28 Mar 2014

Why water is now the biggest threat to our island nation

As I write, hundreds of scientists are sitting in Yokohama still wrangling over the detail in their latest report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This volume deals with what impacts climate change will bring to the planet and what challenges we face adapting to it.

The squabbling in Japan is over big questions like the economic impacts of global warming. Also, whether there are some pressures poorer countries simply can’t adapt to and therefore will need to be remunerated for by richer nations which arguably caused the warming.

But when it comes to the major threats facing the UK there is no real argument. The evidence is fairly clear that extreme weather events like floods and droughts will likely become more frequent and more intense. Winter storms could become more powerful. And the threat from damaging tidal surges will increase due to gradually increasing sea levels.

In a nutshell, it’s water that will become our island nation’s biggest problem.

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If that’s the case, the risks from climate change won’t be some exotic new phenomenon. They look just like the winter we’ve just been through.

And one thing the winter threw into sharp relief is just how well-equipped we are to cope with climate change.

Rethinking problems

Some problems will simply require money being thrown at them – like keeping railway infrastructure running in heavy rain, snow or heatwaves.

Others are ripe for rethinking. When it comes to coastal defences, experience is teaching planners that some “hard” defences against floods and storm surges will simply be too expensive to maintain in light of sea levels rise and intense rainfall events.

In this case, “soft” defences that make more use of open spaces to absorb water could be an important adaptive strategy.

‘Softer’ strategies

I’ve just come back from the north Norfolk coast. Here the Environment Agency is considering several schemes to replace increasingly vulnerable flood defences with “softer” strategies to allow areas of wetland to absorb the impact of tidal surges.

There is some local acceptance of the increasing threat from coastal flooding. But there’s understandable anxiety, too, about experiments involving the removal of tidal barriers that have kept communities dry for decades, sometimes centuries.

In some cases coastal planners have allowed communities at direct risk to move. Houses there have been steadily falling into the sea in the Norfolk town of Happisburgh. Here a pilot programme allowed for the purchase of properties about to fall off the rapidly eroding cliffs and for the construction of new ones on the other side of the village.

Adapting to change

“If you’re going to stop defending a community, you’ve got to provide a mechanism that allows them to adapt to climate change,” said Malcolm Kerby, of the National Voice of Coastal Communities. “That way in 200 years time there will still be a Happisburgh.”

And it’s here where the focus falls on those in charge – particularly the Department for Environment, which has the prime responsibility for adapting to climate change. Funding for climate change and flood defences has suffered as a result of budget cuts. Dedicated staff working on climate adaptation at Defra have gone from 38 in 2009 to just six in 2014.

“In the 15 years I’ve been doing this, the government has had its head firmly in the sand.” said Kerby. But, he argues, it’s not just a question of spending money on the realities of a changing climate. It’s all about attitude: “I tell you what’s got to change. We’ve got to go from being reactive, to being pro-active.”

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8 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    From the shrill tone of the article we conclude you are an ardent believer in the global warming (sorry, climate change) theory. An article based upon empirical research as opposed to that of political pseudo science as championed by the economist of the IPCC may help.

  2. Chris says:

    20 years ago the warning was made in this country. Those responsible for the welfare of our planet chose to ignore it. Now the costs are higher and the governments of the world are bankrupt. So no money no solution. Would the world unite and at no charge put things right?
    Probably not because this world worships money and greed. People are very selfish and insular.
    Not until its on their doorstep can they be bothered. Now its past their doorstep. Has the message been received and noted now. The climate IS changing! Will anything be done?
    Sadly no. Why do I say this? Read the last book in the Bible — Revelation Chapter 11 verse 18.
    I think someone might be warning us that we are accountable to a higher authority.

  3. mememine69 says:

    Unlike evolution and comet hits and smoking causing cancer, science isn’t 100% certain that THE END IS NEAR so why are you remaining “believers” “believing” it will? YOU can’t “believe” more than science does or did you even know what the consensus really was; a tired old consensus “95%”. Find us one IPCC warning that “believes” as much as you doomers do.
    Do not tell innocent children that science “believes” as much as you do.

  4. J Gillard says:

    Tonight I have watched your very negative report on Channel 4 News regarding the flooding after the surge in December in Norfolk. You showed the homes that got washed off the sand dunes in Hembsy and the cliffs that have collapsed in Happisburgh but you didn’t show the superb sea defences at Sea Palling. We were not flooded and the man-made reefs did a fantastic job. It is very disappointing and gives the general public the wrong message that the whole coast is trashed and in trouble.

    How about doing a report on how brilliant the reefs are and show that Sea Palling is a safe place to visit rather than putting people off coming to our old fashioned SAFE seaside village, with a blue flag beach, our lifeboat and RNLI lifeguards through the summer.

    Your report and others like it are blighting the whole coast of Norfolk and damaging the tourist industry which the area so relies on. How about some positive reporting for a change ?

  5. Philip says:

    As the current Secretary of State for the Environment is purported not to believe in climate change, is it surprising that it has been given such a low priority.
    I also get the impression that the Treasury don’t really believe in it – almost entirely because they know that once they accept, it’ll cost a lot of public money.

  6. frank says:

    It’s not scientists wrangling in Yokohama at the ipcc plenary, it’s government climate negotiators testing the work of scientists in the last round of a 5 year process to try to find the most robust conclusions on climate change impacts and adaptation. So easy time misrepresent this process!

  7. Gerald says:

    Talk about heads in the sand—–how do you think all the beaches , rivers, streams, Gulf,on and on- were shaped? EROSION!!

  8. Keith Mackie says:

    As I understand matters, the problem of the South East coasts of Britain are:

    1. Physical – the results of global warming
    2. The political and financial will to apply engineering remedial measures.

    However, it seems that the anthropogenic global warming recently discovered by the IPCC is only a trivial add-on to a pre-exisitng condition – also a result of global warming – the natural warming that brought about the collapse of the last Ice Age glaciation around a dozen or so thousand years ago. As a result of the concomitant eustatic geological rebound, Britain is tipping with Scotland rising and South East England sinking.

    Under the Act of Union the problem was all “in house” as it were. Gains on the one hand offset losses on the other. If Scotland were to secede there would need to be treaty arrangements to renormalise matters.

    From the perspective of the physical side, the real costs are enormous. There are only two choices. Either abandon the coast to natural processes with all the concommitant property losses. Whether or not the crown pays out the property owners makes little difference to the total of the losses to the economy of England – only to the matter of equity. Alternatively the nation can cough-up to implement a Dutch type solution on much the same scale.

    The latter will involve enormous expenses but, in the long term may be cost effective but only if, as in the Dutch case, it is followed by intense development of the reclaimed areas.

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