Adapting to the impacts of climate change in the UK

The first set of reports from public bodies setting out what they are doing to adapt to the impacts of climate change on the UK was published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 28 January 2011.

The climate of the UK, along with the rest of the world, has been changing because of rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Even if all emissions stopped tomorrow, we would still have to cope with further changes as the climate slowly adjusts to current greenhouse levels, which are now about 40 per cent higher than they were before the industrial revolution.

So what are the impacts to which we have to adapt in the UK? Already the average temperature is about 1 degree Celsius higher than it was in the 1970s, and the seasons are arriving about 11 days earlier. It seems likely that we will experience another half or one degree of warming by the middle of this century if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the present rate. That means we will need to adapt to the impacts of climate change for the foreseeable future.

This may not sound too bad, but it also means the risks of some extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, are rising. And a rise in sea levels as ice melts and oceans warm means that the chance of flooding along our coasts, particularly during strong storms, is increasing.

We need to make sure that we increase our resilience to these extreme events, not only to protect ourselves now but also to build our capacity to respond to what lies ahead. Investments today in making people and property more resilient against extreme weather will save money and lives, both today and tomorrow.

For instance, we need to ensure that we are better protected as the frequency of very hot summer days rises. Companies and organisations should now have plans, like the National Health Service, for what to do when there is a repeat of the 2003 heatwave. And we will need better ways of withstanding longer periods of drought, through making more efficient use of our water supplies.

Although we can expect fewer extreme cold weather events in the winter, they will not disappear completely anytime soon, as the last couple of months have demonstrated. Our changing climate is a more uncertain climate and we will have to prepare better for the rare and unexpected.

Flooding is also becoming more of a problem, not just along our coasts but also anywhere that is vulnerable to flash flooding from heavy downpours. As we saw during 2007, many buildings need to be made more flood-proof, if they cannot be defended, against rivers bursting their banks or city drainage systems being overwhelmed. At the same time, we need to become smarter about how and where we build new homes and businesses to ensure that we are not locking in problems for the future.

But perhaps our biggest priority is to make sure that our national infrastructure can cope. Making our transport, electricity and water networks climate-proof is even more of a challenge because any new constructions need to withstand not just today’s extremes but those of the next 50 years or longer. It would be foolish and costly to build schools and hospitals now without thinking about what weather risks they may face in the longer term.

We cannot precisely forecast what weather we will face 40 years from now. That is not just because it is difficult to predict how the climate will respond to future levels of greenhouse gases, but also because we do not know how successful we will be at curbing emissions.

Not only do we need to become more resilient, we also need to be more flexible, as a study by the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment pointed out last September.

Our study was commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change ahead of its assessment of how well the UK is preparing to deal with the impacts of climate change. The Committee concluded that the UK is already beginning to adapt, but there is still a lot more for government, businesses and citizens to do if we are to make ourselves truly resilient to those changes in climate that cannot now be avoided. The reports published on 28 January show that many public bodies have started to face up to the challenge.

Most important of all, we must remember that the less successful the world is at reducing emissions over the next few years, the more expensive and difficult adaptation will become.

Some will argue that they know with certainty that the UK will not face any difficulty coping with the consequences, and may even benefit, if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise unabated. But this is a dangerously complacent attitude towards the risks we face.

Sensible risk management means tackling the causes of climate change, as well as managing those impacts that cannot now be avoided.