For anyone who has sweated through record-high temperatures or waded through floodwater, it will come as no surprise that Britain is “strikingly unprepared” for the effects of climate change. That’s the conclusion of a report published Wednesday by the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s independent advisory body on climate policy to the government.
It might feel surprising — or perhaps foreboding — that a rich country like the UK is so unready for the challenge. We typically hear about adaptation — changes in processes and structures to cope with the current and future impact of the climate crisis — in relation to developing nations whose vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt of change, such as extreme weather events becoming more frequent. But Lisa Schipper, professor of developmental geography at the University of Bonn, warns against that framing. “Many people in the global north have been painted a picture in which climate disasters happen in poor countries,” she told me. That’s led to a complacency that we’re perhaps just waking up from.
Poorer nations, which regularly meet harder times, have had a much clearer focus on adaptation for longer. In response to Germany’s catastrophic floods in 2021, which killed 196 people, Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, wrote an op-ed explaining how rich nations could learn from his home country. Though regularly struck by cyclones and floods, Bangladesh invested in minimizing the loss of human lives when disasters strike and now boasts “one of the best disaster warning systems, with evacuation plans and shelters.”
That’s not to say developing countries don’t need more help with sustainable development, or that the UK is uniquely ill-prepared in the developed world. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report summarized, policy gaps are stymieing the building of climate resilience everywhere. While investment in adaptation measures is increasing, it still represents a small portion of total green finance and is insufficient for the huge task at hand. It’s also being held back by the very problems we’re trying to cope with. As losses pile up, more money is directed towards repairing the damage than safeguarding the future.
Though regularly struck by cyclones
and floods, Bangladesh invested in
minimizing the loss of human lives
when disasters strike and now boasts
“one of the best disaster warning systems,
with evacuation plans and shelters.”
The situation in the UK is serious. The heatwave in summer 2022 contributed to wildfires, a prolonged drought and the highest rate of heat-related excess mortality that England has ever seen. It also demonstrated the risk of cascading impacts, when extreme temperatures caused two data centers — designed to act as back ups to each other — to fail. That, in turn, took down most of the clinical IT systems at several London hospitals and community services, causing widespread disruption to patient care. The country has also already been affected by changing conditions elsewhere: Unseasonably cold weather in Spain led to salad shortages in the UK just a few weeks ago.
Worryingly, what we’re currently witnessing is just the start. “Every increment of temperature brings escalating effects and the temperature won’t stop rising until we hit net zero,” Julia King, chair of the CCC’s adaptation committee, said in a press conference. We face roughly three more decades of increasing climate risks. It won’t be long before exceeding 40C in the summer becomes somewhat normal.
King refers to a “lost decade” in preparing for and adapting to known risks. Public spending in the UK has been low for years now, meaning that infrastructure and services are outdated and vulnerable.
A government plan announced Thursday to boost energy investment and accelerate the deployment of renewable power contained little new spending.
Globally and domestically, it’s marginalized groups that suffer the most. Schipper emphasizes that equality has to be at the heart of all adaptation plans, or else you’ll only help a small section of people, and possibly make things worse for others. A study in Bangladesh, for example, found that eliminating floodplains protected male livelihoods, but cut off food and economic opportunities for poor, landless women.
People in the UK are aware of the risks — many live on floodplains or in houses that overheat — and are seeking a response, according to Chris Stark, chief executive officer of the CCC. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently responsible for making the economy more climate resilient; the CCC recommends introducing cross-governmental structures to ensure engagement and ownership from all relevant departments, because adaptation encompasses everything from telecommunications and transport to energy security and buildings.
Research shows that the best measures are transformational, rather than incremental. Done correctly, you can solve other issues with adaptation. Including trees in urban design, for example, can reduce the risk of flooding, help keep cities cool, improve well-being and health and reduce air pollution. That beats making flood barriers a bit higher.
The British government is set to publish its third national adaptation program in mid-2023. Let's hope it takes the CCC’s recommendations to heart, and learns from the experiences of those poorer countries that have been compelled to become exemplars.
Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.