It’s hard not to wonder if the government is living on another planet. One that isn’t in the grip of the highest temperatures ever recorded, where tens of thousands of people are not dying every summer in blistering heatwaves, where the oceans aren’t boiling. This is the only explanation for the colossally inadequate national climate adaptation programme released this week.
There is so much wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to begin. The programme actually constitutes the third of three five-year plans, and therein lies the main problem. You can’t plan in five-year chunks for climate mayhem that is set to last for decades, probably centuries. If it is to make living in Hothouse Britain safer and more bearable, any plan worth its salt has to look much further ahead and take in the bigger picture.
You won’t find anything in the programme about how the country will cope when temperatures don’t just top 40C for a day but for a week or more, when river and surface floods arrive that dwarf anything we have seen, or when the sea comes in and stays in. As it stands, it is simply not fit for purpose. With global emissions needing to fall by half within seven years, it is now practically impossible for us to stay this side of the 1.5C dangerous climate change guardrail. This means that climate breakdown and all its ramifications will define the lives and livelihoods of everyone in the UK for generations and we need to plan on a commensurate timescale.
To have any chance of adapting effectively to what’s coming, the country needs to be on a war footing, but you wouldn’t think it from the laid-back approach of the government’s programme, which does little more than tinker with already inadequate actions. The report that launched the programme is all talk and no money – or very little of it. A measly £15m to support the research and innovation needed to deliver adaptation action amounts to peanuts. Much of the report is inconsequential padding, and there is no ambition here, and virtually no concerted action. Consequently, there is nothing concrete on reforesting uplands to minimise river flooding, on cooling urban centres through greening and installing reflective surfaces, or on the immediate, wholesale retrofitting of homes, schools and hospitals to make them, and their occupants, more resilient to heatwaves. Nothing either on developing a national water grid or introducing large-scale rainwater harvesting, or on managing retreat from low-lying coastlines as sea-level rise accelerates. More specifically, you will find no consideration given to whether a new Thames flood barrier should be built or central London abandoned to the sea. Nor is any thought given to legislating for maximum working temperatures, both indoors and outside. The research underpinning all these initiatives has already been done, and the work could start today, given a green light and appropriate funding by government.
The reason none of this is considered is that the government has no real grasp of the scale of the climate breakdown threat, either today or in the decades ahead. This is typified by plans to cope with food shortages that are laughable. The UK imports more than 40% of its food, and is therefore vulnerable to harvest failures abroad as well as at home. Shortages of certain produce have already become apparent in the past year or so, due to extreme weather overseas and supply chain problems, but this is small beer compared with what we can expect in future decades. In its 2021 climate change risk assessment, the Chatham House policy institute reports a worst-case projection that sees the world requiring 50% more food by 2050, by which time crop yields could be down as much as 30%. Translating, on average, to an effective halving of food per person, this – should it be realised – would be a recipe for societal collapse. A new paper published in Nature Communications earlier this month also highlighted the risks of simultaneous crop failures, but there is little in the latest adaptation programme that suggests this is a threat taken sufficiently seriously by the government.
The initiatives that make up the programme are big on consultation, research, monitoring, building frameworks and gathering information, and there is a failure to recognise that these are luxuries whose time has come and gone. Instead of more discussion, debate and evaluation, we need action, now, on all fronts.
It will cost, but it will cost a great deal more if we do little or nothing. If we wish to have anything like a functioning society and economy in mid-century and beyond, then large-scale adaptation is critical, and it has to start today. The environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has called the programme a step-change in the government’s approach to managing the risks of the climate crisis. And indeed it is, a largely sideways step from nothing to next to nothing, when what we need is a great leap forward. And we need it now.