, Volume 91, Issue 1-2, pp 145-169

Plausible responses to the threat of rapid sea-level rise in the Thames Estuary

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This paper considers the perceptions and responses of selected stakeholders to a very low probability but high consequence climatic ‘surprise’—a scenario of rapid collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, producing a global rise in sea-level of 5  m over 100 years. It uses a case study of the Thames Estuary, UK, including London. Through a process of dialogue involving one-to-one interviews and a 1-day policy exercise, we addressed influences on decision-making when information is uncertain and our ability to plan, prepare for and implement effective ways of coping with this extreme scenario. The interviews and policy exercise explored plausible responses to the scenario and identified weaknesses in flood management approaches to dealing with such an occurrence. The analysis shows that an extreme scenario could be highly challenging, even for an area with well-developed institutions. Participants favoured two options (a) reconfiguring London around the rising water, and (b) building a new downstream barrier which would allow London to continue as today. The lack of consensus suggests the potential for policy paralysis in response to what is a highly uncertain phenomena—this could lead to a forced, unplanned response as the rapid change overwhelmed the existing defence capability. Hence, low probability, high consequence climatic events may challenge our existing institutions. Adaptive management is presented as an approach which could address this challenge.