European climate refugees are coming

In 26 years at the latest, the Welsh village of Fairbourne will go under – or “settled,” as one would call it, if it were a bank. By then, sea levels will have risen to such an extent that the place on the Atlantic is no longer safe. There is no other way out for the current 900 inhabitants, the district government found back in 2013.

This will make Fairbourne the first village in the UK to be completely abandoned due to climate change. Others could follow. What will happen to the residents is unclear. Under current plans, there will be no financial compensation. Some residents could lose everything.


Rising sea levels are eating away at the coasts

People who have to leave their homes because of the ongoing climate change would be suspected in Kiribati, in the Philippines or in the Sahara region. It is forgotten that Europe’s coasts are also affected.

Sea levels around the UK have risen by 15.4 centimetres since 1900. By 2100, experts from the UK’s National Weather Service estimate to have increased by 1.12 meters. Securing larger cities or industrial sites on the coast will consume a lot of money. For smaller settlements, the effort is too great. Many places on the British coast have been gradually shifting further inland for some time. Individual houses are abandoned, residents are gradually moving away.

This is not possible in Fairbourne. The village is located in a salt marsh, barely above sea level, in front of it the Irish Sea, behind it a mountain, to the side a river. The Mawd roof, which feeds from the adjacent Snowdonia National Park, adds to the flood threat.

A system of walls and ditches now protects the village from flooding. The most important protective measure is a concrete wall on a natural dam. So far, it keeps the water out when it storms. On the dam you can walk and see the beach. The first houses of Fairbourne are right behind it.

If the wall breaks, it could cost lives. The maintenance or even improvement of flood protection is not feasible in the long run, decided the district, which had just invested several million pounds in flood protection.

If the dam breaks, it could go much faster

“The thought that all this will disappear here is sad,” says councillor Lisa Goodier. Goodier has been in charge of shuting out Fairbourne since 2014. The closure of a place is new territory for all concerned. There has never been a similar project in the UK, not even in the world. After an intensive search, Goodier came across a place in Alaska whose residents voluntarily relocated in 2016. “What we don’t want,” she says, “is a lot of climate refugees.” However, this could happen.

Under Goodier’s current plans, the district will begin to erase all traces of human existence in 2045. Fairbourne’s roads, power lines and all other infrastructure will then be removed. The plans are flexible, she says. If the dam breaks in the next few years and land is flooded, everything has to go very quickly.

The location of Fairbourne is hopeless: sandwiched between the sea, a mountain and a river, the village cannot avoid rising sea levels.

Fairbourne’s residents are in a precarious position. A good part has moved from other parts of the UK to Fairbourne to spend the rest of their lives. The house, the newcomers imagined, was supposed to secure the care costs. Others, like 32-year-old Julia Walker, who was interviewed by the Guardian, simply can’t afford it. Walker has three children and is pregnant with the fourth. “We have no choice,” she says.

To build an existence elsewhere, the family would have to sell their property. But no one wants Fairbourne’s houses any more. And if it does, then only at slingshot prices. Prices have fallen by 40 per cent since Fairbourne’s fate was revealed by a BBC report in 2014.

There are no more loans. The only interested parties are “cash buyers”, who hope to make a small profit from the rental income, and a few indeterminate ones who speculate that they will be able to live in Fairbourne for a few more years until the demolition.

Whether a place in the area can and wants to accommodate the current 900 Fairbourne residents is completely open. Apart from their number, this is also a difficult cultural issue, explains Goodier, who is trying to find a solution for everyone. As chance would have it, Fairbourne is an English-speaking island in the “Welsh part of Wales,” she says. The refugees may have difficulty integrating.

There is no compensation

There is no legal obligation to compensate residents, Welsh Minister Lesley Griffiths has said. “I know it sounds tough, but we don’t want to raise expectations,” she says. She admits that Fairbourne’s fate could also be imminent elsewhere on the coast.

Many People in Fairbourne who cannot afford to move are therefore left with nothing but the situation. A few have set up a citizens' initiative to avert the inevitable. The data that determines the end of the city is not accurate enough to set a date, they criticize, among other things. The mood in the village is bad, several media outlets describe. The Daily Mail even called Fairbourne the “City of the Damned”.

Other places will follow

What is already known in Fairbourne threatens other coastal towns as well. A 2018 report by the Government Committee on Climate Change (CCC) counted nearly 530,000 endangered properties on the English coast. By the 2080s, up to 1.5 million households were at risk of flooding, he notes. Protecting them all is unrealistic, says Jim Hall, the lead author of the CCC report. Residents would be left in the dark about this. “The situation on the coast is a time bomb,” he says.