I love reading a book in one big gulp during the summer holidays. My favourite this year was ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver.
The present-day story is about a family dealing with the fall out of a number of shocks related to their family, their careers, financial situation and living in a house that is falling down around them.
It is interwoven with a story set at the time Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection (in 1859). Here, a science teacher is living at the same address as the present-day family, and is also struggling with financial and housing woes while facing stiff opposition from his principal to teaching anything about Darwin’s theory. Speaking up for what he considers to be true puts his livelihood and marriage at risk.
Apart from recommending this book as a great read, I’m writing about this because it has so much resonance with our work in the local government sector. It’s a book about adaptation on multiple levels.
Some of the challenges ahead of all of us include transitioning to a low-emissions economy, finding new ways to fit into the economy as technology changes the types of work we can do, as well as adapting to climate change impacts.
In ‘Unsheltered’ Barbara Kingsolver gives readers insight into how it feels to suddenly become a whole lot less secure even when you’ve played by all of society’s rules and feel like you shouldn’t be in an insecure situation. Everyone responds differently. For example, within Willa’s family she is the worrier and her husband is more naturally optimistic that it will all work out. Her son gets involved in the new economy of carbon credit trading while her daughter focuses on doing more with less resources. And Willa’s father-in-law just turns pro-Trump talkback radio up louder, doggedly refusing to consider the reality of how the world is changing.
It’s a really valuable reminder of how people are likely to feel and to react as the local government sector takes actions which affect people’s homes, such as writing rules related to coastal and flood risk hazards, or considering a reduction in infrastructure where this is becoming unsustainable.
Just as in Darwin’s day, when a paradigm shift occurs we can’t ignore the facts, or avoid taking action — we just have to be prepared for a big range of responses and be open to finding new ways to adapt to changing conditions.
P.S. Here's a summary of Darwin's four principles of natural selection, as outlined by Thatcher (the science teacher in 'Unsheltered').
1. Individuals within a population have variable traits.
2. Traits are inherited.
3. More plants and animals are born than live to old age.
4. Survival is not haphazard. Creatures differ in their ability to survive, not by chance but owing to traits they inherit.
For example: "Among speckled rabbits in snow country, fortune falls to those whose coats are white, like the Arctic hare, which hides well from its enemies. The hare did not decide to become white. It benefited from generations in which lighter colour won out. This is called adaptation. It can be a structure, like the rabbit's coat. Or a behaviour."
P.P.S. If you enjoy 'Unsheltered' I also recommend:
Councils have a lot on their plates right now.
They have to respond to the increasing intensity of weather events, organising civil defence responses then fixing damaged infrastructure. At the same time, they need to make a plan to help their communities adapt to the effects of rising sea levels and increasing coastal hazards.
That’s why I have prepared a summary (10 pages) of the 'Coastal Hazards and Climate Change' guidance for local government, which was published by the Ministry for the Environment in December 2017.
I hope this summary helps you to quickly get to grips with the core advice being provided by the Ministry for the Environment, and to consider how you can apply this framework to your area of responsibility.
The MfE guidance will be welcomed at a regional level, to support the development of overarching plans by regional and unitary council as it will encourage nationally consistent approaches to climate change adaptation.
However, the guidance also notes “some plans which focus on a particular issue may be a subset to the overall strategy or plan, contributing to asset and reserves management plans”.
That means individual staff members in district and unitary councils who need to plan for climate change adaptation related to stormwater, flood risk, land drainage and other issues can also use this framework. This will ensure more localised and issue-specific plans will integrate well with the larger scale regional plans, when these are completed.
The MfE guidance offers a range of options for creating a plan — so people working on smaller scale plans could choose to adopt the lower cost approaches to coastal hazard assessments (such as reviews of existing reports and problems, and discussions with experienced staff), and less resource-intensive options for community engagement (such as interviews with key people).
The guidance differs from previous versions, and from current coastal hazard management practice, with regard to the treatment of uncertainty (building in flexibility) and the central role of community engagement in the decision-making process.
Here are some of the highlights from the guidance (which are included in the summary):
Our vulnerability to higher sea levels and coastal storm events has never been clearer. It’s timely that guidance for local government on ‘Preparing for Coastal Change’ was released in December 2017 which outlines 10 steps for councils to follow in establishing a plan for adapting to coastal hazards and climate change.
The following summary is based on the more detailed information provided in ‘Preparing for Coastal Change’ and ‘Coastal Hazards and Climate Change — Guidance for Local Government’.
Step 1 — Preparation and context
Set up a multi-disciplinary team, recognising a wide set of expertise, skills and knowledge is needed; make connections with potentially affected communities; and establish (and resource) a work programme.
Step 2 — Hazard and sea-level rise assessments
Identify the extent and magnitude of the hazards, including the effects of rising sea levels on coastal inundation and coastal erosion.
Step 3 — Values and objectives
Identify what and where private property, businesses, local infrastructure and community spaces will potentially be affected by coastal hazards and sea-level rise, and the people who will be affected by these changes.
Use this information to develop objectives to guide the Council’s decision making processes.
Step 4 – Vulnerability and risk
Undertake two different assessments:
Engage with the community to consider the options for adapting to the coastal hazards and sea level rise, including:
Evaluate the options against criteria such as: flexibility, feasibility, ability to meet community values and provide co-benefits, value for money, and environmental impacts.
Step 7 — Adaptive planning strategy (with triggers)
Agree on triggers to be monitored, which will provide early signals that a change in approach is required. Examples of coastal signals that can be useful early alerts include:
Step 8 — Implementation plan
Prepare a plan which sets out the agreed approach, and the trigger points at which new decisions will be required.
Reflect this in all relevant council plans and strategies, including resource management plans, asset management plans and the long term plan (which will need to identify how implementation of the plan will be financed).
Step 9 — Monitoring
Develop new monitoring systems (at a regional rather than a district level) which focus on the impacts on coastal areas. Monitoring of the effectiveness of the climate change adaptation plan will also be required.
Step 10 — Review and adjust
Regularly review the plan to reflect both changing risk levels and any new tools for managing hazard risk.