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26 November 2014updated 04 Oct 2023 10:29am

We need a change in the law on information about climate change impacts

The failure by government to make the public aware of how climate change is affecting the UK exposes a loophole in key legislation.

By Bob Ward

The UK Climate Change Act should be urgently amended to force the government to tell the public about the mounting risks they face from flooding, heatwaves and other impacts.

With growing evidence that global warming is already affecting the UK, government departments and agencies are utterly failing to ensure people understand how their lives and livelihoods are being threatened by rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

Several deaths and more than £1bn in damage resulted from flooding caused by heavy rainfall earlier this year during the wettest winter on record.

The year from January to October 2014 was the rainiest such period for the UK since records began in 1910. This is part of a pattern, with four of the five wettest years, not including 2014, having occurred from 2000 onwards.

Over the same period, the UK has also experienced its seven warmest years on record, and the period to October this year was the hottest we have ever had.

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As the Met Office has pointed out, the UK appears to be receiving heavier rainfall because the atmosphere is warmer and wetter.

Climate scientists have estimated that the probability of an exceptionally wet winter in the UK has increased by 25 per cent due to climate change.

Yet despite the mounting toll of death and destruction, Government Departments are extremely reluctant to inform the public of the dangers they face from climate change.

Yesterday, for instance, the Department of Energy and Climate Change led the government’s participation in a global “Tweetathon” about climate change.

According to the DECC’s webpage, the aim was “to talk about the impacts of climate change and the action that can be taken to tackle it – both in the UK and globally”.

Several government departments and agencies, along with academic institutions and businesses, took part in the “Tweetathon”, but very little of the discussion was about UK impacts.

Amazingly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is supposed to lead the Government’s efforts to make the UK more resilient to climate change, only produced two tweets from its official Twitter account, neither of which mentioned how the UK is being affected.

This was just the latest demonstration that Defra and the rest of government are failing to make the public aware of the risks they face from climate change, with potentially severe consequences.

In July, the annual report by the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change highlighted the fact that 55 per cent of people living on floodplains falsely believe that they are at no risk of flooding, and warned that 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 report also drew attention to research showing the UK public wrongly thinks that the occurrences of heatwaves and hot days are decreasing in the UK, which helps to explain why “the uptake of measures to increase cooling capacity in existing homes is currently very low”.

According to the “Heatwave Plan for England 2014”, there were 2,000 excess deaths during the heatwave in August 2003, 680 more fatalities during a shorter hot spell in summer 2006, and about 300 additional people died from the effects of heat in 2009.

Yet a series of answers to parliamentary questions over the past few weeks reveals confusion and muddle about what the government is doing to raise public awareness.

DECC claimed it would be too difficult to calculate how much has been earmarked for communications, but suggested that the creation of a “cross-government communications group” which will “help to promote unified and consistent messaging on climate change across the government’s communication channels”. It has not met since August.

Meanwhile, Defra was only able to cite £1.6m spent on the Environment Agency’s Climate Ready Support Service, which does not even target the public.

Of course, the former Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, was a well-known denier of climate change risks, and savagely cut back the budget for building resilience.

After being sacked from the cabinet by David Cameron earlier this year, Paterson delivered a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, calling for the Climate Change Act to be suspended or scrapped.

However, he neglected to mention that while he was Environment Secretary he had exploited a loophole in the Act to avoid talking in public about the impacts of global warming on the UK.

The Act, which was passed by Paterson and all but five other MPs, requires the Environment Secretary to deliver both a climate change risk assessment and a national adaptation programme.

However, the Act does not explicitly oblige the government to communicate with the public about the risks of climate change.

As a result, Paterson was able to put his own ideological beliefs ahead of the public interest by refusing to make a single speech about climate change impacts during his entire period at Defra.

His successor, Elizabeth Truss, has yet to speak publicly the issue of climate change impacts since she became Environment Secretary in July, although she has attacked the installation of solar panels on farmland.

It is clear that the loophole on the Climate Change Act must now be closed to ensure that the Environment Secretary and other members of the Government communicate with the UK public about the risks they face from the impacts of global warming.

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

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