Local knowledge overlooked in combating climate change

Knowledge of risks posed by extreme weather which has built up in local communities over the generations is often being overlooked by the authorities now responsible for dealing with the aftermath.

This was the claim of Tori Jennings, an anthropologist from the University of Wisconsin, when she spoke at an academic conference, Living with climate change: are there limits to adaptation?, in London this week.

Using the high-profile flooding of the Cornish village of Boscastle as an example, Ms Jennings contrasted the views and actions of local families with those of incomers, tourists and the national media.

“Press coverage was dramatic, often inconsistent in its details and frequently attributed the disaster to global climate change,” she said.

“Boscastle continues to be used as a poster child for climate change.”

Local people had told her, however, that the flooding had happened many, many times before throughout the village’s history and the only unusual thing about the 2004 flood was its scale.

In times past, she said, when the upkeep of the village and its flood defences had been the responsibility of the lord of the manor, workmen had been sent out to dig culverts and keep water courses clear of debris in the village itself and at distances several miles beyond its outskirts.

Development had taken place on the hills above the harbour, rather than in the narrow channel leading down to the sea.

Over time, she argued, houses had been built in the valley by incomers largely unaware of the flood risks and the culverts designed to carry excess water away had become chocked by litter and lack of up-keep.

When the flood struck, there were also notable differences in the reaction of locals and incomers, with the former immediately setting to clearing debris and unblocking culverts while the latter waited for the authorities to arrive and tell them what to do.

She argued that the Boscastle case was symptomatic of a larger issue, where people who have built up a close relationship with the land where they live having a much greater understanding – and therefore ability to adapt to climatic catastrophe – than they are given credit for.

Too often, she said, this local knowledge can be brushed aside if it does not fit in with the plans or understanding of the national authorities tasked with preventing disasters.

She claimed that Boscastle was best viewed as a warning not of impending climate chaos, but rather of the dangers of ignoring the in depth knowledge of those who had learned to live with the hardships of extreme weather conditions over many generations.

Sam Bond

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