Last chance to change: What more must the government do to build climate resilience?

As climate change begins to intensify, the government has a lot to do to make our society more resilient to its consequences. We find out what government is getting right and where it needs to improve.
A fire blazes on a wheat crop in Essex. Photo: Justin Kase zsixz/Alamy Stock Photo

By Tevye Markson

18 Oct 2023

It’s the year 2050, and it’s hot. These sweltering, 40-degree days have become normal. Luckily, your home has state-of-the-art cooling and heating systems that keep the heat at bay. Neighbourhood adaptations, such as increased green space and innovative forest management, help tackle the heat, too. Heading out of the house won’t be a problem, either, because the public transport network is equipped to manage the weather. Likewise, forecasts of dangerous tidal activity in the next fortnight aren’t worrying you. Government preparations to protect the local coastline have put your mind at ease. Life, despite climate change, is good. There’s just one problem. In the UK, such a climate-resilient future is currently far from becoming reality.

The UK government has committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 as part of an international effort to prevent global temperatures rising by more than 1.5°c. But climate change is already happening and will continue until the world gets to zero carbon emissions. Last year, some worrying records were set in the UK: the highest number of heat-related deaths, the country’s warmest ever year and the first 40°c day. In 2023, while the country escaped the most severe weather, the extreme heat, wildfires, flash floods and droughts experienced across much of Europe have given us a glimpse of what the UK might expect in the coming decades as the planet continues to warm.

To be ready, the UK needs to be planning for three decades – at least – of continued climate change, according to Richard Millar, head of adaptation at the Climate Change Committee.

And yet the CCC, the government’s independent adviser on climate change, warned in spring that the UK was “strikingly unprepared” for climate change. As it stands, a future of climate-adapted homes and neighbourhoods remains a distant dream.

Mitigation and adaptation are the two recognised responses to climate change. One seeks to prevent it, the other to build resilience to prepare for – and recover from – its effects. Progress on adaptation in the UK is widely considered to be lagging behind mitigation.

In July, the government published its third National Adaptation Programme in 15 years. Known as NAP3, this is a strategic five-year plan to boost resilience and protect people, homes, businesses and our cultural heritage against climate change risks such as flooding, drought and heatwaves. Ahead of its release, the CCC described NAP3 as “a make-or-break moment to avoid a further five years of lacklustre planning”. The committee called for an ambitious programme covering the full range of risks it has identified, and a clear vision for what being well-adapted means. It said the programme should also have a strong focus on delivery, and be a living programme that continues to evolve.

Millar sees NAP3’s attempts to cover the full range of risks identified by the CCC in its own risk assessment as the plan’s key success. It is something which didn’t happen in the previous plans. Useful additions in the latest document include addressing international risks from climate change such as food security and getting more organisations to report on what they are doing to adapt to climate change.

But he fears the government’s plans fall short “on most fronts”, particularly on bringing new commitments forward. “I think it’s fair to say that [in the current programme]... there are initiatives that are already under way or have already been announced by government over the last couple of years, and there’s no significant new funding,” he says. Millar worries the programme will not sufficiently prepare the UK for the risks of climate change without continuous evolution. 

“I think there’s an acknowledgement in the programme that it needs to grow and needs to evolve over the lifetime for it to deliver,” he says. “For that to be more than just words on a piece of paper is absolutely key, because if it does just stay static, it will be a missed opportunity and one that we can’t really afford.” 

If the UK has been producing these National Adaptation Programmes for 15 years, why is adaptation so far off track?

One reason is the complexity of climate adaptation and difficulty getting the public – and government – to understand what adaptation aims to achieve. For example, when tackling emissions reduction, government has a clear goal to focus on.

“We know that we’re all thinking about how we get the country to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and [hit] ambitious intermediate pathway points between now and then,” says Millar. “There’s obviously a lot of subtlety in exactly what you mean by net zero, but there’s also a clarity of definition under the act. 

“With adaptation, we don’t have the ability to add all these things together across different sectors in a neat way like you can with greenhouse gas emissions, because the impacts are different. You might be thinking about how many people are dying because of heatwaves when thinking about health, but then you might think about disruption to the provision of power services from extreme weather events, or the number of people flooded.”

