Climate change, water and the shifting sands of politics

Climate change, water and the shifting sands of politics
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June 2016 will ever be associated with the UK’s momentous decision to leave the European Union prompting the resignation of its prime minister and a political, economic and constitutional crisis with global ramifications. However, to scientists working in climate change and water last month shall be remembered for its record-breaking temperatures, marking the 14th consecutive month of an unabated rise in global heat. These two seemingly unrelated events are, however, inextricably linked.

Theresa May’s appointment to Downing Street has prompted remarkable change. The colour of her new cabinet, including the appointment of the irrepressible Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, surprised political friends and foes at home. It also raised eyebrows overseas. However, more profound than the personalities that comprise her new government is the reshuffling of Whitehall’s government departments. It is far reaching and looks set to have long-term consequences for the UK’s strategy internationally, and particularly towards climate change, science and water.

Seen from afar, the decision to disband the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) sends a signal that the UK is ready to step back from leadership on climate change and the environment. DECC was set up in 2008 at the initiative of Gordon Brown. It was the centrepiece of David Cameron’s commitment to establishing the ‘greenest government ever’.

While some claimed the political commitment didn’t live up to the rhetoric, climate change and mitigation strategies had a seat at the highest level of government. It demonstrated in powerful terms the UK’s international credentials to forge a co-ordinated response as the impacts of climate change were beginning to be felt.

DECC’s remit was to forge strategies on climate change mitigation internationally, complementing Defra’s role in climate change adaptation domestically. Both are equally important in preparing the UK for future challenges, comprehensively spelt out by Professor Lord Krebs’ rich report to government in which he delivered a series of warnings ranging from increased flooding as a result of extreme water levels to significant water-supply deficits. Published amidst the political frenzy following Brexit, Lord Krebs’ risk assessment on behalf of the Climate Change Committee has not received the recognition it warrants.

Committee on Climate Change

The study points to water’s central role to play to the unfolding drama of climate change. The consequences of water-security and water resilience challenges are manifold, even for a country like the UK which is often thought a green and temperate country. Perhaps, most striking of Professor Krebs’ observations is his warning about flooding and the prospect for coastal change risks to communities, businesses and livelihoods in vulnerable areas.

He identified 200 km or more of coastal sea defences that are particularly vulnerable to failure and concluded simply “it may not be cost-effective to maintain these in the future”. Shortages in water provision (including for agriculture, energy generation and industry) was another area highlighted in his report. While it provided a range of best-case and worst-case scenario impacts, the message is unambiguous - the UK faces a mounting water-supply deficit. The cause is both the result of increasing demand because of a larger population and also a reduction in water availability as the climate changes.

However, the most stark if under-reported conclusion recommendation set out by Professor Krebs is the call to address what he describes as the “significant” scientific evidence gaps that currently exist. His report identifies a shopping list of areas that he says warrant further research “to reduce the uncertainty in the current level of understanding”.

The report concludes that there is “a need for an integrative approach to problem solving and policy construction due to the dynamic complexity of the systems involved”. It now rests with government to develop strategies to act on Professor Krebs’ findings. Enter the UK’s new Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom whose department is charged with climate change adaptation. She has used her first days in office to spell out her priorities as repealing the ban on fox hunting and ending farming subsidies. Government pressures suggest that her immediate political agenda may be overtaken by the need to formulate a response to Professor Kreb’s study.

However, policy responses to such complex issues cannot be done in isolation. A coherent, long-term strategy must rest on robust scientific evidence and by attempting to fill the many knowledge gaps Professor Krebs has identified. When it comes to water resilience and water security, science is a pre-requisite to effective policy decision-making. While Professor Krebs report is UK in focus, the conclusions and recommendations have global application.

British science, of course, is world-leading and enjoys an enviable global status. It is well placed to respond to the challenge. However, it too faces uncertainty following Brexit and the potential loss of research funding that shall follow from withdrawal from the European Union. Against that backdrop, it is all the more important that Mrs May’s government demonstrate its commitment to evidence-based policy decision-making, especially in preparing Britain for forthcoming climatic and water-related challenges.

In recent years where Britain leads on climate change, many countries follow. It would be tragic if the UK were to abandon that leadership. Only with sound science can political leaders be confident to take the necessary measures to enact long-term policy changes. In a global environment now feeling the effects of climate change, it is more important than ever the UK continues to invest in mitigating the destructive aspect of water while harnessing the constructive benefits that water affords. Where climate and water are concerned, it’s the long view that counts.

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