We have the climate predictions but do we have the political will to adapt ?

Climate chaos0



We are fortunate in having the best climate modelling capacity in the world here in the UK. Now the question is whether or not the British public and their councillors, planners, civil servants and politicians have the appetite to provide sufficient funding to devise and implement long-range schemes of adaptation across the 23 river basins, 16 administrative regions and eight coastal regions covered by the report.


Until the past 10 years, risk management against extreme events such as storms at sea, flash floods and hot dry summers, was framed in terms of the frequency of these events.


The Thames Barrier, for example, was designed to withstand a 1-in-2,000 year event, thus preventing London from flooding through surges up or down the river except in the most extreme cases.


But with a changing climate, this language has to be altered. What was a 1-in-2,000 year event in 1982, when the barrier first became operational, will now be a 1-in-1,000 year event later this century. The barrier will need to be retro-fitted to face our changing climate challenges.


Our changing climate has a built in inertia of about 30 years. The increase in greenhouse gases brought about largely by our use of fossil fuels and by deforestation over the past 50 years will continue to cause global warming over the coming decades, even if we were to terminate all emissions now.


But decisions to cut back on emissions now – globally, not just in the UK – will have a dramatic effect on impacts in the period beyond 2040. Here is the political challenge: to reduce the impacts for future generations we must de-fossilise our economies now. Have we, as a global civilisation, developed the capability and the appetite for joint action on a scale never previously achieved for the benefit not of ourselves but for future generations?


In 2005, on behalf of the UK government, I signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government to enable members of our foresight flood and coastal defence team to work with Chinese engineers, scientists and economists on the flood risk to Shanghai and the Yangse basin area of China. The outcome, I believe, was a startling realisation for the Chinese that Shanghai, the jewel in the crown of China’s economic miracle, was itself at risk of unmanageable levels of flooding before the end of the century, under a business-as-usual scenario for carbon emissions.


I believe that this may well have been a major factor in the clear change in the Chinese leadership’s approach to the need for global action on emissions. Today, China is possibly the most progressive country in the world on taking action on climate change, including significant use of stimulus funds to green its development. The Chinese negotiating position for Copenhagen climate talks in December is now very critical of the laggards among the developed nations, particularly Japan and Canada.


This report is therefore very welcome as a further step towards managing risks for the UK from the global warming impacts that are already in the pipeline. But this is one step in the process. We need to have a full-scale review and refinancing of our adaptation procedures. And on the international scale, we will have to redouble our efforts if there is to be any useful outcome from the Copenhagen negotiations. In the face of the global economic downturn and, specifically, the further major downturn in the Japanese economy and the emerging dependence of the Canadian economy on extracting oil from tar sands, do we have the global political appetite for action on the scale required?


Professor Sir David King is director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He was chief scientific advisor to the UK government from 2000 to 2007.