Arwen, Barra, Malik, Corrie, Dudley, Eunice, Franklin. The storms that have hit the UK since late November 2021 have caused huge disruption. We are just two months into 2022, and before the end of the year we may have to endure one or more storms Gladys, Herman, Imani and Jack, the next few names on the Met Office list.
This season is by no means unique. In the winter of 2019-2020, storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge cost the insurance and reinsurance industries nearly £800m, largely as a result of disastrous flooding. During the past decade, winter storms and floods, as well as heat and drought, seem to have become the new normal. Back in 2012, for instance, there was a winter drought, followed by the wettest early June for 150 years and widespread flooding and wind damage in the autumn.
Are these recent extremes of weather a temporary blip or are they part of a long-term pattern – and if so are we doing enough to make us more resilient for future weather? The answer to these two questions is “almost certainly yes” and “certainly not”.
The “almost certainly yes” comes from climate modelling. Although climate scientists are pushing the limits of their models when they try to attribute individual weather events to global heating, there is general agreement that extreme weather is likely to become more common as the air warms. Put simply, this is because warmer air holds more energy and more moisture: two key ingredients of severe storms. But the extremes in the UK weather will not only include storms and floods, but also heatwaves and periods of drought.
Last June, British Columbia suffered a heatwave with record-breaking temperatures of up to 49.6C, followed by catastrophic floods in November that cut all transport routes into Vancouver from the east. The UK will also be more likely to experience extremes like these in the future. A few years ago, the American environmentalist Hunter Lovins coined the term “global weirding” to capture the fact that climate change is not just about the world getting warmer, but also getting more extreme.
The “certainly not” comes from the UK’s statutory advisory body, the Adaptation Committee (AC), the sister committee to the Climate Change Committee (CCC). The AC advises and reports to parliament on how the country can build resilience and future-proof us against the likely impacts of climate change. In a recent report, based on the work of more than 450 experts and including more than 1,500 pages of evidence and analysis, the conclusions are stark.
Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk, and therefore the gap between risk and preparedness has increased. The UK has the capacity and the resources to adapt but the government is simply not doing enough. The report also concludes that acting now will be cheaper than waiting to deal with the consequences.
So what action do we need? The AC’s advice highlights eight top risks that the government should start to tackle in the next two years. These include risks to the electricity supply, to soils, food production and trees and to supply chains, as well as risks of overheating in buildings. As well as preparing for these risks, the government needs to set out its vision for what a well-adapted and resilient UK would look like, and a clear route map for the future. So far it has failed to do this. This vision should integrate adaptation into all aspects of policy. For instance, we are still building hundreds of thousands of homes that will not be fit for living in within a few decades, either because they are in places that will flood, or because they are not designed to cope with “heatwave” summers that will be the norm by 2050.
Adaptation should be integral to “levelling up”, because the impacts of climate change will increase inequalities. Poorer households are more severely affected by the health and financial consequences of flooding and other extremes.
The government has accepted the facts and conclusions, but acting on them is hard. It involves many different government departments, each with its own particular priorities, which may be at odds with taking a broader view. In addition, adaptation requires upfront investment now for longer-term gain. For instance, investment now in water efficiency and heatwave planning has, according to the AC’s climate risk report, an estimated benefit of more than £10 for each £1 spent, but the benefit comes in the future and the cost comes today. Lack of action now is storing up problems and costs for future generations: they will have to pay for our negligence.