The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should prioritise UK climate resilience

Michael Gove MP

Michael Gove Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Credit: Number 10 Flickr)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), with Michael Gove MP at the helm, must focus on building the UK’s resilience to growing risks from climate impacts.

Climate change is already putting the lives and livelihoods of individuals and communities in the UK at greater risk. Mr Gove must make building climate resilience in the UK his priority. Fortunately the UK has a wealth of independent experts Mr Gove can rely on for advice.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in the UK

Since 2000, the UK has experienced eight of its ten warmest years since Met Office records began in 1910, and six of its seven wettest years, according to the Met Office’s ‘State of the UK Climate 2016’ report, which was published last week. The UK’s climate is about 1 degree warmer than during the 1970s. The first six months of 2017 were the third warmest January-June period on record.

The UK is now at higher risk of heatwaves and heavy rainfall. Sweltering temperatures last month included the hottest recorded temperature in June in the UK since 1976. Heavy rainfall is increasing the risks of river and surface water flooding. Sea levels are rising around most of the UK, increasing the probability of coastal flooding. The starts and ends of the seasons are changing and the distribution of plants and animal species shifting. Climate change is fundamentally altering the British countryside.

One of the three most urgent tasks for Defra is to prepare an updated National Adaptation Programme for England

The Government has a responsibility to make UK households and businesses more resilient to climate change. The Government must sets out its plans for England in line with Section 58 of the Climate Change Act in the National Adaptation Programme (NAP). The first version of the programme was published in 2013 and an update must be published every five years.

The independent experts of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), and its Adaptation Sub Committee (ASC), reported to Parliament in 2015 and 2017 on assessments of the first plan and have made recommendations for the update.

In particular, the ASC highlighted that, for the adaptation plan to be successful, the Government must take a much more strategic role in addressing the risks of climate change in an integrated way. Mr Gove must take the lead on making current and future climate resilience a priority across Government.

Defra must also initiate a second phase of the National Flood Resilience Review focusing on the risk of surface water flooding.

The first National Flood Resilience Review report, published in September 2016, considered only the potential impacts of coastal and river flooding. However, as pointed out by the Climate Change Risk Assessment, more homes and businesses in the UK are at serious risk from surface water flooding than from coastal and river flooding.

Whilst surface water flooding events can be more localised and less damaging than river flooding, the summer floods in 2007, which were the most costly floods in recent memory and resulted in about £3billion in economic losses, were primarily due to heavy rainfall in urban centres across the country.

Defra needs to initiate a new communications programme to raise public awareness about the risks of climate change.

The CCC and other experts have repeatedly highlighted that more and better communication about climate change impacts in the UK is needed. Currently the most of the public are largely unaware of the growing risks they face.

There is worrying evidence that the public erroneously think that the incidence of extremely hot days has declined. Experts point out that heat contributes to about 2,000 premature deaths each year in the UK, and this figure could rise to about 7,000 annually in the 2050s due to the impact of climate change and population growth. Lack of awareness means too few people are taking steps to protect themselves – by adapting their homes to reduce the occurrence of heat stress, for example. The ASC reported in 2017 that “the uptake of measures to increase cooling capacity in existing homes is currently very low”.

Similarly, there is evidence that the majority of people living on floodplains wrongly believe that they are at no risk of flooding. As a result, participation in community flood management schemes is too low.

Cuts to the funding for the Environment Agency have exacerbated the issue, ending programmes to raise the awareness of local communities and businesses about options for managing the impacts of climate change.

Better communication is needed. Defra does not have to implement a new communications plan on its own, but it must provide strategic direction for the many partners that should be involved.

These are not the only tasks that Defra needs to undertake but they are among the most urgent.

Defra does not have to undertake these tasks alone. The new Environment Secretary can, and should, draw on the expertise of the UK’s climate experts in his new role.

If Mr Gove makes these tasks priorities for his Department, he can be assured of the support of the expert community already engaged in efforts to make the UK more resilient to climate change.