2018 Was the Year We Acknowledged That Climate Catastrophe Is Imminent
Even if government fail to act, there is no denying the state of our current condition.
Photo: Chris Bethell
The 21st century has so far been warmer than the previous three centuries, and 2018's sweltering summer was the joint hottest ever recorded in England. After a year in which droughts caused a vegetable shortage in shops, scorching temperatures fuelled major moorland fires, hospitals treated record numbers of patients during the heatwave and floods caused unprecedented havoc, the ramifications of rising extreme weather are becoming ever too apparent. Sun cream and safari hats are not going to save us: the detonator has been activated, the clock is ticking, disaster looms large and drastic measures are required to avert total climate catastrophe.
Of course, climate change has often felt like something quite distant, without tangible effects that could spur Brits into action, but it has been long coming.
A few examples: low-lying communities in Somerset were completely submerged by floods worsened by climate change in 2014, and people were forced to flee York and Leeds in dinghies after devastating flooding off the back of Storm Desmond in 2015. At the same time as world leaders attended the climate talks in Paris, Devon and Cornwall’s coastal railways collapsed into the ocean. Whole communities in Norfolk are crumbling into the sea, with dozens of homes lost to coastal erosion in recent years and more set to fall; moorlands have become Outback-style tinderboxes with Saddleworth burning for three weeks straight this summer; and experts have warned that wildfires may well became a far too regular threat.
These phenomena are set to continue, according to the Environment Agency. "Hotter drier summers, milder wetter winters, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events are expected" in years to come. With the wettest days seeing around 17 percent more rainfall than in the recent past, and experts warning that summer temperatures could be more than 10C hotter within our lifetimes, the prospect of food scarcity and regular flooding has become very real.
"We must urgently take action or we will be facing a future without coral reefs or Arctic summer ice, where food shortages, floods and fires are part of our everyday reality," says Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate change at WWF.
Experts have also stressed that we are likely to see an increase in the number of deaths – which is already at a disturbing level – if better precautions are not taken to protect the most vulnerable, particularly the very young or old people who have respiratory illnesses, to the impacts of increasingly hot heatwaves. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report in July about heatwaves and warned: "The average number of heat-related deaths in the UK is expected to more than triple to 7,000 a year by the 2050s."
"Over the past three summers, there have been several hundred deaths across the UK during even very brief periods of heatwave conditions," says Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. "We need to enforce regulations to make sure we adapt existing homes and workplaces to make them less prone to overheating, and to stop the construction of new buildings that are difficult to keep cool in the summer."
You would think the government would be doing something about it, but Theresa May is seemingly too busy enough emitting her own gas over Brexit to take concrete action in other spheres such as this.
Cuts have ruined our hopes of salvation elsewhere. The nature watchdog has been gutted – its funding reduced by 55 percent since 2010 and dozens of staff seconded to work on Brexit – while the Environment Agency, whose work building flood defences and managing ecosystems is vital to climate change adaptation, has been subject to its own "brutal cuts", with almost 2,000 staff made redundant.
Meanwhile, government policy changes have meant that investment in green energy fell by more than half in the UK last year, more than in any other country. It is worth mentioning here that Ban Ki-moon, former UN secretary-general, once famously said: "The costs of adapting are less than the cost of doing business as usual. And the benefits many times larger."
Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) hopes to protect 300,000 homes by 2021, spending £2.6 billion on flood defences in the process; but the government has still conceded that people may be forced to move away from high-risk areas as flooding becomes both more severe and more likely across the country. Despite the patchwork of other proposals, consultations and draft legalisation mooted by Gove, opposition figures have long briefed that Defra cannot afford the reforms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chancellor did not mention the deteriorating climate in his autumn statement, and the long expected plastic bottle deposit scheme – common in many other countries – has been delayed again.
Last Wednesday, in a press release, Friends of the Earth’s chief executive Craig Bennett said: "While it's good to finally get a draft Environment Bill, it falls far short of the blueprint for a greener post-Brexit Britain repeatedly promised by Michael Gove. EU rules and institutions have enhanced our environmental protection for decades. But with government plans to replace them with legislation that's riddled with loopholes and undermined by vague aspirations, it’s clear that our natural world is far from safe."
Amid the inaction, and a legislative agenda almost entirely revolving around Brexit, MPs and campaigners contend that the government has no idea how to respond to the impacts of climate change and are instead "relentlessly pursuing" policies that will not substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"The abject failure of governments around the world to tackle climate breakdown means we're already feeling the effects of more extreme weather," says Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. "Our top scientists are warning that we’ll see more storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves in the coming years – but the government's plans to mitigate the worst impacts are vague at best."
More worrying than these warnings, however, is the "systematic gutting of key public agencies tasked with protecting and restoring the natural world", Lucas says. As without "urgent funding and more staff, bodies like the Environment Agency simply won't be able to do the hard work on the ground that could prevent floods and make our society more resilient to heat and food shortages".
Emi Murphy, climate change campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says the government "isn’t taking climate action seriously enough" at a time when the UN secretary-general warns that failing to step up the fight against climate change would be "not only immoral but suicidal".
"Communities on the frontlines are facing dire consequences from climate change, such as flooding, wildfires and decreased harvests," she says. "The global south is seeing the worst of this, but it’s also happening right here in the UK, with places from Somerset to North Yorkshire already facing the effects of climate chaos.
"The science is clear, and there have been repeated dire warnings calling for further and faster government action to cut down on emissions. This is essential to prevent runaway climate change, and yet we see Westminster relentlessly pursue fracking, airport expansion and road building."
The government has a national adaptation programme for climate change, but this is just a "first step", according to experts, who claim similar measures have so far lacked ambition. "The next iteration should be a more strategic, focused document, to make sure the most important priorities are clear and the most urgent issues are being tackled," says the Committee on Climate Change. "There should be improved monitoring and evaluation of key policies that aim to address the risks of climate change."
So, what’s next? Activists will become ever more radical as they risk their own liberty to protest the "ecocidal" policies of the government, the next Daily Mail-led plastic-picking campaign will be presented as a massive victory for Theresa May and the Church of England will call on oil companies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Government bodies will demand more tree planting from the sidelines and Middle England NIMBYs will somehow prevent onshore wind energy from reaching its full potential. It will be left up to Tesco to reduce food waste, summer will get longer, winter will get shorter, and before long that 12 years we had to tackle climate change will have passed.
At least we can say that this year was the point in which the average Brit could discuss climate change with others, knowing they'd be understood and believed – even if no one else was listening.
VICE contacted the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for comment. It advised us to contact the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy, which said to contact Defra.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.