Breaking the silence on adaptation

The visible effects of climate change are accelerating.

In the past 12 months, the world has exceeded the 1.5°C warming threshold - the value central to the Paris Agreement - for an entire year for the first time. Land and sea surface temperature anomalies are well over previous records. Over 18 million hectares of land were burnt across Canada in its 2023 wildfire season. Europe experienced its worst year of extreme heat stress days on record. Flooding in China reportedly displaced more than a million people. These impacts are being widely reported and discussed.

The Wildlife Trusts' Kathryn Brown and Frontier Economics' Matthew Bell ask why a topic that should be part of upcoming manifestos is being relegated to the periphery

It is equally well understood that climate change will continue to get worse even on an ambitious pathway towards global net zero emissions. On current trajectories it could get much worse. A recent poll of hundreds of global climate scientists found that 80% predicted the world would exceed 2.5°C of warming this century5. This level of warming should not be treated like a low probability risk, but a likely possibility.

We both started working in climate change over 20 years ago when adaptation was about planning for the future. This is no longer the case; adaptation and emergency response have merged into one – not always for the good.

Against this backdrop, you might expect climate change adaptation to be shooting up the Government’s agenda, as it has for other countries. At the UN climate negotiations in Dubai last year, the Global Goal on Adaptation was the priority outcome for nations across Africa, South America and Asia. But the UK Government has been largely silent both on the implications of current global climate trends and on increasing ambition for adaptation. On questioning this silence, one contact from a political party has told us ‘politicians don’t want to be seen to be scaremongering’. Meanwhile the latest National Adaptation Programme is being taken to court on human rights grounds. It contains no new funding, and lacks an ambitious vision for building resilience to climate change, just like its predecessors.

The Labour Party have also been quiet on the issue. A topic that should be part of upcoming manifestos is being relegated to the periphery. Why?

Making the economic case for adaptation might still be viewed by decision makers as a challenge: future impacts are uncertain, impacts for nature and human wellbeing cannot be fully monetised, and therefore it is difficult to put an investment label on what is needed. Swap “climate change” for “education” or “health” however – where the future impacts are also uncertain and impacts on wellbeing cannot be fully monetised – and the investment case is much less controversial. The uncertainty argument for this lack of attention does not really hold, especially when we think that

adaptation actions will improve health, facilitate education and provide wider benefits to the economy.

When we speak to businesses they emphasise the resilience of supply chains and their ability to switch sources of supply, should some regions become less agriculturally productive, or if manufacturing supply chains are disrupted by larger floods or storms. And yet, recent experience suggests that supply chains may not be as robust as often believed and, at a minimum, switching sources raises costs for consumers.

Where we do see ambitious action, it is being driven by businesses, local authorities and NGOs with a broad view; city regions are producing ground breaking adaptation plans, landowners are responding to the change they see in front of them with adaptive management plans, and local authorities are highlighting the need for resilience in their local plans. We are seeing action because particular local circumstances or business experiences act as a catalyst. We know the scale of action is far outweighed by the risk at the national level; much more adaptation is needed.

A renewed emphasis on adaptation should be based on the economics of uncertainty. One thing we have learned through the financial crisis, Covid-19, recent conflicts and largescale flooding around the world is that we consistently underestimate the chances and the costs of unexpected outcomes. Our current economic analyses – in the public and private sectors – can result in underinvestment against the rising threats from climate change. Modelling uncertainty is – well – uncertain. But establishing value at risk, the distributional consequences of that risk and the investment case to reduce the risk is a well practiced discipline in other sectors (like health) and easily translatable to climate adaptation.

The UK has arguably been lucky in the last 12 months. Aside from the extreme winter floods and storms of 2023, we have not experienced an extreme year of climate impacts. But there is a good chance that a new Government will be dealing with a catastrophic weather event in its first 100 days, let alone over its term in office. Understanding the economic consequences to guide what structures to put in place to limit damages now will undoubtedly save lives, money, and avoid irreversibe changes to our natural environment. That is not “scaremongering”, it is good policy.

This article first appeared in Business Green co-authored with Kathryn Brown, Wildlife Trust