"A gorgeous documentary that takes us inside a community at the brink of extinction."
We travel from Louisiana to the UK to visit the towns of Fairbourne and Happisburgh. It turns out that some of the most developed countries in the world are woefully unequipped to handle the effects of climate change.
To some, climate displacement seems like a distant possibility — something that we could never experience directly.
But the climate crisis has already knocked on our doors in the UK and the US, forcing at-risk communities to confront how climate change devalues and destroys land, disperses communities and erases parts of our identity and history.
“you always have to be able to remember
where you took your first step for you to
know where you’re going.”
chris — lowland kids
The struggles of people leaving the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana are eerily mirrored in a number of UK coastal towns. Sitting in the shadow of Wales’ iconic Snowdonia National Park, the idyllic village of Fairbourne has been home to a tight-knit community since 1850 and currently has a settled population of roughly 1000 people. But future flood risks and opaque policy plans threaten their way of life, leaving residents in a state of constant uncertainty.
Until 2025 the village is in the ‘Hold the Line’ phase of the Shoreline Management Plan 2, which involves keeping the line of defence in approximately the same location as it is now, maintaining existing defences and replacing or upgrading them along their current alignment. After 2025 National Resources Wales is set to maintain the sea wall until 2054 ‘if funds permit’. This deliberately vague wording shows Fairbourne could be decommissioned at the drop of a hat.
After a BBC Wales reporter erroneously labeled it ‘The Village of the Damned’ and falsely claimed it had a life span of 10 years left, residents saw houses that were sold subject to contract fall through. House prices plummeted by 40% overnight and home insurance became impossible to obtain for some.
At present, people in the UK who lose their homes to climate related issues either get zero compensation or a paltry fee that doesn’t begin to cover the amount necessary to buy an equivalent replacement home. As at-risk land and properties are devalued by insurance companies, the sense of loss is compounded as residents are forced to sell their land back to the councils at a massively reduced price and downsize. Some are even forced to pay to deconstruct their own properties, tearing apart their memories and destroying homes that they have poured their lives into.
The emotional stress of this precarious existence is taking its toll on some Fairbourne residents who are worn down and unwilling to talk about the future. The act of leaving behind not just a home but a community, knowing that all the things you hold dear will be washed away and erased by the ocean, becomes a form of climate change trauma that we must do everything we can to avoid.
Whereas Fairbourne is in the early stages of planning for climate displacement, Happisburgh in Norfolk is already dealing with the harsh realities of relocation as the accelerated rate of coastal erosion forces people from their homes.
Happisburgh’s coastline is made up of soft sediment, making it particularly susceptible to erosion. It loses an average of 2 metres of coastline per year meaning that houses that were once 250 metres away from the coast are now at great risk of falling into the sea.
This dramatic drone footage shows a new gigantic chasm that opened up last month as roughly 10 cubic metres of Happisburgh’s coastline collapsed in on itself.
Councils do not always have the power or the funding to help the most at-risk in these situations but one Happisburgh resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, told a story of a council that has not always been on the people’s side. After a 1991 storm destroyed the town’s flood defences, the entire town council boycotted a crucial town meeting on coastal erosion. They cited the impact that publicising the realities of Happisburgh’s plight would have on house prices and tourism as their reasons for not fulfilling their duty to act and protect the town’s residents. The whole council was forced to resign over the scandal but the greed of the previous council’s holiday-home cash-grab is a familiar narrative in the story of humanity’s prioritisation of profit over nature.
The effects of such historic mismanagement of flood defences are severe. The town is now in the process of Managed Realignment (also known as ‘managed retreat’). This is defined as “a landward retreat of defences, giving up some land to the sea to form a more sustainable defence in the long-term.” This clinical policy language omits the lives and communities that have been and will be uprooted by the move inland.
In reality this means that the flood defences, which were destroyed by the storm in 1991, have not been replaced due to lack of funding. In 2015, a rock wall was put in place to absorb wave energy. Part of the wall was funded by the residents who were told they had to pay £100 per rock to protect their own homes.
When the burden of tackling climate change is being unjustly placed upon individuals, it is clear that there are larger systemic and funding issues that need to be addressed to protect people and land.
Despite the opaque and unfair system that currently exists, there are some key solutions to remove the burden of responsibility from individuals and push local and national governments to put in place clear, fair policy on relocation. Specific financial actions include providing adequate funding for sea wall defences, instituting a climate relocation fund for displaced people and freezing house values in at-risk areas at a pre-climate change influenced figure to prevent disastrous personal losses.
Policy must be clear to local councillors so that they can communicate it to residents as early as possible, giving them as much preparation time as they need for the relocation process. On an emotional level, it is clear that the impact of leaving a disappearing place weighs heavily on people like Chris and the lowland kids.
Policy makers around the world must take extra care to account for the needs of departing residents, allowing them some control over where they will be relocated to and how they can keep their communities together.
The interactive map in the section to help you visualise the effects of sea level rise globally — what would happen to the place where you live? We then take a look at the policy changes needed for climate displacement.
We urgently need better policy to ensure that residents in these at-risk towns and villages are guaranteed fair financial compensation which doesn’t punish individuals for climate events.
The devaluation of properties by the market logic of insurance companies and housing valuations must be offset by a new ‘climate relocation fund’ which is able to adequately remunerate people who are forced to leave their homes.
This could be established through government action or legal initiatives that institute precedents for compensating homeowners in climate-threatened areas. These people cannot just be written off as individual casualties of our collective mismanagement of the climate.
There must be policy to implement a just relocation process that takes into account the emotional impact of climate displacement by making an effort to keep the long-established communities built up in these places together.
Those with attachments to the specific geography and climate of an at-risk region should be relocated to places with similar human and biological ecosystems where possible. Those who are relocating need to be consulted on this process to ensure their needs are taken into account.
We dive in to the solutions to climate displacement, from preventative measure to policy changes. Then check out how you can get involved to support communities on the frontlines.
Essentials: Listen to a 20-minute podcast covering all basics you need to know — a true crash course on the issue of climate migration
Topical: Following President Biden’s executive order on refugees, read up on leading environmental charity Climate Refugees’ report into response mechanisms for climate displacement.
Deep Dive: Head to the environmental migration portal for the go-to resource hub to learn everything about climate migration
Donate to Climate Refugees to help fund their work advocating for displaced peoples
Write a letter to Robert Jenrick, UK Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, explaining your concerns for the residents of Fairbourne, Happisburgh and other seaside towns who are being forced to leave their homes without compensation, dignity or proper planning. Follow the tips in this link to ensure your letter is as effective as possible.
Manage the (brand new!) Disappearing Towns Coalition: we’ve created a knowledge hub and forum for at-risk towns UK-wide to discuss just relocation strategies and draft policies to present to government officials with the power to change things. To get this project off the ground, we need a group of passionate people taking charge of it:
1. volunteer to lead the project
2. volunteer for email outreach (regional and local councils)
3. volunteer for knowledge gathering / data collection
4. volunteer for collaborative agenda
Start a campaign with environmental legal organisations (like Client Earth, Stop Ecocide) to establish legal precedents for compensation owed to people for land destroyed by climate change. If you are interested we can put you in touch with our contacts to help build these relationships.
1. Volunteer to lead the project
2. Volunteer for email outreach
3. Volunteer for data collection/research
Pop us an email to express your interest