Britain must adapt to 'inevitable' climate change, warns minister

As experts call for action now, the coalition withholds green funding and appeals to private enterprise


Britons must radically change the way they live and work to adapt to being "stuck with unavoidable climate change" the Government will caution this week, as it unveils a dramatic vision of how society will be altered by floods, droughts and rising temperatures.

The coalition will signal a major switch towards adapting to the impact of existing climate change, away from Labour's heavy emphasis on cutting carbon emissions to reverse global temperature rises. Caroline Spelman, the Tory Secretary of State for the Environment, will use her first major speech on climate change since taking office to admit that the inevitable severe weather conditions will present a "survival-of-the- fittest scenario", with only those who have planned ahead able to thrive. Adapting to climate change will be "at the heart of our agenda", she is expected to say.

In a series of dramatic artistic impressions, the Government illustrates how hospitals and fire stations should be built on hills to escape floods, skyscrapers designed to reflect the sun's rays and tracts of land allowed to be reclaimed by the sea. At the same time, two major reports that will make the urgent scientific and economic case for action this week.

The Government's stance sets the scene for a political battle with Labour, which insists that tackling a challenge on the scale of climate change requires state intervention and global co-operation, and cannot simply be left to the free market and private business. Critics will also seize on the absence of any new money for Ms Spelman's plans, at a time when her department faces cuts of up to 40 per cent.

She will say: "It is vital that we carry on working to drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions to stop the problem getting any worse – but we are already stuck with some unavoidable climate change. Because of this, we need to prepare for the best and worst cases which a changing climate will entail for our country."

Her comments will be seen as an attempt to address the growing threat posed by rising temperatures without confronting climate change deniers. Ms Spelman's plea for action will coincide on Thursday with the launch of the latest report from the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) of the Climate Change Committee, which advises the Government on preparing for the impacts of global warming. The report will warn: "If we wait, it will be too late."

In a sign of the growing urgency of the need to act, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) will publish a report tomorrow into growing concern that firms have invested heavily in cutting carbon emissions and increasing energy efficiency, but far less has been spent on preparing for the worst effects of climate change. Ministers will caution that Britain's economy is at risk if more is not done.

In official "best-case" scenarios, the UK would experience average temperatures up to C hotter in summer, and 10 per cent more rainfall in winter, by the 2080s. "Worst-case" projections predict temperature increases of 4C.

Lord John Krebs, the chairman of the Adaptation Sub-Committee, said: "The Government is absolutely right, we do need to act now to ensure we are better prepared to deal with the sort of extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods and heatwaves which will become more frequent over the coming years. Adapting to climate change isn't an alternative to continuing to reduce our emissions. We must do both."

Environmental experts have seized on the Government's admission that there will be no new money allocated for a programme of work that could cost billions. Sara Parkin, a co-founder of Forum for the Future, said: "It'll take a very clever government to translate what are sure to be tough recommendations into policies to protect vulnerable citizens and infrastructure, especially as the cash box is empty." She added that Ms Spelman must "make the connections between the Big Society ambitions of her party and realise that connecting local economic and social resilience to that of the environment will the best – the only – way of achieving any of it".

Scientists claim that Britain is capable of adapting to a rise in temperature of C but no more, and they will urge ministers not to neglect the need to curb emissions. The ASC report is expected to recommend specific actions, including drawing up emergency plans, that the Government should be taking to ensure the UK is better prepared. Temperatures are on average of 1C higher than in the 1970s, and the last decade has been the warmest on record. However, according to the Met Office, last winter was also the coldest in over 30 years and this July was the wettest since records began.

One in three businesses in the UK has been significantly affected in the past three years by extreme weather such as flooding or drought, but fewer than one in four have done anything to protect itself, the Government says.

However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admits there is no new money for adaptation programmes, and will place responsibility at the door of individuals, organisations and private businesses. They cite the example of Network Rail, which invested £750,000 in adaptation schemes that could realise savings of £1bn in 30 years.

Critics insist the coalition cannot sidestep responsibility. This weekend the Green Party annual conference in Birmingham has called for far greater government intervention. Caroline Lucas, the party's new MP and leader, said: "Adaptation to climate change will be a matter of life and death to many people, here in the UK and even more in the developing world. Droughts, storms and floods are getting worse.

"But Caroline Spelman is wrong to say inaction isn't an option. Inaction is this government's policy. The threat to individual life and to this country's way of life are greater from climate change than any other danger. We have the appeal for volunteers for the Home Guard, while the regular armed forces do nothing. And Dad's Army will not be enough to prevent climate change or deal with the consequences."

The coalition will use the ASC report to show its commitment to a global climate deal. But it will make clear that urgent action is also needed to adapt. As part of the new planning process, national policy statements will demand that climate impacts are considered in the planning of roads, railways, airports and power stations.

The climate minister, Lord Henley, will tomorrow call on business to step up its efforts against climate change. Speaking at the CBI report launch, he will warn: "Climate change is happening here and now. If the business sector isn't climate-change resilient, neither is our economy. Businesses generally perceive a changing climate as a threat, not an opportunity. Of course it's both. The UK already leads the way in climate resilience science and technology. So the challenge for business is two-fold: build resilience, and get first-mover advantage in new markets, here and overseas."

At an environmental hustings in Bristol last week, the five Labour leadership contenders warned the coalition could not stand on the sidelines. Ed Balls told around 400 party members: "There is no way in which we can get the technologies, the investment, the change in the long term, if we leave it to the market. We need to intervene and support the technologies to get the jobs."

Ed Miliband, the party's climate change spokesman, urged against negative messages being used to change behaviour. "Martin Luther King said, ' I have a dream' – not 'I have a nightmare'. We need a positive, comprehensive vision for the future."

Lord Peter Melchett, policy director, the Soil Association

"If Caroline Spelman makes her first speech about adaptation and nothing about mitigation it spells out significant danger for all of us. The EU is showing far greater responsibility, looking at how the CAP can cut greenhouse gas emissions."

Tony Juniper, the former head of Friends of the Earth

"There has been a worrying silence on the environmental agenda since the election. We have been reassured that this is the greenest government ever but all I've seen [from the coalition's decisions] so far is bad news."

Professor Julia King, member of the Committee on Climate Change and vice-chancellor of Aston University

"We have the technology to meet our emissions reduction targets up to 2020, so the challenge is to persuade businesses that low-carbon capital investments will offer a better return."

Dr Sam Fankhauser, Principal Research Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change

"We have to realise that the emissions reductions stuff is not enough to make the problem go away. I don't think we are prepared, but there's a bit of time if we start moving from planning to adapt to adapting we have a chance."

Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, member of the Committee on Climate Change and director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change

"The science of climate change gives a very strong basis for deciding that we need to both reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases so as to limit the risk of changes we cannot handle, and adapt to the inevitable changes."

Coalition condemned by Green Party

The Green Party yesterday condemned the coalition government's failure to introduce any measures towards building a "green and sustainable economy", which, it insists, will also play a vital role in easing unemployment.

At its conference in Birmingham, the first since Caroline Lucas (right) became the UK's first Green MP, there was unanimous condemnation of the coalition's economic, health and education policies which the party believe will hit vulnerable communities hardest.

The Greens are hoping disaffected Lib Dems will join the party as the coalition shows little sign of following through with early post-election promises to be the greenest government of all time.

Ms Lucas said the Greens were the only "real opposition" to the Government on nuclear power, Trident and academies.

The conference also unanimously passed an emergency motion rejecting the health White Paper which, it says, will privatise the NHS. Ms Lucas said: "This spells out just how far the Tories and Lib Dems will go with the destruction of essential services."

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