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Swedish citizens need more support to handle the effects of climate change

Skyfall Malmö 2014
Photo: Mostphotos.

A changing climate means that citizens will have to take more action to safeguard their lives and property from extreme weather events. At the same time, there are great differences in people’s capacities and resources to do so. In a new PhD dissertation from LUCSUS, researcher Ebba Brink asserts that it is about time that the Swedish climate debate considers the role of individuals also when it comes to the effects of climate change.

– Authorities have neither the mandate nor the capacity to assist everyone when a serious storm or flood occurs. On the contrary, homeowners, for instance, have quite a far-reaching responsibility to reduce risks on their own property according to our current legislation. With an increasing occurrence of extreme weather events, citizens need to do more to protect their life and property, even without any deliberate change in laws or policies in this direction, says Ebba Brink.

In her thesis, she studied how different circumstances influence citizens' ability to prevent and respond to weather events such as downpours and floods. These circumstances range from a neighbourhood’s geographical conditions to cope with heavy rain to urban authorities’ working methods and individual factors such as people’s financial situation and social networks. She also investigated how urban authorities in Sweden have engaged citizens in climate adaptation.

The Malmö flood

Part of the dissertation concerns the downpour in Malmö in August 2014. After 100 ml of rain fell within 24 hours, the city of Malmö experienced widespread flooding that cost the city over 100 million SEK (€10 million) and resulted in more than 4,400 individual damage claims from citizens. The emergency caused the alarm number 112 to become more or less blocked, often by people whose lives or property were not in serious danger. As a result, people living in the areas most affected by the flood initially received no assistance and they had to manage their own evacuation.

– The Malmö flood showed how low preparedness of the general public can compromise society's ability to protect important infrastructure and to help the most vulnerable. It also indicates that people living in areas vulnerable to floods and heavy rain might have to carry a disproportionately high burden in the future.

As extreme events become more common and affect more people, city authorities like Malmö may be required to interpret the existing laws and regulations more strictly, which in turn can make it harder to get compensation for damages. At the same time, it may be a challenge for individual citizens to change their situation; for instance, in the case of downpours, flooding in one location is often caused by large amounts of water that originate in other areas. It may also become more difficult to sign home insurance or sell your property in an area affected by recurring floods. The affected citizens interviewed in the study commonly expressed worry about the future.

Urbanisation makes matters worse

Another aggravating circumstance is that urbanisation itself increases the risk of future floods. This is because asphalt and concrete do not absorb rainwater to the same extent as green areas.

– The situation is becoming more urgent. City authorities cannot reverse this development on their own, but they can take actions to distribute the responsibility for climate change adaptation more evenly among us. One example is placing higher demands on landowners who are not themselves at risk to delay rainwater on their land. It is not reasonable that people’s prospects to protect themselves against climate impacts should be so different, says Ebba Brink.

In parallel with the attempts to involve and support citizens, planning authorities must actively try to get other actors on board the adaptation train, according to Ebba Brink. Examples include private property owners, companies providing rental housing, cooperative housing associations, as well as state-run land owners such as the Swedish Church and Akademiska Hus which manages facilities for the University.

Need for more knowledge

– There is a regulatory framework for taking climate risks into account in new housing developments, but not so much regulation for existing areas. Such measures are often more expensive and require action or consent from residents and property owners. There is an urgent need to make residential areas better equipped to cope with the effects of climate change, for example by constructing floodable areas, installing pumps and backwater stops, and increasing the amount of greenery. The campaign Tillsammans gör vi plats för vattnet (Making space for water together) from Malmö City and the water company VA Syd is a positive example.

At the same time, she calls for more knowledge about the conditions of different citizen groups to handle extreme weather events. For example, before the heat record the country experienced this summer, the question as to how extreme heat affects Swedish society had hardly reached mainstream discussions, although heat is the type of climate hazard that causes the most deaths in Sweden, according to research. Ebba Brink believes that critical investigation into how societal functions have failed during earlier weather extremes plays an important role alongside the predictions of future climate, but at the same time she warns against getting caught in accusations.

– Both municipalities and individuals will face new challenges due to climate change. It is unproductive to merely point fingers. We need to find long-term solutions together with those who have relevant experiences and opportunities to act. This certainly includes citizens, she concludes.


Climate Change & Resilience

This research falls under LUCSUS' research theme Climate Change & Resilience 

About the researcher

Ebba Brink

Ebba Brink is a researcher at LUCSUS. She defended her doctoral thesis in summer 2018.

Download Ebba Brink's thesis: ‘Adapting Cities : Ecosystem-based approaches and citizen engagement in municipal climate adaptation in Scania, Sweden’

Ebba Brink's personal page

Research project

Ebba Brink’s PhD project was a part of the larger research project “Increasing Societies’ Adaptive Capacities to Climate Change: Distributed Urban Risk Governance for Achieving Sustainable Transformation and Resilience of Cities” financed by FORMAS. 

More information about the research project