Millar says there isn’t a clear goal of what the government thinks is reasonable to try to achieve in the long term in most areas of adaptation. Therefore, what the UK needs to be doing now, and what scale of action is needed, is also unclear.

Professor Chris Hilson, director of the University of Reading Centre for Climate and Justice, puts it bluntly: “Mitigation is not easy but adaptation makes that look like a walk in the park.”

The CCC has called for the government to learn from the success of net zero by setting targets for climate adaptation.

“Having this long-term emissions target for greenhouse gas emissions has served this quite powerful catalysing role,” says Millar. “We think it would be valuable for government to put some markers in the sand.”

He recognises that it’s not simple to distil diverse aims into one goal, as was the case for greenhouse gases, but believes that nailing down several goals covering key areas of climate risk would be helpful. 

The government can also look to the Environment Act 2021 – the first UK framework for environmental protection to mandate several targets – for inspiration.

“They face similar challenges,” Millar says. “It’s really hard to boil the environment down to just one metric and that’s not what’s been done there.

“There’s been multiple targets set, trying to keep the number small but cover some of the key bits [and] set a destination of what we’re trying to work towards.

“Adaptation is about increasing the resilience of the whole national system… It can be difficult to talk about that in simple terms” 

“Hopefully that can help the conversation move on to: are we doing enough? What’s the scale of action that’s actually going to be consistent with getting there?”

But Millar thinks it will require political leadership to make these difficult calls on climate resilience targets. 

Others in the field are less convinced about setting targets. “Adaptation is about increasing the resilience of the whole national system,” says Kathryn Brown, director of climate change and evidence at The Wildlife Trusts and a former long-serving civil servant at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“It can be quite difficult to talk about that in simple terms and to think about [the] cost benefit of hitting a target. You can’t do that with adaptation like you can with net zero.”

She adds that “adaptation is much more about systems thinking and interconnections between different sectors”.

Hilson agrees: “It’s really hard. You’d end up having hundreds of targets.”

The complexity of adaptation also makes it difficult for officials to whet ministers’ appetite.

Brown says Defra civil servants working on climate change understand climate risks and want to tackle them, but struggle to attract ministerial attention when competing with short-term political priorities.

“Politically, adaptation is a hard issue,. It’s short-term costs for long-term gains"

“Politically, adaptation is a hard issue,” she says. “It’s short-term costs for long-term gains. That’s always difficult to deal with in political decision-making-cycles.”

She points to the rolling crises of the past 15 years, which have pulled civil service resources away from longer-term planning, “The impact you get from that is that you’re not ready for the next crisis when it hits,” she says. Brown estimates the UK will begin to feel the impact of climate change in a big way in the next five years. “We will be hit by things that we’re not prepared for, even though the science has been very clear for decades that these things are likely to start happening more and more,” she says. 

Millar says climate mitigation suffers from the same issue. For a solution, he points to the success of the decarbonisation agenda which has achieved longer lasting political saliency.

“I don’t think we’re there yet really on the climate risk side,” he adds.

“Thinking about the 40c heatwave last year, people saw some of the stresses it created to infrastructure, as well as the discomfort in being in their own homes. But then [the heatwave] passes and it’s easy for it to become a background issue that doesn’t seem like it affects people’s lives on a day-to-day level.”

Another way the climate change mitigation movement has won support in recent years has been through increased engagement with the public, using citizen assemblies. Brown says Defra has made a breakthrough in this area. The organisation’s public dialogue exercise on climate change adaptation, published in July, gave an insight into how the public feels government should be acting on the issue.

The exercise participants were shocked by the seriousness of current risks and felt government should have done more, sooner. Respondents were also emphatic that national government had primary responsibility for adapting England to climate change, and suggested adaptation needed cross-party agreement, or to be led by an independent body, to ensure that party politics and election cycles do not constrain decision-making.

“I think that public view [on adaptation], as we get more impacted by climate change, may start to swing quite dramatically over the next few years – it will be interesting to see what impact that has on government prioritisation,” says Brown.

Increased climatic events will also have a role in pushing adaptation up the agenda. “We’re starting to experience actual impacts of climate change in the present, rather than always thinking of it as a future threat,” she says. “When I first started working on adaptation at Defra back in 2006, we thought about it in terms of policy and evidence as very much a future threat, and that feels very different now.”

