Policymakers, infrastructure owners, and business leaders are all guilty of failing to take climate resilience seriously enough, and in so doing only increase the likelihood of dystopian worst case scenarios coming to pass
This week both the Mail on Sunday and The Times ran stories on a little noticed Met Office-backed report titled Shared Socio-Economic Pathways, which explored the potential society wide impacts of a range of different climate scenarios.
If that all sounds a bit dry and technical you must have missed the headlines. “Met Office forecasts a Britain of militia war, bartering and child labour”, declared The Times, at the top of a relatively straight story detailing how the Met Office-commissioned report explores five potential scenarios for a century that will inevitably face escalating climate impacts. The scenarios include a vision of full-on societal collapse; a laissez-faire and divisive free-for-all that sees rapid clean tech development occur alongside worsening inequality and societal tensions; and a full spectrum “societal shift towards more environmentally sustainable systems” that eradicates poverty and results in “healthier lifestyles, improved well-being, sustainable use of natural resources, and more stable and fair international relations”.
The Mail on Sunday, perhaps unsurprisingly took a slightly different approach, co-opting the report into its forever war on the forces of wokery under a headline that suggested that before the Met Office engages with “doomsday reports” it should “get this week’s weather right first”. It accuses the report – which was produced by Cambridge Econometrics, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and the universities of Edinburgh and Exeter, with funding from the Met Office and UK Research and Innovation – of making “another ‘woke’ political point” in a scenario that suggests worsening global climate impacts could contribute to the privatisation of the NHS.
“Because of the high costs associated with reforming the NHS, the preferred solution is to increase privatisation of general and specialised health services and medication provision,” the report suggests in one of its putative scenarios. “Citizens are encouraged to purchase private insurance policies in order to receive better healthcare. This transitional period worsens care for the poorest in society.” Such reforms are envisaged against a dystopian backdrop. “Society is more divided than ever,” the report continues, “with the majority of the population having low incomes and poor health, contrasting with a rich ruling elite. Social unrest increases and the prison population skyrockets. To keep the general population in line, governments introduce military conscription by the end of the century.”
The Met Office defended the report, telling both The Times and The Mail on Sunday that the Shared Socio-Economic Pathways project “is important in order to understand climate risk and resilience as climate change and socio-economic factors are highly linked”.
“It is just one project as part of a wider programme of science research funded by the UK government’s Strategic Priorities Fund on UK climate resilience,” a spokesperson added. “These include research programmes to protect the environment and communities from the effects of climate change and to support a move to a low carbon economy.”
There is a live debate in climate circles over the merits and pitfalls of exploring and publicising the worst case scenarios that could flow from escalating climate impacts. Critics argue that such ‘climate porn’ alarms and demotivates the public, is based on intense warming scenarios that are unlikely to come to pass, and distracts from more plausible projected impacts that are plenty serious enough. Others counter that with global temperatures being rapidly pushed to levels that humanity has never previously experienced the risks presented to food and water security, geopolitical stability, and natural carbon sinks are so severe that it would be a dereliction of duty not to consider and guard against worst case scenarios. If you think climate change can’t trigger societal collapse, the argument goes, you are underestimating the scale of the risks we all now face.
Coincidentally, the reports of the Met Office’s flirtation with apocalyptic forecasts came in the same week as the government published the UK’s Third Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA3). The report had little to say about the prospect of armed militias roaming through a flood-ravaged Cotswolds, but the litany of likely economic impacts the UK is facing over the coming decades was still plenty sobering enough.
The assessment, which the government is obliged to produce every five years under the Climate Change Act, analyses eight individual climate-related risks and concludes that economic damages could exceed £1bn per year in each area by 2050 under a scenario where temperatures rise by just 2C (they are currently projected to reach considerably higher by the end of the century). The cost of climate change to the UK is estimated to reach at least one per cent of GDP by 2045, which interestingly is roughly the same amount as the CCC reckons it would cost to build a net zero emission economy by mid-century.
