New research published by Maynooth University researchers in Nature Climate Change shows that adaptation to climate change is likely to take place not as a smooth, planned process but as a series of crises which will cause major disruption as instant short-term solutions are sought.
The findings of the study could prove key to establishing how society changes to cope with more turbulent weather and more frequent mega storms.
Dr Conor Murphy and Prof John Sweeney of the Department of Geography worked with colleagues at the University of Exeter and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, which also provided funding for the study.
The team examined attitudes in Cumbria in north-west England and Galway in western Ireland, which were both hit by heavy flooding in November 2009. Record rainfall was recorded in both countries, resulting in a number of deaths, properties being severely damaged and economic disruption.
The flooding of 2009 was devastating to both communities. This study is the first to track the impacts of floods across two countries and how communities and individuals demand change after such events. When people in both studies felt that government had fallen short of their expectations, we found that the resulting perception of helplessness leads to an unwillingness to take personal action to prevent flooding in future.
The study surveyed 356 residents in both areas eight months after the flooding and measured perceptions of governments’ performances in dealing with the aftermath, as well as perceptions of fairness in that response and the willingness of individuals to take action. It found that residents in Galway were significantly more likely to believe that their property would be flooded again than those in Cumbria. Yet it was Cumbrians who believed they had more personal responsibility to adapt to reduce future incidents.

Issues of fairness, blame and liability are the dominant factors in determining the willingness of individuals to take action in the context of future risks.

The research noted that given the high exposure of development in flood prone areas it is clear that both England and Ireland need to make major investments in building flood resilience with changing rainfall patterns induced by climate change. Political demand for those investments will only grow.
The study concluded that to successfully adapt to climate change we need to consider the implicit contract between citizens and government agencies when planning for floods, to enable fairer and smoother processes of adaptation.