We need to be coastal in a different way. We have to make some tough decisions together about where we can defend, where we should defend, and where we should actually pull back and leave space for ocean dynamism.
The Earth is teetering toward climate crisis. The ocean, more than anything, is helping to keep the balance. But emerging science shows the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon and regulate temperatures is changing in ways we don’t understand. It is a change that is not accounted for in global climate targets. It’s a risk we can no longer afford to take. The time has come to transform climate action.
Our connection to the land we live on is emotional. Humans are territorial by nature. But what happens when climate change forces hard questions about our continued ability to inhabit the places we call home? What happens when we push nature so hard that it begins to push us back – and out?
Dalhousie researcher, Dr. Kate Sherren, spends most of her time trying to answer these questions. The environmental social scientist focuses on how people are experiencing climate-related changes to their homes and how they respond.
Dr. Sherren says our emotional connection to the places we live can make us prone to bad choices, whether we live near forests turned tinder dry by drought, or in ocean settlements vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather events.
“A lot of the work I've done is with coastal communities to try to understand how they see changes taking place in their landscapes, and if there's space for nature-based approaches to reducing risk in the face of climate change,” says Dr. Sherren.
“It's methodologically very broad,” she says about her research that employs interviews, focus groups, surveys, and social media analysis to get into the heads of those living near the ocean. “The core of it is focused on understanding how people are perceiving and responding to global change, and particularly coastal change.”
Through her research, Dr. Sherren tries to gauge receptivity to protection techniques such as restoring more wetlands in areas like Canada’s Bay of Fundy, which can provide natural buffers. But she is also trying to understand what it will take to gain acceptance of solutions that may be harder to swallow, including retreating from coastlines altogether.
“We need to be coastal in a different way,” says Dr. Sherren. “We need to learn that the lines we laid down at one time cannot necessarily be defended. We have to make some tough decisions together about where we can defend, where we should defend, and where we should actually pull back and leave space for ocean dynamism.”
Dr. Sherren says emotions still play an important role, even in the face of facts. She warns that threatened communities are often convinced that dikes and walls are the best means of protection. But, she says, it’s not realistic to think we can build interventions to protect every vulnerable coastline. And, even if we did, many wouldn’t stand a chance against sea level rise or increasingly destructive weather events.
This is why Dr. Sherren is a proponent of re-establishing natural defences such as wetlands that create a buffer against rising tides and storm surges. “Nature-based approaches have a self-healing function. Tidal wetlands can often grow and raise themselves as sea levels rise,” she says.
“We're used to the illusion that we're protected by dikes and walls, even though they can fail spectacularly. We need to get used to the idea that there can be a softer coastline in front of us that can keep us safe.”
Moreover, she says we need to get used to the fact that humans might need to clear out of some areas to create space for softer and safer coastlines.
“The beach and the shoreline belong to the ocean,” says Dr. Sherren. “I think we've gotten used to the idea that they're ours. But they're not.”
Transforming Climate Action will bring together more than 170 researchers at Dalhousie and its academic partners to embark on the most intensive investigation into the ocean’s role in climate change ever undertaken. It will make Canada a global leader in climate science, innovation, and solutions by putting the ocean front and centre in the fight against a warming planet.Learn more