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Climate Change: How Residents in Coastal Regions Cope with Rising Sea Levels

Research conducted at the Centre for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte) informs on how residents in coastal regions cope with climate change threats, particularly rising water levels.

© 2023 Ricardo Resende | Unsplash

With the consequences of climate change, coastal areas are exposed to the negative impacts of rising water levels, putting communities and natural habitats at risk. The consequences of sea-level rising are not immediate, however, which may explain why people still choose to live along the coast. During her master’s degree at Iscte, Natacha Parreira, supervised by Carla Mouro, a researcher from CIS-Iscte, explored how different types of place attachment relate to people’s coping strategies regarding rising water levels in the district of Aveiro, flagged as one of the most at-risk coastal areas in Portugal.

Natacha Parreira and Carla Mouro explain the main concept of the study: “Place attachment is the people’s affective link to a specific place, neighborhood, community, or city, and relates to the desire of remaining close to that area because of the sense of security and trust.”. The study focuses in two types of place attachment, a traditional type, and an active type. The traditional type is an “inherited” sense of place more associated with long-term residence, in a family home, and resistance to leaving that location. Active attachment is more connected with residence in a chosen place and more active involvement with the local community and institutions through civic participation or social capital contributions. “We wanted to explore how these two dimensions relate to people’s coping strategies about rising sea levels and how such relation is affected by perceived risk and eco-anxiety.”, the authors clarify.

According to Natacha Parreira, “eco-anxiety or climate anxiety can be defined as a persistent concern or anguish about ongoing and future threats and uncertainties associated with climate change.”. The researcher further states that “as residents vary in how they deal with and feel about water level threats, there is a need to better understand the cognitive and emotional factors that influence their choice of diverse coping responses.”

The study, which comprised data from 197 inhabitants of the Aveiro district, found that residents with a stronger active place attachment tend to perceive more risk of sea-level rising and feel more eco-anxiety. These residents are also more likely to adopt active coping strategies, such as seeking information, taking preventive measures, and engaging in community initiatives. On the other hand, there was no significant effect of traditional place attachment, with results showing that residents who perceived less risk and felt less eco-anxiety also reported adopting more passive coping strategies, such as denial, fatalism, and resignation. Results also indicated that even low levels of eco-anxiety can motivate residents to use active coping strategies to deal with risks, indicating that “eco-anxiety can be a moral emotion that suggests how much individuals care about important problems and uncertainties, which strengthens problem-solving attitudes”. According to the research team, these results “suggest that emotional and cognitive factors play a significant role in how residents respond to climate change threats”.

The research team hopes their findings can inform policymakers and community leaders in developing more effective strategies for coping with climate change threats, particularly in vulnerable coastal regions. Aveiro Municipality has developed varied initiatives to minimize the negative impact of climate change along the coast. One example is the Action Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change in 2021, which has been made available to the public. Besides measures to adapt infrastructures to cope with events such as floods, it includes others such as increasing residents’ awareness of and knowledge about their exposure to extreme weather events and consequences on goods and people’s safety. From the researchers’ point of view, however, the success of such adaptation and mitigation procedures’ may be largely dependent on communities’ support and adherence. “By taking into account the different types of place attachment and their relationship to risk perception and coping strategies, policymakers can design more targeted and inclusive policies that address the needs and concerns of all residents.”, they conclude.



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