A LINE IN THE SAND: Towards a new framework for sustainable coastal communities


Supervisor: Andrew Russell

Non-accademic partner: Policy Connect

Studentship start date: 01/10/2023

Application deadline: 03/03/2023

Application details: For further information on how to apply for this full or part time studentship please get in touch with the supervisor.

Andrew Russell:

For more information on how to apply click here.


The UK’s official advisor on climate change – the Committee on Climate Change – has described the environmental and socioeconomic issues facing the UK’s shorelines as a “coastal timebomb”. This dramatic assertion stems from three key factors:1) Global climate change will lead to rising sea levels and changing storm patterns that will result in increased UK coastal flooding and accelerated coastal erosion.2) Protection from coastal flooding and erosion is expensive and interferes with important natural processes meaning that it can only be justified for the most developed coastal settlements.3) High levels of deprivation in coastal communities means that there is less capacity for people to build resilience to climate change impacts.

The potential problem is huge: the UK’s Climate Change Risk Assessment estimated that by 2100 the damages expected from coastal flood risk could increase by 5 times and the number of people exposed to coastal erosion could increase by 30 times.


Whilst these issues are well-known, current government policies and actions are not adequate to manage these rapidly increasing coastal climate change risks. Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change assesses these policies and actions every two years and they consistently find that the growth of the risks is greater than the potential of new and existing policies to manage those risks. There is a significant “adaptation gap”.

There are many complicated and intertwined reasons why this is the case. To name a few: the required adaptations are expensive and there is a limited budget; the data on exactly when and where the greatest impacts will occur are uncertain; responsibility for managing the problem is split inelegantly between many organisations; there is a complex patchwork of legislation that has developed over the last 70 years that makes future policy making especially difficult; there are specific coastal issues around insurance, compensation and town planning that cause unique problems; and the likely least-worst responses in some cases will still be incredibly hard to implement technically and socially e.g. managed retreat of coastlines, abandonment of settlements.

These are difficult problems to solve but they need to be acknowledged and addressed.


In close collaboration with our think-tank partner – Policy Connect – this PhD project aims to develop a new, social science driven approach to sustainably assessing and managing coastal risks. We aim to:

1) Review and synthesise previous coastal risk assessments, cost-benefit analyses and policy approaches.

2) Develop a range of viable coastal adaptation options based on Step 1.

3) Test the options from Step 2 with impacted communities and policy experts to develop sustainable adaptation options.

4) Apply and improve an innovative approach to visualising coastal adaptation decision making that uses measures of environmental, economic and social factors to identify routes to a sustainable future.


Step 4 of this project is the key to unlocking new insights for coastal communities and policy makers regarding the range of options open to them. The technique is called “dynamic adaptation pathways” and it sets out series of risk management, or adaptation, options over time (the pathways) depending on the changing background conditions and on the implications of their previous decisions. Seeing these pathways together allows decisionmakers to understand the long-term implications of the options they chose.