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Adapting to a changing climate – UK public concerned, but is government paying proper attention?

Ahead of the release of the government's third National Adaptation Programme, Paul de Zylva from Friends of the Earth, Kathryn Brown from The Wildlife Trusts and Bethany Chamberlain from RSPB ask if it will match rising public concern about how the changing climate is affecting our lives and the environment and set out what Link members would like to see included in the plan.

July 2023

Climate change has in the past been talked of as a long-term issue for the UK, but it is already with us, and the UK faces a range of systemic risks to public health and wellbeing, wildlife and ecosystems, and business productivity and survival.

Vital national assets are under increasing stress, from much-loved heritage buildings and landscapes, and the quality and quantity of water and soils, to the road, rail, energy, and other physical infrastructure we also rely on.

The government’s plan for how the UK will adapt to the changes and cope with the risks – its third National Adaptation Programme (NAP3) for the 2023-28 period - is imminent. Will it be better than the previous inadequate ones?

Will the plan match rising public concern about how the changing climate is affecting lives and futures and the wildlife, nature, heritage, and infrastructure we love and need? 

‘Strikingly unprepared” for systemic risks

A public dialogue on climate change adaptation, due out alongside the Government's NAP3, shows that the public are concerned and scared, and want to act if Government provides the right framework and support.

Yet the Government’s own climate advisers say the UK is ‘strikingly unprepared’ for the climate-related effects that are already locked in.

There is a similarly stark warning from the National Trust that communities, landscapes, and much-loved heritage face rising threats from extreme weather events and warmer temperatures linked to climate change.

Polling for the Trust also finds only 4% of the UK public thinking the nation is well prepared for climate change, with 79% of people being worried they will be personally affected by nature’s decline linked to the effects of climate change.

The Trust said action to prepare to adapt and be resilient has stalled because it has been side-lined as an issue when it should be a central role for government.

For years, scientists have advised the Government of the threat of more extreme and extensive heat, flooding, and storms, including three national Climate Change Risk Assessments which show the gap between risk and action is widening, not shrinking as it should be.

Vulnerable nature

Successive State of Nature reports show how wild species and habitats in the UK are in decline. Around 15% of our species are at risk of extinction and the UK is in the top ten most nature-depleted countries.

The UK is also currently in an extremely poor state to help nature adapt to climate change. The natural ecosystems we rely on for water, food, and resilience to heat and flooding are also eroded as set out in the 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment.

A whole new approach is needed including channelling much more finance in nature recovery actions, to help address a £45-90 billion funding gap over the next seven years.

Half of the most critical risks in the 2021 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment relate to nature and land use. Yet, the natural environment and agriculture consistently scores lowest in assessments of adaptation progress.

Prompt action to protect our wildlife and natural resources is essential because building resilience for nature takes time; unlike buildings and infrastructure, we cannot create quick engineering fixes that will shield nature from the effects of climate change.

Adaptation for nature means reducing other pressures from pollution and excessive use of natural resources; creating bigger, better, and more joined up habitats; creating micro-climates within habitats to shield vulnerable species; and improving our monitoring of impacts when they occur.

NGOs are already acting

Government action is critical, but UK NGOs are already acting. For example:

The National Trust is following up on its initial research into risks to heritage and natural assets.

The Wildlife Trusts have a five-year adaptation plan with annual updates on actions being taken across the country, from reducing wildfire risk to coastal realignment schemes.

The RSPB is using nature to help tackle climate change across its various sites such as at Medmerry Nature Reserve where one of the largest open coast managed realignments in Europe is providing cost effective flood risk management for 348 properties as well as restoring intertidal habitat.

Over the next 50 years The Woodland Trust’s 560ha project at Snaizeholme in the Yorkshire Dales will create a mosaic of new and restored native woodland, upland blanket bog, grassland, and riparian meadows to provide ecosystem services including carbon sequestration and climate adaptation at scale.

Friends of the Earth has mapped the communities most vulnerable to high temperatures and heatwaves because of poor quality housing, lack of tree cover, vegetation, and local quality green and blue space[1], and those communities most at risk from flooding and most missing out on the health, cooling and other benefits of proper tree cover.

What is needed?

The Government must make up for lost time and its new plan needs to:

1. Put nature at the heart of the UK’s adaptation response, recognising its critical and cost-effective role in helping us adapt whilst delivering multiple co-benefits.
2. Empower and support communities to adapt at a local level.
3. Contain ambitious and robust adaptation targets that are measured and monitored.
4. Ensure all parts of government are involved and collectively responsible, and engaged with devolved nations, to ensure a coordinated UK-wide response.
5. Plan for levels of warming beyond 1.5°C
to fully prepare for different scenarios.

Without the Government leading with a comprehensive, ambitious, and well-resourced NAP3, climate impacts will get progressively worse and it will be harder to avoid the collapse of systems, from our infrastructure to our natural environment.

Actions taken now will fundamentally affect how well we cope with and adapt to a changing climate in ways that avoid sudden shock and costs.

The Government must not miss this critical chance to secure our futures and tackle the nature and climate emergency in a joined-up way.

Paul de Zylva is a campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Follow @friends_earth
Kathryn Brown is Director of Climate Change and Evidence at The Wildlife Trusts. Follow @WildlifeTrusts
Bethany Chamberlain is a Senior Policy Officer on climate change adaptation at RSPB

The opinions expressed in this blog are held by the authors and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.

Image credit: Nic Trott