Issues

Valuing place is critical to effective climate action

The environmental disruption of valued places through climate change or adaptation plans can have a profound impact on local communities. Chris Phillips and Conor Murphy from the Department of Geography at Maynooth University assert that strengthened public consultation, participatory governance and co-development of adaptation plans are critical to minimising such disruption.

When we think of the impacts of climate change, we often think of issues such as rising sea levels, stronger storms and more intense rainfall and associated flooding. We may even think of the direct impacts of these for people in harm’s way. Not so central to our thinking is how place, and people’s relationship with place may be impacted both by the direct manifestations of climate change and by the strategies we implement to adapt. Less considered still are the potential consequences of these changing relationships for our capacity to adapt and for individual and community health and wellbeing.

Place attachment: Dependence and identity

Place attachment describes the emotional connections that people have to particular landscapes that emerge through personal experience in an environment, its natural qualities, the cultural values that develop and define a place, recreational and livelihood opportunities, among other things. Many have argued that the bonds people develop with place are underpinned by the role of place in shaping individual identity and sense of self. Others show that dependence on place develops from livelihoods, recreation and emotional wellbeing over time. It is no surprise that place attachment tends to be greater in those how have lived in an area for a long time.

Research has clearly shown that, when place is threatened, place attachment and associated emotional bonds can rally communities around a cause, encourage adaptive action and place protective measures; a real benefit for successful adaptation. However, place attachment can be a double-edged sword. The same research also shows that for place attachment to be a positive influence on adaptation outcomes, individuals and communities must see the governance process as fair and have a voice in decision-making that affects place. Otherwise, threats to place can result in contestation, emotional stress and a decline in wellbeing. Moreover, when place is disrupted or lost the impacts on people can be profound.

‘Solastalgia’ and environmental grief

‘Solastalgia’, coined by the philosopher Glen Albrecht in 2003, is a condition that describes how individuals lack the ability to acquire solace from an environment they are attached to, often resulting in feelings of grief, distress and powerlessness following environmental disruption. Solastalgia undermines personal and community identity, belonging and sense of control and has been related to a breakdown between an individual’s identity and their environment.

Over the past decade, a growing body of research has shown that solastalgia and resultant environmental distress, melancholia and feelings of grief can arise following unwanted transformations of valued places through activities such as resource extraction, extreme weather events and natural disasters. Loss of place and feelings of solastalgia threaten wellbeing, often bringing negative emotional responses that can influence engagement with effective coping responses and paralysis or in action towards negatively perceived environmental change.

Climate change threatens place, whether through rising sea levels, coastal erosion or more frequent inundation. Moreover, the actions we take to adapt to changing risks also have the potential to break bonds with place through building flood walls and other structures or forced relocation. At Maynooth University we have been exploring how place disruption is affecting those living on the frontline in the hope of developing insights that make these issues more central to adaptation planning. The following provides a snapshot of two case studies we have been exploring.

Climate Action that is sensitive to place

Our research is showing that attachment to place is central to how communities navigate environmental changes. Distress, solastalgia and contestation can result from threats to and loss of place that negatively impact well-being, influencing the ability of individuals and communities to cope with and adapt to ongoing environmental change.

In addition to direct threats from climate change, the adaptation plans we implement to counter these may also be viewed as disruptive and lead to community opposition. Research is showing that strengthened public consultation, participatory governance and co-development of adaptation plans are critical to minimising place disruption. Accounting for place attachment, strengthening consultation and local participation may foster resilience, yield fairer and more effective outcomes and protect wellbeing.

Courtown Harbour, Wexford: Place loss and solastagia

Courtown Harbour, in the sunny southeast has always been known for its beautiful expansive blue flag beach. It has attracted many tourists over the decades and provided a hub of activity for the local economy.

Over recent years, Courtown has been severely impacted by coastal erosion, losing its beach, its blue flag status and undergoing significant transformation due to the instalment of rock armour. Instead of an expanse of sand there now lies an expanse of rock. Winter storms continue to batter the soft coastline resulting in the area being deemed high risk for future coastal erosion.

We have been working with the local community to explore if and how loss of the beach has manifested in feelings of solastalgia. We are finding that a large portion of the residents of Courtown and Riverchapel are experiencing high levels of solastalgia linked to loss of the beach. Loss of such a valued place has greatly impacted recreation opportunities, family and social meetings, tourism and even childhood memories.

Many blame the installation of rock armour for the dramatic transformation and believe that they had little voice in determining the adaptive actions taken. Residents indicate that they experience distress, a sense of powerlessness and deep sadness at the sight of this negative transformation of place with negative outlooks for the future widely expressed. Such outlooks and sentiments are known to be associated with a decrease in capacity to adapt. Those with stronger levels of place attachment tend to be most negatively impacted.

While Courtown is just one example, it is representative of the many small coastal communities that will face threats to place with climate change.

“Climate change threatens place, whether through rising sea levels, coastal erosion or more frequent inundation. Moreover, the actions we take to adapt to changing risks also have the potential to break bonds with place…”

Clontarf, Dublin: Contestation when place is forgotten

Clontarf in Dublin has been the subject of long-standing contestation surrounding the development of coastal flood defences. Research, conducted in 2018, shows that place attachment and its lack of consideration lie at the heart of ongoing debates.

The promenade in Clontarf is central to a deep routed place attachment in the community, central to the identity of the town itself and many residents. It is also a highly valued space by many people outside of the community. The vast majority of residents recognise the need for flood defences but are less supportive where flood defences threatened the form and function of the promenade.

Challenges in Clontarf, stem from a breakdown in participatory processes which become particularly acute when place attachment is high. While Dublin City Council followed due diligence, the opportunities for public engagement in our planning legislation may be insufficient when adaptive interventions happen in valued places.

Individuals with stronger place attachment are likely to place greater weight on participatory processes. When these break down and place-based identities and meanings are not given sufficient attention distrust, place protective emotions and contestation take over, often miring adaptive processes in long, drawn out arguments despite the growing flood risk. Such barriers can be long lasting and difficult to overcome.

Conor Murphy is a professor at the Department of Geography at Maynooth University.
Chris Philips is an Irish Research Council-funded scholar completing his PhD at Maynooth University.

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