The landscape is a Rubik’s cube and climate change is a rip current – How local landscape narratives influence adaptation to coastal erosion in Cornwall (UK)

by Vera Köpsel

In the autumn of 2015, my interviewee John* and I were standing on a rise at the Atlantic coast of Cornwall (UK) and facing the stormy weather. Storms are common in Cornwall, yet the high frequency of extreme events has begun irritating the locals. John yelled over the crashing waves, “Do you see the steps over there? They used to lead down to the beach, but they were washed away by the waves. Now there are only fifty centimeters to the cliff edge. Not long and the access road will erode into the sea.”

Eroded beach access, Godrevy, Cornwall. (C) Vera Köpsel

John and I were strolling across the coastal headland of Godrevy doing a walking interview. Godrevy is a section of Cornwall’s north coast consisting of soft glacial sediment, and it has been eroding at an increasing speed over the past years. It is also one of Cornwall’s most visited tourist sites. Unfortunately, its current access infrastructure is projected to be undermined by the erosion within the next three years (Earlie 2015). John works for the National Trust, the charity owning the headland, and his task is to develop an adaptive response to the coastal erosion. The solution suggested by the National Trust is to relocate a road, coast path and car park further inland to maintain access to Godrevy for its visitors – but to which new location? Negotiations about this question have been ongoing for over a decade, so far without finding a compromise. What complicates solution-finding is the local constellation of actors and landscape designations: Natural England classifies Godrevy as a nature reserve; the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership focuses on preserving Godrevy’s aesthetic beauty, while another initiative wants to protect the local dune system. In addition to these designations, the center of the headland is actively farmed. The coastal landscape of Godrevy is hence viewed from many different perspectives, and so is its management. What influence, I was asking myself, do such varying views on landscape and climate change have in the process of negotiating local adaptation measures to coastal erosion?

My meeting with John at Godrevy was part of my PhD project at University of Hamburg’s Institute of Geography between 2014 and 2017. My research at Godrevy was embedded in wider empirical fieldwork that I conducted across Cornwall, interviewing regional decision-makers in the realm of climate adaptation from a variety of organisations and institutions. The example of Godrevy must be seen as part of a broader context: our climate is changing; that is the internationally recognized consensus of scientific opinion. We humans are at the same time responsible for accelerating climate change and directly affected by it. Droughts ruin harvests, storms damage buildings and infrastructure, and coastal areas are increasingly subject to flooding (IPCC 2014). In areas where the changing climate induces particularly strong changes, adaptation measures need to be developed. However, despite the urgency, adaptation decisions are delayed in many cases. Why?

The financial costs of adaptation are certainly an important aspect. The real barrier, however, can often be found in the way we think. Many recent studies show: the awareness of environmental problems alone rarely leads to action, and new scientific knowledge on the causes and consequences of climate change only slowly translates into societal and political action. Besides technical considerations it is the social norms and values, anchored deep in every one of us, that influence our decision-making. These values can vary considerably between cultures. Even within Western Europe, phenomena like climate change aren’t always perceived in the same way. Moreover, the actors involved in developing adaptation measures often have diverging goals. Conservationists have different priorities than town planners; the interests of the tourism and agricultural sector often clash. Also the local context and the history of a given place are extremely relevant. All of these factors determine how we perceive climate change, and whether or not we decide to actively address it (e.g. O’Brien & Wolf 2010, Devine-Wright 2015).

Godrevy Lighthouse, an iconic feature of the coastal landscape, (c) V. Köpsel. 

It was the goal of my research to investigate how such converging perceptions and values affect societal processes of adaptation to climate change. As a geographer, my focus was particularly on human-environment interactions. What perspectives do local decision-makers have on nature and the landscape, and how do these perspectives shape their approaches to climate adaptation? To find answers to these questions, I traveled to Cornwall and interviewed persons responsible for implementing physical adaptation measures on the ground: representatives of organizations like the National Trust, municipalities, farmers, nature conservation lobbies and landscape managers. I selected a somewhat unconventional method for my empirical research: so-called walking interviews. Classical interviews often are conducted 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. This approach gave me insights into their personal perspectives on the landscape, nature and climate change, 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.

Eight months later, in May 2016, I found myself once again on the north coast of Cornwall. This time, Godrevy was shining in all its splendor: an azure sky above and a turquoise, calm sea below. My latest interviewee Emma worked for Natural England. What she told me about Godrevy and climate change sounds very different from what John said. As she explained, “coastal erosion is perfectly natural, and good for the ecosystem”. From this perspective, climate change can be compared with a ‘rip current’: When trying to swim against it, one is in danger of drowning. Instead, adaptation should go ‘with the flow’ by working with natural processes. Natural England hence doesn’t see much need for physical adaptation measures, especially as they would only worsen the true problem at Godrevy: the droves of tourists who harm the landscape and disturb wildlife. My research makes one thing obvious: 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. A colleague of his compared the landscape with a Rubik’s Cube. She underlined that a key aspect of adaptation is to think sustainably and to “not get stuck in ‘one side of Rubik’s Cube fixing!”. For Emma, it is most important to protect the fragile ecosystem and keep the harm done by tourists to a minimum. In dialogue with further local actors, I learned that there are several other perspectives on Godrevy’s landscape: for some, the key aspect is the coastline’s beauty. They see climate change as a threat to ‘unspoiled’ views. It is important to them that any adaptation measures are visually unobtrusive. Others see the landscape in the context of agriculture and efficiency; their goal of climate adaptation is to increase production, not to conserve natural beauty or protect local fauna.

Cliff erosion at Godrevy, (c) V. Köpsel

The suggestions on the relocation of Godrevy’s infrastructure vary just as widely as the perspectives on its landscape. The National Trust wants to move the road inland and preserve the parking lot. Natural England, in contrary, sees no need for a parking lot at all. Au contraire: the erosion is viewed as a natural process that should be supported. This lack of consensus might seem confusing, since all local actors want to protect Godrevy’s landscape from negative climate change impacts. Yet they have different definitions of ‘landscape’ and ‘protect.’ For some, landscape means the coexistence of humans and nature, and tourism is desirable; for others, the landscape is a mosaic of flora and fauna that should be protected and preserved. As a result, many varying approaches exist to responding to coastal erosion.

I conclude: 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 varies considerably. Which physical adaptation measures are deemed appropiate depends to a great extent on local decision-makers’ individual perspectives. In the case of Godrevy, this has resulted in long negotiations over how to adapt to the retreating coastline. The only way that we’ll succeed in finding adaptation solutions 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 and practical negotiations on the ground.

Vera Köpsel is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Marine Ecosystem and Fisheries Science, University of Hamburg, where she works on the EU Horizon 2020 funded Pandora project. Her PhD thesis was recently published as a monograph:

Köpsel, V. (2019): New Spaces for Climate Change – The Societal Construction of Landscapes in Times of a Changing Climate. (Springer VS) Wiesbaden. Available online at: https://www.springer.com/de/book/9783658233129.

*names changed to preserve anonymity

References:

Devine-Wright, P. (2015): Local attachments and identities: a theoretical and empirical project across disciplinary boundaries. In: Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 527–530.

Earlie, C. (2015): Field Observations of Wave Induced Coastal Cliff Erosion, Cornwall UK. – PhD Thesis, University of Plymouth. Available at: https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10026.1/3526/2015EARLIE775648PHD.pdf?sequence=1. Last requested online on Jan 27, 2017.

IPCC (2014): Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. – Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Cambridge University Press) Cambridge.

O’brien, K. & J. Wolf (2010): A values-based approach to vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. In: WIREs Climate Change, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 232–242.

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