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UK Government Failing to Lead on Climate Change Communication

The UK Government has confirmed that it will not lead efforts to improve public awareness of the impacts of climate change, and has cut funding for the main organisation that promotes better local communication about the risks of rising greenhouse gas levels.

The UK Government has confirmed that it will not lead efforts to improve public awareness of the impacts of climate change, and has cut funding for the main organisation that promotes better local communication about the risks of rising greenhouse gas levels.

In July, the statutory Committee on Climate Change published its annual progress report to Parliament and warned that "the available evidence suggests that public awareness of how climate-related risks are changing is patchy, with greater awareness of flooding and less for heat and cold".

It recommended: "The next NAP [National Adaptation Programme], due in 2018, should contain a specific set of actions that aim to increase public awareness of climate change risks. Lead responsibility should be assigned to a single Government Department".

However, the Government's response to the Committee, which was laid before Parliament last week, rejected the Committee's advice that a single Department should lead communication efforts, and instead suggested other agencies should provide information about specific climate change impacts.

But the Government failed to reveal that the Environment Agency has decided to halve its funding this year for Climate UK, a social enterprise that supports a network of 12 partnerships with more than 10,000 stakeholders around the country, and which aims to "facilitate a bottom up, nationwide response to climate change by bringing together knowledge and technical expertise from every part of the UK to tackle the challenges and opportunities we face".

Climate UK has also been told that further Government funding for local engagement about climate change is unlikely after this year.

The Environment Agency's action has been taken after its budget was significantly reduced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

This latest setback for efforts to improve knowledge of how climate change is increasing risks to homes and businesses in the UK follows numerous warnings to the Government about the consequences of low levels of public understanding.

In its 2014 progress report, the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change drew attention to two examples of how the public is being placed at increased risk by a lack of awareness.

It cited a survey for the Environment Agency in 2012-13 which found that 55 per cent of people currently living in the floodplain believed that they were not at all at risk of flooding.

The Sub-Committee concluded: "The current lack of awareness of local flood risk may be inhibiting local engagement, and willingness to contribute towards community-level flood risk management solutions".

The Sub-Committee also highlighted research that found that a representative sample of members of the UK public perceived that the incidence of heatwaves and hot weather had decreased over their lifetimes.

Its report stated: "There is very little evidence that cooling measures, in particular external measures, are being fitted to existing dwellings. This could be due to a perceived low level of current risk."

These examples are a sign of a collective failure by the Government and other bodies to promote greater resilience to climate change in the UK by improving public awareness of current and future risks.

And they highlight a loophole in the 2008 Climate Change Act, which does not explicitly assign responsibility for increasing public knowledge, and no Government Department, Agency or other body has taken on the task.

Since she became Environment Secretary in July 2014, Elizabeth Truss has not made a major speech on climate change resilience, like her sacked predecessor, Owen Paterson.

Indeed, the Governor of the Bank of England has said more publicly than the Environment Secretary about the risks of climate change.

And Ms Truss's Department, DEFRA, has a greatly under-resourced team dealing with national resilience to climate change, no programme for engaging the public about the issue, and no monitoring of their awareness levels.

The Environment Agency operates a Climate Ready Support Service, but this seeks only "to provide advice and support to businesses, the public sector and other organisations on adapting to a changing climate".

Similarly, the Government last year told the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology that "at present the Met Office has no formal mandate to communicate climate science to the public".

Yet the evidence that people in the UK are already suffering from the impacts of climate change is growing.

The UK's eight warmest years, and five of its six wettest years, since records began in 1910 have all occurred from 2000 onwards.

Severe damage was caused by flooding during the wettest winter on record in 2013-14. Scientists have estimated that the probability of severe winter rainfall events in the UK has increased by about 25 per cent due to climate change.

And thousands of people have been killed by summer heatwaves in the UK over the past 15 years.

Yet the Government seems determined not to help people protect themselves by raising their awareness of the increasing risks they are facing.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and sits on the London Climate Change Partnership, which is partly funded by Climate UK.

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