond.

Recent work seeking to build community responses to climate change in London and Scotland showed that communities are willing to engage with the challenges and have clear ideas on what needs to be done. They are also willing to engage with climate change as part of the discussion rather than couching the issues simply in terms of extreme weather.

In London, the risks posed by heatwaves were recognised as salient issues due to their potential health impacts and in Scotland, discussions about how climate change could increase disadvantage, from the impacts of floods to changes in the cost of living also catalysed a range of community responses. This work also highlighted how wider problems such as a lack of community capacity or problems in people’s ability to manage household budgets could be pinchpoints in responses locally. This kind of local engagement work is an important part of building democratic mandates for action and more strategic responses to climate change locally and nationally.

Leadership at all levels

Leadership is needed at all levels to adapt to climate change, recognising that mitigation efforts are unlikely now to be enough. Communities have a role to play, but are not often in a position to affect systemic change, and statutory institutions and the private sector need to mobilise to ensure that future infrastructure development and service delivery are adapted to the changes in climate we will see.
While many communities are playing important roles in leading action, there is a danger that, ignoring existing capabilities and vulnerabilities and shifting responsibility on to civil society will reinforce existing vulnerability rather than reduce it – fuelling further social inequalities as climate change consequences bite. The Government’s newly published 25 Year Environment Plan promises more action on adaptation to climate change. It will need to ensure that social vulnerability and justice issues are considered as action is rolled out.