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Community Engagement and Climate Adaptation 

Engaging communities and professionals on difficult challenges

Climate change is creating difficult adaptation challenges for communities around the world. In the UK, increased flood risk, coastal change and rising sea levels are among the main predicted impacts. For communities facing the likelihood of more regular and severe flooding, this is generating uncertainty and anxiety. For professionals working in Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM), there are challenges relating to the kinds of adaptations that are possible and effective. There are also challenges in working with communities to understand and agree upon adaptation strategies, particularly as it will not be possible to meet expectations for long-term protection in all locations.

In this context, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales established an action research project titled ‘Working together to adapt to a changing climate: Flood and coast’ to develop better understanding of the engagement challenges in communities facing long-term climate-related risks, and especially to learn more about the kinds of strategies that could be helpful in supporting constructive conversations about climate adaptation. As part of this project, Dr Rhys Kelly, Associate Professor in Conflict Resolution and Dr Ute Kelly, Associate Professor in Peace Studies, were commissioned to carry out an Evidence Review to identify what is already known about key challenges and best practice in community engagement, and to clarify questions and objectives for new research.

Sea and coast

Dr Rhys Kelly said: “Our Evidence Review systematically analysed an extensive literature of over 300 sources, ranging from internal Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales documents to practitioner and research papers from across the world. The evidence review clarified the nature of evolving engagement needs in a context of climate change. It also outlined practical approaches and key questions for consideration and made concrete recommendations that fed into the next stages of the project. Our expertise on conflict engagement and social-ecological research put us in a good position to contribute additional insights that enhanced existing knowledge and generated discussion within the FCERM community of practice.”

Dr Rhys Kelly, Associate Professor in Conflict Resolution in the Department of Peace Studies and International Development

One of the most important research insights centred on the importance of understanding and developing the ‘readiness’ of communities, key stakeholders and professionals to collaborate in the management of flood and coastal erosion risk. Research suggested that climate adaptation planning was more likely to be successful if time was spent early on in a project to understand – for example – how much communities and organisational stakeholders understand about environmental issues, including the anticipated impacts of climate change in their area, or about the nature of relationships to place in a given community and the emotions that people experience when that place is at risk, or about the capacities of stakeholders to engage in constructive decision-making on difficult adaptation choices (Susskind et. al., 2015).   

The ‘Working Together to Adapt to a Changing Climate’ project built on the concept of ‘readiness’ and developed some new tools for both assessing and enhancing the readiness of community and organisational stakeholders. This involved action research led by Icarus, a specialist community engagement consultancy, in two UK communities (a semi-urban setting in Surrey and a coastal town in Norfolk) between May 2019 and September 2021. These projects both confirmed and extended the findings of the evidence review.

Dr Ute Kelly said: “The findings from our action research highlighted the wide variability of ‘readiness’ in a given context, and the value of learning about levels of knowledge, emotional states, capacities, etc prior to beginning conversations about difficult climate adaptation choices. This project has engaged Risk Management Authorities, key stakeholders and local communities, working together to understand the impact of climate change on flood and coastal erosion risks in England and Wales, and to develop and test new thinking and practice for collaborative problem-solving and decision-making in and with affected communities. Insights from this research have gone on to influence Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) policy and practice in England and Wales.”

What impact has the research had?

  • The policy relevance of this work has been recognised at national level. The engagement challenges raised in the evidence review feature in the new Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England, which sets out how flood and coastal risk will be managed for the next 30 years.

  • The Evidence Review has contributed to changes in approach in engaging communities in planning and decision-making for climate adaptation, particularly in relation to flooding and coastal change.

  • Readiness Assessment is currently being developed and piloted in high-profile government-funded resilience-building and climate adaptation projects across the country. 

Dr Rhys Kelly added: “Our successful piloting of readiness assessment in these two communities has led Senior Environment Agency staff to support the development of readiness assessment tools that can be used by FCERM professionals in a range of contexts. Our tools establish a new best-practice protocol for initial information-gathering and situation analysis that can help to pre-empt and/or tackle some common obstacles to effective engagement, planning and decision-making in this emerging area of policy and practice. Our work together with Icarus substantially contributed to the decision by the Environment Agency and DEFRA in summer 2020 to adapt and test a readiness assessment protocol in the first phase of a major new government-funded scheme to promote ‘innovative resilience’ strategies in flood and coastal risk management across 25 areas in England.”

People walking with umbrellas