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Comment: How much do we need to burn before action is taken?

Here are some findings from the publication of last year’s expert-led third Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk (CCRA3):
Projected hotter conditions and more frequent periods of water scarcity are likely to increase wildfire risk as a direct result of climate change. Transport is fundamental to day-to-day life, but faces climate challenges from… heat. As the climate continues to change, the severity of this risk is projected to increase. In the absence of additional adaptation [on our transport network], the impacts of climate change on our weather systems will lead to costly disruption or loss of service, with significant implications for economic activity, societal equity, health and wellbeing. High temperatures will also increasingly affect energy and especially transport infrastructure, but the understanding and management of risks across these sectors is inconsistent. The impacts of extreme heat are likely to vary widely across business sectors or geographies, depending on factors such as the type of work, whether work is indoors or outdoors, and the local built environment and infrastructure. Higher temperatures will lead to both increases in heat-related deaths and illness, and disruption to the health and social care sector including the emergency services.
SWM led a consortium of partners to put together a series of briefings that summarise the findings of CCRA3, which was compiled by the Climate Change Committee in partnership with hundreds of experts with both scientific and practitioner backgrounds. When we were writing these briefings, I wasn’t expecting to see some of the impacts and scenarios we were writing about come true just a year later. All of the above occurred, or are likely to result, from what happened across 18 and 19 July 2022 when the UK experienced its hottest ever temperatures, smashing records across three of our four nations, adding to the various other climate-related records we’ve seen broken in the past 20 years or so. Despite temperatures where I live in Stafford being over 15 degrees cooler on the 20th compared to the 19th, the impacts were still being felt in settings such as on the railways and in Tesco, where due to the failure of multiple freezers caused by the heat, I couldn’t get hold of my favourite mint choc-chip ice cream. On a serious note, how long will the impacts of those poor people in Wennington, East London, whose homes were burnt down due to out of control wildfires, be felt?
Empty shelves in Tesco

Empty fridges in Tesco, Loughborough, due to heat. Taken by Chair of WM Adaptation Working Group, Sharon Palmer.

Let’s bear in mind that in the UK we saw extreme temperatures occur on just two days. I have always been told not to apply ‘what if’ thinking, but what if temperatures of 35-40 degrees went on for more than that? What then? I think there’s a feeling that climate change is still something that ‘will’ or ‘may’ happen in the ‘future.’ Let’s remember that the UK Climate Projections, which uses science to show the UK’s ‘future’ climate, have been updated periodically for many years (the latest iteration being 2019) and, indeed, one looks back to the 2002 iteration which split the ‘future’ projections into (going backwards) 2080s, 2050s and, oh, 2020s. We are here, living it, experiencing it, now. I’m not a climate scientist, but 18-19 July is further evidence that not only is climate change happening now, but the UK can’t cope with it. Perhaps not surprising, given how we tend to grind to a halt when it snows, or how many vulnerable people die in winter when it gets cold. We’re now – already – having to deal with new stuff we’ve never had to deal with as a modern human race before; our health, reliance on technology, supply chains, infrastructure. All at risk from more intense heat, flooding and storms. I wrote about the need for action about two weeks BP (before pandemic), emphasising that while taking action to meet Net Zero is commended and needed, we also need, in equal measure, action to adapt to climate change. I got some criticism for this post, as there was a suggestion that I insinuated that we needn’t bother with Net Zero and that we should just focus on adapting.  This was not meant, as there are multiple benefits in our efforts to decarbonise beyond that of tackling climate change which we’re already beginning to see (including those that can also benefit adaptation). But I haven’t changed my mind on the need for an equality of action between decarbonisation and adaptation – in fact, what is happening regionally, nationally and globally is strengthening the point even further. So, if I were an alien from outer space landing on earth for the first time, and I found out that we’re in the process of going through this gargantuan change right now, I’d expect to see policy and action being rolled out a pace and scale to ensure we can adapt to this challenge as a species. Methods being deployed to ensure we are able to adapt to the impacts that we know, purely from observation, are already upon us. But this change isn’t happening is it? Leadership from the top is lacking on climate adaptation, with no enforced requirement and accompanying resource for any public or private sector body to do anything. Sure, there are pockets of good practice both in the UK and across the region, what I call ‘projects of promise,’ such as the recently announced Stafford Brooks project, a natural flood alleviation scheme, providing multiple benefits of enhanced green space and biodiversity, and Severn Trent’s work on adaptation to ensure a secure and safe water supply. Projects like these must be applauded, but overall, climate adaptation action is, at best, piecemeal, fragmented and uncoordinated.
Arrivals board showing delays at Coventry station

Arrivals board at Coventry rail station, the day after the heatwave. Taken by Jim Davies, Environment Agency.

In response to this gap that urgently needs filling, SWM in partnership with our local Environment Agency team, produced a Climate Adaptation Plan for the West Midlands last year, which sets out 76 actions that we believe need to be taken to protect ourselves, our environment, businesses and infrastructure from the worst effects of climate change. Subsequently, we have set up a Working Group with key partners who can help begin to turn some of these actions into reality. But the fact remains that without leadership, legislation and resource, our Plan risks becoming a nice looking pdf on a website with no impact. At SWM, we’re trying our best to respond but it needs more than little ol’ us to write a plan and coordinate a group. We need tangible, real, action now from all parties (political or otherwise) who understand that this is not just a moral cause, but an economic, social and environmental imperative. So I ask myself, what needs to happen for the required action to be taken? Perhaps we’ll see next year. In the meantime, we’ll carry on trying to influence change regionally, by developing collaborations, nurturing projects and celebrating good practice. Because at SWM, at least, we recognise that doing nothing is not an option. If you’d like to find out more about, or get involved with, the work we’re doing on climate adaptation, get in touch. In the meantime, the BBC and NHS websites contain some information on how to tweak your daily routine and what you can do at home to keep as cool as possible, lest another heatwave hits us soon. Later in the year, SWM in partnership with the Environment Agency, is putting together a suite of guidance for businesses and local authorities on how they can adapt to climate change, including extreme heat. This will include practical steps you can take to adapt. To find out more and to get first news on publication, subscribe to our monthly newsletter. Alan Carr, Senior Sustainability Adviser, SWM

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