Geographical imaginaries – as discourses that are both representationally and performatively constituted – are vitally implicated in the making of the world and therefore profoundly political. In this paper we introduce the notion of the ‘sea level rise imaginary’ (SLRI) to explore the implications of these insights for how rising seas caused by climate change are being understood and acted upon in the UK. Drawing on empirical research undertaken in Fairbourne, a coastal village in North Wales that has become emblematic of sea level rise-induced population displacement, we consider the imaginary’s intersecting spatial, temporal and dramatic components. The findings, based on interviews, official documents and media reports, show how Fairbourne’s dominant, external SLRI, a primarily future-oriented discourse, is materialising in the present day via a series of institutional, economic and behavioural effects. However, it is also subject to political contestation and resistance by Fairbourne’s residents who put forward their own alternative SLRI – one in which the imagining of the village as an example of the local consequences of global climate change is countered by the situated representations and performances of community actors. In the end, the paper highlights the need for improved dialogue across contested SLRIs so that diverse perspectives are more effectively considered when anticipating and responding to climate change. This is potentially one way to minimise the present-day harms resulting from the projected effects of sea level rise and to imagine more open-ended, hopeful futures for affected coastal communities.

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