Climate change horror: the UK will be like Provence

A UK government report unwittingly reveals that we should not be cutting carbon use but investing in Mediterranean-style cooling measures.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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Last Thursday, the UK government issued a report on the possible effects of climate change on the UK, with the aim of providing a valuable aid to future planning decisions. While the publication of the report provided another excuse for greens to crank up the fearmongering, its title – Adapting to Climate Change – hinted that a more balanced approach to the future is possible, and one that doesn’t simply demand ever-greater cuts in carbon emissions. But the question of whether the current government is up to the job of ‘adapting to climate change’ is a different matter.

The tone of the report is very much in keeping with every other UK government statement on climate change: things are going to get bad, and they could get really, really bad, with some parts of Britain being five degrees Celsius warmer by 2080.

The UK secretary of state for the environment, Hilary Benn, warns in the introduction: ‘The projections make sobering reading. Although individual weather events cannot be directly attributed to climate change, we know what the impact of projected changes such as these could be because we have already experienced them…

‘The August 2003 heat wave caused havoc across Europe and resulted in at least 2,000 premature deaths in the UK alone. Yet this occurred during a summer when average UK temperatures were only two degrees Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. The flooding in the summer of 2007 showed the devastating impact that can result from sudden heavy downpours; this caused the flooding of 55,000 properties and left 350,000 people without mains water.’

Benn then adds coastal erosion, drought, overheating and public health effects to the litany of bad news.

So, how bad might things get in the future? The projections in the report are based on three scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades: low – emissions rise at the same rate as now, but decline from mid-century; medium – emissions rise at a faster rate than now, but also decline from mid-century; and high – emissions zoom upwards and don’t peak until the last quarter of the century at a level well over double their current levels.

These projections should not be confused with forecasts. The Met Office catchily describes them as the ‘most comprehensive set of probabilistic climate projections at the regional scale compiled anywhere in the world’. The report explains that: ‘The results are based on projections of hundreds of different variants of the Met Office Hadley Centre climate model, combined with results from 12 of the world’s other leading climate models, and information from past climate observations.’ In other words, they are not hard, experimentally verifiable science, but best guesses about what might happen given the limitations of the models, data and physics available to us.

As is always the case, the ‘medium’ emissions scenario is the one thought most likely to happen, but it’s the ‘high’ emissions scenario that produces the really scary numbers and the shocking headlines. Indeed, the ‘high’ emissions scenario is so radically different from the other scenarios that you do wonder if it is there simply for pure PR scaremongering reasons rather than as an aid to practical government planning.

Whatever the limitations of the projections, however, it would seem eminently sensible to plan for what will happen if the UK’s climate does change substantially. The report’s key findings for the most likely scenario are:

  • all areas of the UK will get warmer, more so in summer than in winter, with average temperatures rising by between three and four degrees Celsius by 2080;
  • summers will become drier, by roughly 25 per cent, compared to the present, but winters will become wetter, by about 15 per cent;
  • sea levels will rise by about 36 centimetres by 2080 and there will be a nine-centimetre rise in the level of storm surges above and beyond the sea level rise.

However, it is assumed that there will be a time lag between rising emissions and climate change. If that’s true, then some of these changes will happen regardless of future emissions. The report notes that ‘our climate in the 2040s is likely to be very different from today, with rises projected in average summer temperatures in all English regions of at least two degrees Celsius… For all regions the central estimate shows a decrease in summer precipitation and an increase in winter precipitation by the 2040s. That is why we will need to adapt to climate change even as we seek to change its future course. Both strategies – mitigation and adaptation – are urgently required.’

The first thing to note is that for Britain, the levels of absolute temperatures and rainfall patterns presented in the report are not a major problem. To put it in perspective, even if the worst-case scenarios occurred, the warmest part of Britain would still almost certainly be cooler than the French region of Provence is today, an area so disastrously blighted by its weather that middle-class English people spend all their time fantasising about owning a home there.

Adaptation is not just a necessary strategy – it’s a preferable one to the endless banging on about curbing greenhouse gas emissions. We do not currently have the technology to switch to a low-carbon economy, though such a technological change might have long-term benefits like reducing pollution from cars. But we do have the means to take advantage of a changing climate and to overcome the disadvantages associated with it. So while we’re waiting for the solar panels and electric cars to become viable, or for some serious government investment in developing nuclear power, we can be getting on with benefiting from warmer climes.

Indeed, such an outlook is implicit in the government’s case. Benn rather undermines the alarmism of his own pronouncements when he observes that ‘we know what the impact of projected changes such as these could be because we have already experienced them’. If we’ve already experienced them, then why not just deal with them rather than moralising about how much we drive, fly, heat our homes, etc?

For example, Benn cites the deaths of 2,000 people in the heat wave of 2003. But these deaths weren’t, strictly speaking, caused by warmer temperatures but by a lack of preparedness for those temperatures. If warm weather becomes the norm, we can expect air conditioning – pretty unusual in British homes – to become the norm, along with some typically Mediterranean features like shutters and white walls. We’ll also become accustomed to checking on the elderly when it’s hot in the way we currently check on them when it’s cold. And warmer winter temperatures will mean lower fuel bills and fewer deaths from hypothermia.

Britain has been badly affected by flooding in recent years, but this should make us alert to a variety of flood-damage avoidance strategies, including thinking carefully before building on flood plains and improving flood defences. Indeed, these seem like ‘no regrets’ policies; even if the weather doesn’t change that much, we know that millions of people will be better off if they’re properly protected from the floods we experience already.

Alarmism apart, a government that is prepared to think seriously about the future would normally be worthy of congratulation. Unfortunately, such seriousness and decisiveness is absent from the current Labour administration. In promoting Adapting to Climate Change, Benn tried to make us fret about the future consequences of our lifestyles and made feverish statements about December’s Copenhagen conference on climate change as ‘the most important meeting in humankind’s history’. Meanwhile, his colleague at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, appears incapable of making the necessary difficult decisions to enable the building of nuclear and coal-fired power stations that will ensure the lights stay on in the coming years.

It seems likely that the world will get warmer over the next few decades, even if the consequences of this warming are often grossly exaggerated. But the kinds of problems that this will produce – flooding, drought, health concerns – already happen and can already be solved. Change can often be tricky, but rather than emphasising our vulnerability, it would be far better to make the most of our ability to adapt and even innovate around a changing climate so that we’re better off in the future.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume did not appreciate the British government’s Stern lifestyle lecture. Rob Lyons wondered why everyone was talking about climate change as a warlike emergency. James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky described how the IPCC’s fairly sober summary of climate science was spun into a man-made morality tale. spiked and Research Councils UK hosted an online debate on the future of energy. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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