'Get a grip' on climate change national security risks, government told

Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy warns of “extreme weakness at the centre of government”
Derailment of the ScotRail train which cost the lives of three people. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

28 Oct 2022

Senior MPs and peers have called on the government to “get a much better grip” on protecting national infrastructure from the major national security risks posed by climate change.

There is overwhelming evidence that climate change is already having an impact on critical UK infrastructure and yet no minister has taken responsibility for adapting it to the effects of climate change, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has warned.

The evidence suggests there is an “extreme weakness at the centre of government”, the committee said in a report yesterday. This comes after Dame Margaret Beckett, chair of the committee, warned the Cabinet Office that there is  a “major hole at the centre of government" in adapting to climate change.

Dicussing the new report, Readiness for storms ahead? Critical national infrastructure in an age of climate change, Beckett has now urged new prime minister Rishi Sunak to “pull all the strands of government together to mitigate against potential disasters, including climate change impacts”.

“This government must finally recognise that prevention is better than cure and move on from their dangerously reactive approach to risk management,” she said.

The report highlights some recent examples of the impact climate change-induced severe weather, has had on critical national infrastructure (CNI) such as power, water, transport and communications.

Recent incidents include:

  • The deaths of three people from a train derailment in Scotland, after heavy rainfall in August 2020
  • Almost a million people losing power, some for extended periods of time, after high winds brought down power lines in North East England and Scotland during Storm Arwen in November 2021, with associated communication outages
  • A failure of railway drainage systems that nearly caused the National Blood Bank in Bristol to flood.

Without a minister in charge, the immense challenge of adapting CNI to the effects of the changing climate has been “falling through the cracks between government departments”, the committee said.

“Climate risks have previously been categorised as tier one national security risks, but a grave lack of ministerial responsibility and accountability has left a gaping hole at the centre of government on this pressing future risk to UK CNI,” the report added.

Michael Ellis was minister for the Cabinet Office – which included responsibility for CNI resilience – while the inquiry was running. However, he refused to give evidence to the committee, saying he was only the “convening” minister for the policy area rather than being responsible for it.

“We can only hope that his successor will take more interest in this vital topic,” the report said.

And COP26 president Alok Sharma, who has chaired the cabinet-level Climate Action Implementation Committee tasked with “building the United Kingdom’s resilience to climate impacts”, also told the committee he felt unable to give evidence.

In Ellis and Sharma’s absence, ministers from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gave evidence alongside the director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.

Beckett said: “The thing I find most disturbing is the lack of evidence that anyone in government is focusing on how all the impacts can come together, creating cascading crises.

"There are simply no ministers with focused responsibility for making sure that our infrastructure is resilient to extreme weather and other effects of climate change.”

The committee has called on the government to appoint a dedicated minister of state for CNI resilience within the Cabinet Office, who would hold regular coordination meetings with the minister for climate adaptation.

Currently, each secretary of state is responsible for the security and resilience of their sector. Defra government efforts to mitigate risks related to climate change.

Defra told the committee its officials are responsible for “picking out the interdependencies” between CNI sectors in relation to climate adaptation and referring them to other departments. But the JCNSS said this is not a sufficient coordinating role and lacks ministerial input.

“Critical vulnerabilities require more than just information-sharing between civil servants, however –they require clear ownership by ministers, and the coordination and oversight that the Cabinet Office is usually expected to provide,” the report said.

“It is hard to imagine this approach being applied to any other national security risk.”

The committee said the government should create a statutory forum between the regulatory bodies overseeing CNI sectors, such as Ofwat for water companies and Ofgem for energy, to get them to collaborate better.

A government spokesperson said: “There are robust systems in place to protect critical national infrastructure from the effects of climate change. This includes work through the National Adaptation Programme led by Defra, and the National Infrastructure Commission led by HM Treasury.

“In the Cabinet Office, we have created a standardised approach to help departments capture and mitigate risks to critical infrastructure.”

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