In attempting to adapt to climate change, it is recognised that a continuation of the status quo may no longer suffice and a shift to more radical and transformative approaches may be necessary. In this regard, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) note that transformation is likely to involve a change in underlying norms, values and power structures and an introduction of new institutional and regulatory practices. A recently published paper in the Journal of Extreme Events by researchers from Maynooth University and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Norwich highlights the challenges faced in implementing transformative adaptation. The research, being funded by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency, is concerned with understanding societal transformation to manage flood risks across four European countries: Ireland, Austria, France and the Netherlands.
Drawing on flood defence planning in Ireland; specifically, Skibbereen, County Cork and Clontarf, County Dublin, the research identified those barriers that persistently emerge in the context of transformative adaptation. In Skibbereen, transformative adaptation was centred on plans in 2009 to develop a multi-functional environmental park on public land on the town’s periphery to alleviate flooding. The concept was designed to provide significant recreational and environmental benefits and was to be the first park of its kind in Ireland in terms of its multi-functionality in integrating both engineering and non-engineering flood measures and recreational facilities. It was deemed transformative on these grounds. In Clontarf, plans by the local authority to construct an earthen mound through the centre of a heavily utilised promenade to reduce the risk of coastal flooding were vehemently opposed by the community in 2011. The project was deemed transformative in that it was considered to fundamentally alter existing social values and norms ascribed to the promenade and its functionality from a community perspective.
The findings showed that three primary factors played a role in creating barriers to transformative change across both case studies, namely threats to emotional place attachment and place identity and rigid regulations in Clontarf, and reliance on technical knowledge in both Skibbereen and Clontarf. Despite ongoing flood risks in Clontarf, interviewees involved in the study highlighted that protection of the form and functionality of the promenade was of primary importance, whereby the community did not wish changes to interfere with their attachment to the landscape nor impinge on their sense of connection to the area. As one local resident noted, the proposed changes would serve to “sterilize the prom” if implemented, something which the community was determined to prevent from happening for current and future generations. In Clontarf, people also criticised how the local authority notified them of the proposed plans, describing communication strategies used as “stone-age”, and highlighting the inadequacy of regulatory practices for notifying the public of proposed flood defence plans. Across both cases, the researchers also found that Irish flood risk management planning is heavily dependent on those with technical expertise, and engineering solutions therefore continue to dominate nationally. Indeed, a representative with responsibility for flood risk management from a local authority typified this argument, noting that if flood defences are “not designed that you can put something else in front of it and make it higher, it’s very difficult to retrofit it.”
The study argues that where social or institutional barriers emerge, transformation may more likely succeed through a series of incremental changes. The research has practical implications for future adaptation planning as facilitating transformation through incrementalism requires flexible adaptation strategies that are responsive to changing social values over time. Darren Clarke, a researcher involved in the study commented that “this is one of the first studies of its kind globally to explore barriers to transformative adaptation using real-world examples. The results of this research therefore offer important lessons for future adaptation planning across all sectors as often more is learned when processes fail than succeed.”