We can’t simply move away as sea levels rise – Jonny Hughes

The government of the Maldives is planning to build artificial islands
The government of the Maldives is planning to build artificial islands
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Restoring natural coastal habitats and creating artifical ones like oyster reefs can help the world adapt to the rising sea levels, writes Jonny Hughes.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), whose annual showpiece in Davos took place last week, has changed almost beyond recognition since it began as a platform for elite business leaders in 1971.

A star turn of the jamboree was Prince William interviewing Sir David Attenborough, reflecting the forum’s shift from a preoccupation with economic growth towards the longer term challenges posed to humanity by ongoing environmental degradation. Might a name change to the World Sustainability Forum be on the cards?

One of the most important reports at Davos was the ever-compelling Global Risk Report, an annually updated risk register for the planet that considers social, economic and environmental mega-trends. As Børge Brend, WEF president, says in the preface “the world is facing a growing number of complex and interconnected challenges – from persistent economic inequality to climate change, geopolitical tensions and the accelerating pace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. He goes on to warn we are in danger of sleepwalking into crisis unless we take action.

READ MORE: ‘We are last generation who can stop dangerous climate change’

For the third year in a row, environmental risks account for three of the top five risks by likelihood and four by impact – extreme weather events, failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change, man-made natural disasters, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. A fifth risk, water crises, was in the top six which, though categorised under societal risk, is mostly the result of environmental mismanagement.

These risks will express themselves in different ways but there is one issue common to all: the impact of climate change-induced sea-level rise on coastal communities, a problem likely to be most acute in urban areas. Around 800 million people in more than 570 coastal cities are already estimated to be vulnerable to a rise of 50 centimetres by 2050. The number of people at risk will be much higher by the middle of this century, when close to two-thirds of the global population will be in cities.

Some nations are already preparing for the inevitable. The Maldives are planning to build artificial islands protected with three-metre-high sea walls while Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean has bought land in Fiji as a potential new home. In the US, $48 million has been earmarked to move the entire community of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, which has lost 98 per cent of its land in the past half-century.

READ MORE: Insight: 2018, a bellwether year for global climate change disaster

Hard-engineered solutions and human migration can’t be the solution everywhere. Cities will also need to embrace nature-based solutions, including the restoration of natural habitats such as mangrove forests, coastal wetlands and dunes, all of which provide natural buffers against storm surges.

Managed retreat may also be an option in some cities, where hard-engineered defences are deliberately removed to allow the sea to flood low-lying coastal areas. Other innovations could include the creation of artificial oyster reefs which help dissipate the energy of the waves, reducing erosion.

Whilst we won’t be able to hold back the inexorable rise of the oceans in the coming decades, we can at least begin to make our coastlines more resilient to the changes to come. An obvious first step in Scotland is for the Scottish Government to ensure the strict protection of our remaining stretches of precious wild coast.

Jonny Hughes, Scottish Wildlife Trust chief executive, is on Twitter @JonnyEcology