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18 February 2022

Storm Eunice won’t be the last extreme weather event to hit the UK

If only British people talked about climate change as much as the weather it's causing.

By Philippa Nuttall

The UK, Belgium and parts of France are battening down the hatches in the face of one of the worst storms in decades. Extreme weather is most often associated in our minds with less developed countries — think drought-induced famine in Somalia or landslides in Bangladesh. But as the world warms because of climate change, we all need to buckle up for an increasingly bumpy and potentially dangerous ride, unless we start to radically reduce emissions now. 

Red weather warnings are in place in the UK and Wales, signalling possible danger to life from extreme winds. It is true that, as one climate scientist insisted on Twitter today, we shouldn’t be “proverbially over-egging the pudding and linking each and every [extreme weather] event to climate change”. Nonetheless, research proves that our world is heating because of human intervention and that weird weather, in the form of heatwaves, storms or drought, is set to get worse.

The weather is, of course, a favourite topic of conversation among British people. A study from 2018 suggested that Brits spend over four months of their lives talking about the weather. “In the case of British people, the weather makes a particularly good topic of conversation, because it is so variable,” Dr Glenn Wilson, a consultant psychologist based in London, said. “At the same time, however, we seldom have extreme weather for very long.”

Waves crash into the shore at Portland, Dorset, which is under a rare red weather warning from the Met Office. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images.)

Moderate British weather is, however, slowly becoming a thing of the past. Research published last year by the UK Met Office shows how extreme weather caused by the climate crisis is increasing. 2020 was the first year on record to figure in the top ten for heat, rain and hours of sunshine.

“The UK’s climate is already changing,” said Mike Kendon, senior climate scientist at the Met Office National Climate Information Centre, and lead author of the study. “The warming that we see is broadly consistent with what we see globally… and our climate seems to be getting wetter as well as warmer, and that’s consistent with our broad understanding of the process [of climate change].”

Such changes come with a hefty price tag. The government warns that extreme weather is likely to cost the UK billions and wipe at least 1 per cent off GDP growth every year by 2045, even if temperature rises are held below 2C above pre-industrial levels. And the costs estimated by Westminster do not include deaths, injury or the emotional and social destruction wrought by flooding, the ruin of people’s houses and personal treasures and memories. UK infrastructure is not built to withstand hotter temperatures or severe flooding. Most homes and offices do not have air conditioning, various studies show UK flood defences are not able to cope with extremely heavy rainfall, and the degraded state of the country’s landscapes and wildlife means that natural flood defences are also unable to do their job properly.

High winds combined with spring tides at New Brighton promenade in Liverpool. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.)

Despite such facts, a handful of Conservative MPs, aided and abetted by certain media outlets, are calling for UK climate action to be dialled back.

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“Panic in ‘red alert’ London as police tape off parks and tell dog walkers to go home now as 100mph ‘sting jet’ Storm Eustice barrels across Britain leaving 10,000 homes without power in Cornwall and cancelling scores of flights and trains” is the snappy headline the Mail Online is leading with today. Scroll down the home page, however, and you can read the “shocking truth about charging electric cars”. Alternatively, you can delve into their columnist Richard Littlejohn’s warning about how smart meters, necessary to make energy systems more efficient and save consumers money, are a “serious danger” to Britain’s security and could make us “vulnerable to nuclear attack”.

Perhaps few readers will make the connection between the three stories, but they should. Delaying the phase-out of fossil fuels and failing to reduce our energy use will push up emissions, increase the likelihood of dangerous levels of climate change and multiply the number of extreme weather events. Such a chain of events will be costly, financially and personally, for us all.

We can either hunker down and hope for the best, or take action.

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