Fit to rule over us? Theresa May's response to climate hazard report will be her first big test

| 12th July 2016
Action on climate - or the lack of it - will be the first key test of Theresa May's premiership. Photo: Picture: Russell Watkins / DFID via Flickr (CC BY).
Action on climate - or the lack of it - will be the first key test of Theresa May's premiership. Photo: Picture: Russell Watkins / DFID via Flickr (CC BY).
With today's climate change report sounding a red alert for the UK's national security, Theresa May's response to it will mark the first major test of her leadership when she takes over as Prime Minister tomorrow, writes Ecologist New Voices writer Joe Ware. Imminent climate-related dangers demand urgent, effective, cross-departmental action - but will she step up to the mark?
We cannot pull up the drawbridge to climate change. If we don't undertake a fast and orderly transition to a low carbon economy we risk massive economic and environmental shocks making the change for us.

Today's report by the Government's official advisors on climate change paints a stark picture of a future which may befall us if our leaders don't get their act together.

It's possible this prophetic warning will get lost amid all the headlines about Brexit and its economic and political consequences.

But when Theresa May becomes Prime Minister tomorrow, she should make acting on this document her highest priority. Her ability to act rapidly and decisively on this vital issue will mark the first key test of her premiership.

The snappily titled UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report 2017 may not sound like a great read but its findings are gripping. Although written in the measured tones of the British Civil Service, you can detect the palpable urgency with which its authors want to see action.

Topping the list of threats facing the UK is flooding, endangering homes, businesses and infrastructure. Marked as "High Magnitude" both now and in the future, the report authors describe these impacts as "already significant" and expected to worsen due to climate change.

To ram home their point they write in bold, all-caps: "MORE ACTION NEEDED".

Health risks, water shortages, higher food prices

In this same urgent category are health risks due to rising temperatures. Already 2,000 people die prematurely each year in the UK from heat-related conditions and this number is expected to more than triple by the 2050s. The report warns that newer homes are more at risk from overheating than older designs, in part due to the small windows preferred by cost-cutting builders.

Shortages in the public water supply are predicted with painful trade-offs to be made between the needs of agriculture, industry and domestic consumption with consequences for our freshwater ecology. UK food prices are likely to increase as climate change impacts production around the world, disrupting supply chains and hampering trade.

Britain's natural environment also makes the list with increased soil aridity, wildfires and the acidification of UK seas becoming more commonplace.

In case you were concerned that the experts of the Climate Change Committee were 'scare-mongering' you'll be pleased to know they also outline some of the potential opportunities global warming may bring to the UK. It's a meagre list, with plenty of caveats, such as an extended growing season for certain crops (assuming we can manage the plunging soil fertility and can find enough water to irrigate them).

One 'opportunity', which stands out as almost comically perverse, is that British engineering and insurance firms may be able to cash-in on this fossil fuel-induced suffering as global demand increases for climate adaptation related goods and services.

Such narrow benefits are going to be of little comfort to the hundreds of thousands of British people (not to mention the millions overseas) who face the prospect of floodwaters ruining their homes and livelihoods. In recent years we've seen what misery flooding has brought to the Somerset Levels and Cumbria, as well as Devon, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Surrey, Kent and the Thames Valley.

A recent report by the charity Christian Aid on the threat of coastal flooding around the world, revealed the precarious nature of our island nation. The report, Act Now or Pay Later, ranks countries by the number of people expected to be living in low lying coastal areas in 2030. The UK makes the top 20, placing 18th in the world.

The case for a Climate COBRA Committee

The current set up of government departments has clearly proved inadequate at managing such a cross cutting problem as climate change, with complex domestic and international dimensions. Climate change is a national security threat without a conventional security response. Barbed wire isn't going to stop it.

It's become so serious that Theresa May should chair a cross-government task force to handle these risks more effectively. This Climate COBRA Committee would have the political clout to address these dangers with the urgency required.

It's worth taking a moment to acknowledge the vital work of the UK's Climate Change Committee. Chaired by the Conservative peer Lord Deben, a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher who went on to be Secretary of State for the Environment, the CCC has a vital role to play in helping the country shape our response to the dangers of a changing climate.

The UK may have voted to withdraw from the European Union but we cannot pull up the drawbridge to climate change. The only solution is global cooperation to cut emissions, a rapid U-turn in business-as-usual spending on fossil fuels and a rapid acceleration in clean energy and climate adapted infrastructure.

If we don't undertake a fast and orderly transition to a low carbon economy we risk massive economic and environmental shocks making the change for us.

The good news is there is still time if we heed the warnings. The UN Paris Agreement agreed last year at COP21 showed the global will to act, and the progress being made in renewable energy, especially in developing countries, is hugely exciting. The UK is in a privileged position of having the resources, policies and science base to play a major role in helping other countries respond to these dangers.

But tackling climate change is no longer just for the benefit of others - today's findings show us we have plenty of skin in the game ourselves. 



The report: UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report 2017 is published by the UK Climate Change Committee.

Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid and a 'New Voices' writer for The Ecologist. He can be found on twitter at @wareisjoe.


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