In response the government highlighted the various steps it is taking to bolster the UK’s climate resilience, including plans for a record £5.2bn of investment in 2,000 new flood defences by 2027, continuing work on the Green Finance Strategy to align private sector financial flows with clean, environmentally sustainable and resilient growth, and the introduction of the £750m Nature for Climate Fund. These measures and many others are expected to feed into the next National Adaptation Programme (NAP3), which is set to be laid before Parliament in 2023.
“The scale and severity of the challenge posed by climate change means we cannot tackle it overnight, and although we’ve made good progress in recent years there is clearly much more that we need to do,” said Climate Adaptation Minister Jo Churchill. “By recognising the further progress that needs to be made, we’re committing to significantly increasing our efforts and setting a path towards the third National Adaptation Programme which will set ambitious and robust policies to make sure we are resilient to climate change into the future.”
However, business groups, politicians, and campaigners are all increasingly frustrated that the government’s climate resilience efforts remain so badly underpowered.
This week’s report acknowledges how higher temperatures could bring some opportunities for the UK, primarily through the health benefits that could result from less severe winters. But it also details how even under a 2C warming scenario the UK faces “high” and “very high” risks in a wide array of areas where “more action is needed”, including increasing flood and drought risks, threats to natural carbon sinks, impacts on agricultural productivity, risks for infrastructure networks, and direct risks to public health and wellbeing. It even acknowledges that there are both risks and opportunities for UK food availability under a 2C scenario and a medium risk of international violent conflict impacting the UK. Perhaps the vision of armed militias is not so far-fetched after all.
The various risks highlighted by the latest report are broadly similar to those found in the last edition five years ago, not to mention the Climate Change Committee’s various highly critical reports in recent years that have warned the UK’s climate resilience strategy is not up to scratch.
The report’s lengthy spreadsheet of prospective climate risks also inadvertently underscores how attempts to pinpoint the precise economic impact of climate change are subject to enormous uncertainty. The UK may yet experience the projected one per cent GDP hit in 2050 as a result of climate impacts, but if temperature increases are higher than expected or if climate change does trigger food shortages or serious international conflicts then economic costs could prove to be many times higher.
Responding to the latest assessment, Signe Norberg, head of public affairs and communications at the Aldersgate Group of businesses, said it should provide a “clear reminder that unmitigated climate change comes with significant costs to the UK economy”.
“The report rightly emphasises the need for urgent and co-ordinated action to both reduce emissions and adapt the UK’s economy and infrastructure to the levels of climate change we are already locked into,” she added. “In practice, this means that the government’s work on implementing the Net Zero Strategy, enacting long-term nature improvement targets under the Environment Act, and creating the next National Adaptation Plan all need to be carried out at pace and in a joined-up way.”
Her comments were echoed by Matt Williams, Climate and Land Programme Lead at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), who argued the report provided further evidence that “the damage caused to the UK by climate change will be greater than the investments needed to avoid harmful levels of warming”.
He added that the government urgently needed to bolster its climate resilience plans, with a particular focus on the increased risks farmers are now facing. “Agriculture and land have been singled out as the weak link in the government’s net zero plan,” he said. “It’s clear that farmers and the natural world need help not just in cutting emissions, but in adapting to the impacts of climate change too.”
The question is whether a government currently embroiled in multiple scandals and under pressure from some of its own backbenchers to curb public spending and delay the net zero transition can deliver a sufficiently robust climate resilience strategy.
Responding to the new report, Jim McMahon MP, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, accused the government of consistently failing to prioritise climate resilience. “After more than a decade in power the Conservatives have failed to build the efficient homes, strengthened flood defences, and resilient natural habitats necessary to tackle the climate crisis,” he said. “Their lack of action and empty promises are putting people, nature, and our economy at risk.”
In many ways the debate over whether worst case climate scenarios are constructive or counterproductive is a sideshow. As the UK’s official Climate Change Risk Assessment shows, too many policymakers, infrastructure owners, and businesses are not adequately planning for entirely plausible and arguably best case scenarios where temperature increases are kept to around 2C. Moreover, this failure to bolster climate resilience in the face of increased flood, drought, and heatwave risks that are all but inevitable only serves to increase the chances of the genuinely terrifying worst case scenarios coming to pass.