“I think that public view [on adaptation], as we get more impacted by climate change, may start to swing quite dramatically over the next few years"

In her written introduction to NAP3, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey described the document as “a step change in our approach to managing the risks of climate change, moving us from planning to action”. But the CCC views delivery as one of the weakest aspects of the government’s programme.
Millar says there has been  no significant additional funding for delivery. The lack of resource allocation is likely a consequence of how the government deals with uncertainty.

Brown says: “It’s very hard to model and predict precisely how different impacts interact and how different systems interact in the country. You saw this with Covid. What we experienced was much worse [than the models predicted]. And I think the same is true with climate impacts and climate risk.

“Governments struggle with uncertainty because, as an adviser, I would always want them to be taking a precautionary approach, but ministers then find it very hard to argue for investment of resource into something that is uncertain but has a big impact if it materialises. I think [officials] do have a very good understanding of what the climate science is telling them and I think [they] do brief ministers very well on that. But the translation of that risk into action is still quite weak across most of government.”

Part of the issue is a lack of coordination across government. A report by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy in October 2022 warned there is an “extreme weakness at the centre of government” on tackling climate change national security risks, while the CCC’s March report noted a lack of clear responsibilities and mechanisms for cross-government collaboration on climate adaptation.

Defra is the lead department on adaptation policy, but Brown says it has few policy levers for adaptation other than those in its own purview, like natural environment and agriculture.

“There’s always this process of Defra having to try and encourage other departments to do more on adaptation,” Brown says. “And I think for the team in Defra it’s a really big challenge to try and get that message across.”

Brown, who was an official at Defra for 10 years and worked on the Climate Change Committee for a further decade, suggests moving climate adaptation work to the Cabinet Office, given the issue is now a short-term threat. The Cabinet Office is already responsible for emergency planning, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and National Security Risk Assessment. 

NAP3 does aim to improve cross-government work, with the creation of a Climate Resilience Board, which will work closely with existing cross-government climate governance, aligning climate adaptation to wider priorities on net zero and the environment. Despite being a potentially interesting development, Millar says this must be more than just a talking shop.

Instead, he believes further necessary funding can be unlocked by getting the Treasury to understand the fiscal risks of climate change. Then, adaptation action will be recognised as a prudent investment. The CCC has called for around £10bn more per year over the next decade.

Hilson cautions against moving climate resilience responsibility from Defra to the Cabinet Office. “The danger with the Cabinet Office is if you have a government that decides it’s not terribly climate change motivated, and there’s somebody in Cabinet Office that’s really of that persuasion, then that will kill the whole thing across all different departments,” he says.

He argues government should build more climate change adaptation and resilience requirements into legislative frameworks used by the civil service .

“There are some existing duties,” he says. “You’ll find quite often there’s a sustainable development duty built into a number of statutory frameworks. And yes, we’ve got the Climate Change Act 2008, which sets out a little bit about climate adaptation and the Secretary of State duties around that… but there’s not many adaptation duties and requirements to consider resilience in response to climate change.”

Hilson also sees an opportunity to better align the CCC’s work with Defra’s. “Something needs to be done to better align the dates of when the Climate Change Committee is reporting on adaptation,” he says. “It reported in March this year, and then you had the new government adaptation policy coming out in July. [Departments] may be able to take some of that on board, but it seems pretty unlikely that really they would have been able to make significant adjustments between March and July.”

But, for Millar, the important thing is to try to make adaptation work an integral part of officials’ daily jobs.

“If we can keep communicating why it’s essential for just doing their nominal jobs, that can hopefully help empower officials to incorporate it into their work more readily and more regularly.”

This will mean officials are working on climate adaptation when it’s needed,” Millar adds, “instead of just in these one-stop-shop moments where they’re being asked to provide actions for a new National Adaptation Programme  but then might not think about it for another couple of years”.

A government spokesperson said NAP 3 “sets out a strategic five-year plan to boost resilience and protect our country against climate change risks such as flooding, drought and heatwaves”.

“To ensure our country is ready and able to handle the changing climate and all its challenges, we are working on clear ways to measure and deliver our ambitious plans successfully,” they added. “This includes more detailed indicators and outcome measures that will allow us to better assess delivery and monitor successful implementation.” 

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