Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

At What Point is ‘Pack Your Things And Leave’ the Only Climate Adaptation Option?

Between Kim Stanley Robinson and Stephen Baxter I’ve read enough cli-fi to recognise fiction becoming reality when I see it.

The new sea wall has a price tag of some USD$18.7M, most of which is built on a public beach to protect private land. Whilst around 80% of the cost is being funded by the private landowners, the remainder is public money — and it provides us with a classic example of ‘maladaptation’.

Collaroy Beach. Photo credit: Lewis Isaacs / The Guardian

“Broadly defined, maladaptation is when climate change adaptation actions backfire and have the opposite of the intended effect — increasing vulnerability rather than decreasing it.”(Carbon Brief)

This sea wall has the potential to accelerate beach erosion, it privatises part of a public beach, and has diverted limited public capital towards wealthy private individuals without creating public good.

It sets an ugly precedent.

Whilst this ‘adaptation’ project might have been enacted with the best of intentions and no doubt followed due process, one concern is that both the intentions and the process have not themselves been adapted to recognise the real impacts of climate change, particularly the more severe long-term impacts.

Despite the claim that this particular sea wall has a ’60-year life span’, at some point this sea wall will fail to hold back an increasingly angry and rising sea, and the beachfront landowners of the near future will be in an even worse position than they are now.

I’m not attempting to unpack wave dynamics, beach erosion or the privatisation of public land here, but I am as always interested in our fixation on short term climate adaptations despite the risks of long-term climate impacts.

The Three Horizons framework (attributed to Baghai, Coley, and White 1999 in The Alchemy of Growth) is a foresight tool commonly used for business planning, helping us to consider strategy over incremental time frames. Taking this classic growth framework and overlaying levels of climate adaptation (from Howden et al. 2010) gives us a very different appreciation of how we might best invest time, effort, and finance in climate adaptations.

3 Horizons Climate Adaptation, by author


After an adaptation investment, the adaptive value begins to taper off or even flatline. As climate change impacts continue to escalate, the original adaptation loses effectiveness. A sea wall is an example — it may protect against present sea level rise, but eventually will become redundant, hence the adaptation has zero long term value.

The more we focus on near-term adaptations, the higher the risk of maladaptation.

Increasing risk of Maladaptation, image by author

If we accept the science that we’re facing catastrophic levels of climate change by the end of this century — unless we see an astounding level of global action on reversing global warming, then isn’t Transformational Adaptation the only viable long-term option?

And if this is the case, the only way to achieve such monumental adaptations is to start planning for them right now.

Transformative Adaptation, image by author

To re-engineer cities, ports, transport infrastructure and agriculture is not a decade-long development project. I’d suggest that not only are we incapable of funding and building such adaptations over such short timeframes, but our social systems and cultures simply aren’t able to make such rapid adjustments, at least not in a controlled, measured, and peaceful way.

This high-level mashup of the Three Horizons growth framework with the concept of Adaptation Levels suggests that ALL adaptive actions must serve Transformative Adaptation. Incremental or short-term adaptations are suitable if, and only if, they step us towards Transformative adaptations for our descendants.

The sea wall is still under construction, the implications still sinking into the awareness of the general beach-going public who are just now waxing their boards as they enter another hot summer. Perhaps this adaptation experiment will work in the short term, perhaps it will be an instructive investment that teaches us a lesson or two.

Only time will tell.



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Digby Hall

Digby Hall

Climate adaptation architect, striving to help tackle climate change through positive adaptation. Think. Move. Act.