Holding back the flood

New review urges help for people to fight climate change, not flee

a man and a little girl walking through a flooded street

Photo by Dibakar Roy on Unsplash

Photo by Dibakar Roy on Unsplash

Researchers from Cambridge, Exeter and St Andrews urge politicians to help “trapped” communities fight the effects of climate change instead of fleeing.  

What happens when someone is faced with threats of floods or wildfires to their home due to sea-level rise and extreme weather caused by climate change? Should we expect them to abandon their home? Their livelihood? Their community? 

These questions are explored in a new review in the journal WIREs Climate Change, which summarises decades of research showing an argument in favour of those “staying put in an era of climate change.”

The paper explores the role of immobile populations from the Torres Straits islanders to the Netherlands -- dubbed “trapped” people -- who for economic, social, or health reasons are unable to migrate to avoid the environmental stresses of climate change.  

These communities are rooted in their location. To leave would be to abandon everything,” said Dr Daniel Robins, a former Cambridge Zero Fellow and lead author on the paper.

person in black jacket and black pants standing on water near beige concrete building during daytime

Photo by Egor Gordeev on Unsplash

Photo by Egor Gordeev on Unsplash

Warming global temperatures are causing sea levels to rise, which has increased the risk of flooding to coastal communities. Extreme wildfires, storms, heavy rainfall and droughts are also triggered more frequently under the increased global temperatures of climate change. 

Climate refugees are a growing concern in international policy. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees put supporting “increasing numbers of forcibly displaced and stateless people fleeing from climate-fuelled crises” on their global roadmap for 2030

However, the new study summarises decades of research which show that even when faced with dangerous situations, such as frequent flooding, people often choose to remain

People want to stay put. Fleeing from their communities will have a huge cost to their social, mental, and financial wellbeing,” said Dr Robins.  

Populations living in areas of climate risk can experience adverse health impacts from changes in water and food security, disease ecology, flooding, and saltwater intrusion, as well as psycho-social impacts from disrupted livelihoods. 

These negative impacts can be reduced with adaptive measures, say the authors, who list strategies such as building seawalls, developing flood warning systems or insurance schemes to mitigate risk, as methods to protect at-risk coastal communities. 

Additionally, policymakers could take inspiration from solutions to similar challenges, such as earthquake risk. The authors suggested that designing bespoke infrastructure to increase protection from flooding, similar to Japan’s earthquake-resilient housing, could help communities to adapt to climate change.

“If communities believe they have resources that nearly meet or exceed what is demanded in a situation...then they will tend to view that situation as a challenge rather than a threat,” the authors wrote.

The authors point to numerous studies which indicate stronger bonds among people living in resilient communities, which can improve mental health. 

wooden shanties along the riverbank

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

Noting the consequences for avoiding the problem, the paper references the 2022 UN Human Rights Committee ruling against Australia for failing to help the Torres Strait islanders to adapt to the impacts of climate change, which were flooding their islands.

Yessie Mosby, a Torres Strait islander and claimant in the case told ClientEarth: “We can’t pack our bags and go - we are not connected to any other place but this beautiful island we call home.” 

Climate change won’t just be felt on islands in the Global South; the paper highlights the need for adaptations in the Global North, such as the Netherlands where almost 60% of the land is considered a flooding risk zone.

The paper concludes with a call to include the voices of affected communities in decision-making processes, who can advise on how to make their communities more resilient against climate change.


Robins, D., Saddington, L., Boyd-Macmillan, E., Stojanovic, T., Hudson, B., & Lafortune, L. (2024). Staying put in an era of climate change: The geographies, legalities, and public health implications of immobility. WIREs Climate Change, e879. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.879

Published 25 March 2024

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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