A Communities Perspective on The Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk

20th June 2021


The recently published Climate Risk Independent Assessment (CRIA) provides an alarming account of the United Kingdom’s preparedness for climate change. The report exists as a resounding wakeup call to be added an intensifying portfolio of scientific and economic reviews demanding a radical transformation of the relationship between people and planet. Global leaders are aware of these dynamics, recently reiterating their pledge to limit warming to 1.5°C as set in the Paris Agreement to alleviate the disastrous impacts of the looming climate and biodiversity emergency.

Yet, as the CRIA warns us, this is not purely a narrative about climate change mitigation, but also one preparation, adaptive capacity and resilience building in the face of inevitable and immediate climate-related risks. Indeed, even under the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, the United Kingdom will likely witness an additional 0.5°C increase in average temperatures by 2050. Under these conditions, current trends towards warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers will intensify, with extreme weather patterns leading to frequent flooding, drought, heatwaves, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and coastal erosion.

Such changes present profound risks to livelihoods, wellbeing and security around the country. Heatwaves and drought, for example, give rise to a host of interrelated risks to human health and productivity. The 2018 heatwave resulted in 864 heat-related deaths, 500 emergency water call-outs, 84% reduction in wheat export values and 40-50% increase in rail infrastructure failures. Risks associated with flooding are also devastating. With much domestic and industrial infrastructure having been built on drained wetlands, hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of flooding, transport failures, power outages and disruptions to key communication services. The 2015/2016 winter floods, for example, resulted in £1.6 billion worth of damages, with 16,000 homes being destroyed and nearly 5000 businesses being significantly impacted. As well as this, there was an estimated 30% increase in topsoil degradation in parts of the United Kingdom, destroying a precious resource that is paramount for food production and carbon sequestration.

Underpinning these statistics is the most alarming reality check of all – the United Kingdom has the capacity, technology and the resources to respond to these risks, yet adaptation action is continuing to fall behind the escalating severity of climate risk. In other words, we are even less prepared now than at the time of writing the last CRIA report five years ago in that the problems are worsening at a greater rate than we are currently responding to them. Whilst the reasons for this are multifaceted and difficult to disentangle, continued inaction across society appears to be embedded in processes of political alienation, the mistrust of experts and the spread of misinformation. Siloed thinking, short-term policy decisions and political distrust has left people sceptical of politics so much so that even modest climate change policy is met with suspicion, controversy or an aversion to compromise.

Whilst the CRIA makes a strong call for bold leadership from central government, inspiration for the much-needed transformation for resilient futures is more readily found in place-based community initiatives where citizens themselves are empowered to act. For example, residents in Pickering, Yorkshire, came together after repeated bouts of flooding that had caused up to £2.1 billion in damages across the Humber Region. With a lack of funds for the construction of a concrete dam, local authorities and community members worked to implement a number of nature-based solutions. This included the construction of large woody debris dams, restoring wetlands and planting of trees to dramatically improve water retention and hydrological functions of the landscape. Not only has the scheme successfully reduced flood risk in area from 25% to 4%, it has also created a range of new habitats for wildlife and increased the potential for carbon sequestration.

Similar examples of interconnected, place-based thinking come from Community-Supported Agriculture initiatives – farms that are set up and managed by local communities in ways that promote local agricultural production as a shared endeavour. Risk and rewards are shared across the community and the relationship between producer and consumer is blurred. These initiatives provide local jobs, affordable access to locally grown organic foods and offer people access to green spaces and fresh air with numerous health benefits. The elimination of chemical fertiliser and reduction of transport and packaging through the shortening of supply chains reduces toxic run off, carbon emissions and waste whilst simultaneously building ecological resilience through regenerative practice.

These examples offer a glimpse into the kind interconnected approaches that are needed to build preparedness for the climate-related risks. With time being of the essence, however, we need bolder government backed initiatives in order to mobilise society on a far greater scale. Such an approach must not foist preconceived packages of climate change initiatives into different regions. Rather, we must develop a fundamentally new relationship between people, science and policy by deploying a method of co-design aimed at building resilient and prosperous futures.

This endeavour sits at the core of ongoing work at the Institute for Global Prosperity that is co-creating citizen-led Prosperity Indices. Working closely with communities around the country, IGP is capturing the hopes, challenges and opportunities for a good quality of life and how these pertain to the environment, structural features of the economy, public services and systemic inequalities. When combined with data sources, such as national statistical services and government departments and cutting-edge environmental monitoring, we are able to build detailed picture of the local socio-ecological context and construct a prosperity index that allows for the evaluation of prosperity as defined by the people themselves. This process of co-design allows for place-based solutions that empower citizens and local authorities to forge new pathways to climate change resiliency and diverse prosperous livelihoods.

This article was selected from the CGLN news network.
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