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UK Government Caught Napping Over Climate Change Adaptation

Millions of homes and businesses in England are already exposed and vulnerable to the current climate. If Owen Paterson and the rest of the Government do not begin to take adaptation seriously, many millions more will suffer as a result of climate change in future.

The Committee on Climate Change, the independent body that advises the Government and the devolved administrations, published an important report on 10 July by its Adaptation Sub-Committee on progress towards making the nation more resilient to the risks of global warming.

It identified a number of key challenges, including preventing the destruction of peat bogs and enhancing the protection against flooding that is provided by coastal habitats, such as salt marshes.

The Committee also announced that it would carry out a statutory evaluation, to be published in 2015, of the first ever National Adaptation Programme (NAP).

You could be forgiven for having missed the publication on 1 July of the NAP, outlining how England should prepare to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Apart from a 'news in brief' item in The Guardian and a speculative tongue-in-cheek preview in The Sunday Times, there was a complete absence of media coverage.

Was this an example of most journalists ignoring an important story? Not really. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs apparently planned a low-key launch, without a press conference or press release, while its Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, was out of the country.

This is extremely surprising. A team within DEFRA has been working on the NAP for many months, and Government Departments usually seek maximum publicity for their efforts.

The Government was required by the Climate Change Act 2008 to publish the first version of the National Adaptation Programme by the end of this year.

More importantly, as DEFRA acknowledges on its website, one of the purposes of the NAP is "raising awareness of the need for climate change adaptation".

Yet, as Jonathan Leake, who wrote about the NAP for The Sunday Times, complained on Twitter, the DEFRA press office seemed determined to dissuade journalists from covering the launch.

So why was DEFRA so determined that the media should not report the publication of the NAP?

Perhaps it was worried that attention might be focused on the fact that the size of the DEFRA adaptation team has recently been slashed, hence making it much more difficult for the Government to oversee implementation of a national strategy.

Or maybe it is a sign that Owen Paterson really is embarrassed to be the Cabinet minister who is responsible for climate change adaptation.

A few weeks ago, Mr Paterson appeared on Any Questions on BBC Radio 4, and neglected to even mention adaptation when asked for his views on climate change. Instead he seemed more intent on demonstrating that he could be just as 'sceptical' about the scientific evidence as anti-environmentalist blogger James Delingpole.

Mr Paterson at least allowed his name to be attached to the Foreword for the NAP, which included an admission that "the world's climate changes", but omitted any reference to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are the driving force.

But more likely, DEFRA wanted to avoid awkward questions about the deficiencies of the NAP. For while it identifies many of the initial measures that are required to cope with the impacts of climate change, it falls far short of providing a comprehensive roadmap towards making England more resilient, as my colleagues recommended earlier this year.

In particular, the NAP devotes just a single paragraph to the risks posed by surface water flooding. This is despite the fact that the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, which DEFRA published in January 2012, revealed that 3.8 million properties in England are currently thought to be at risk from surface water flooding, compared with 2.4 million threatened by coastal or river inundation.

However, the Assessment failed to provide any indication about how the risks of flash flooding in the future might be affected by climate change, claiming "suitable information for analysis were not available at the time of writing this report".

Incredibly, the NAP did not spell out a plan for filling this vital gap in information, but instead offered only the bland assurance that it is "a priority area for further risk assessment and action".

However, DEFRA does appear to be more aware of the risks posed by coastal and inland flooding, and was keen to highlight the Spending Review settlement last month which appeared to halt the real terms reduction in Government capital investment in new flood defences up to 2015-16.

Owen Paterson expressed his hope that this would be sufficient to convince the insurance industry not to withdraw cover for those households and businesses that are located in high-risk areas.

But yet again, the Secretary of State failed to make any mention of how climate change is affecting flood risk.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the report by the Adaptation Sub-Committee concludes that "over the current decade spending on flood defences will match previous spending levels, after accounting for inflation", but warns that "this remains below the amount the Environment Agency estimated in their Long-Term Investment Strategy would be required to keep pace with climate change".

The world is already committed to a few more decades of continuing climate change, even if efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are successful. Millions of homes and businesses in England are already exposed and vulnerable to the current climate. If Owen Paterson and the rest of the Government do not begin to take adaptation seriously, many millions more will suffer as a result of climate change in future.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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