Is nine years distant enough?

The need to tackle climate change is urgent. Here in Britain, it is still seen by too many people as a rather distant concern – distant in terms of time, and distant geographically. But the effects of climate change are being felt right here, right now.”

David Cameron, Change our political system and our lifestyles, Independent Online, 1.11.2005

To some, the threat of climate change seems to have gone away again.

Last week former Chancellor and prominent climate change sceptic Lord Lawson condemned as “absurd” the pronouncement by Professor Dame Julia Slingo that there was a link between recent floods and climate change. By questioning the considered and informed opinion of the Met Office’s respected chief scientist, Lawson’s comments expose a fundamental problem with addressing climate change: it doesn’t fit with the political cycle.

David Cameron has promised a return to dredging, despite the advice of the Environment Agency and others that this isn’t the answer. Many commentators have noted that this is simply a short term fix to wrestle control over an issue that was damaging the Government’s political credibility, a quick win to score the necessary political points to secure electoral victory in 2015. In contrast, spending money now on something that might not pay off for decades isn’t seen as a vote winner: we get all the pain now and none of the benefits. The conclusion? It’s better politically to offer “money no object” solutions to climate impacts rather than invest in longer term mitigation which won’t kick in until the coalition Government is but a distant memory.

Time and tide wait for no man

The need to adapt to our changing climate is clear. But so too should the need to mitigate, or limit, the extent of global warming in the future. The planet has warmed by just 0.85⁰C since 1880. The World Bank recently warned that we are at risk of increased damage from extreme weather, yet has also acknowledged that we are on a pathway that cannot exclude warming of 4⁰C. And that doesn’t mean that the impacts will be merely four times worse: the planet’s climate responds in non-linear ways to change and scientists predict that beyond a 2⁰C rise feedback loops could become established that lead to runaway processes – global warming will start to stoke itself.

Mitigation means changing our behaviour, just as David Cameron urged back in those pre-elected days. But it’s not just about changing patterns of consumption, it’s about how we manage our land. This is where we think that trees have a vital role to play. Indeed, it was encouraging to hear Eric Pickles say that trees can be part of the solution. Is it possible he’s read our 2006 publication “Adapt or die”?

“The diversity of our environment is a reflection of its health and pivotal to its proper functioning. Creating and restoring a more sympathetic landscape will improve the environmental services on which humankind depends and reduce the impacts of climate change for human society. Whilst we must embrace the knowledge we take from science and use judiciously the technology that will help our societies adapt to climate change, a greater respect for the lessons from the natural world can provide immediate and immeasurable benefits.

“Experience from elsewhere in the world shows that when water catchments are denuded of their vegetation cover in winter through the intensification of land use, flash flooding and soil erosion is often the result.  By working with nature, adaptation attempts to reduce the frequency and intensity of these events for instance by planting woodland and re-creating grassland. Given the strong evidence from abroad, in a country with such low woodland cover as Britain it is indeed ironic and almost negligent that there is no research underway to investigate the potentially positive impacts of afforestation of water catchments and floodplain woodland in relieving flood risks and benefiting both wildlife and society. 

“By reducing or avoiding those actions we know to cause jeopardy, and increasing or maintaining those which increase stability and well-being within the ecosystem, of which we are a part, and increase its ability to adapt to uncertain change. Adaptation should develop resilient natural systems that can absorb and respond to change. By making natural systems more resilient, not only will biodiversity gain but human society can also benefit from the ‘services’ which natural ecosystems provide such as flood relief, healthy soils, carbon pools and future sequestration, improved water quality and renewable natural resources.  Woodland, as the most widespread semi-natural habitat in the UK, is uniquely placed to act as a key component of a more sympathetic and receptive landscape for wildlife and the improvement of environmental services for society in the face of climate change.”

Nick Atkinson, Senior Advisor


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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5 Responses to Is nine years distant enough?

  1. Ash says:

    If we don’t adapt we will die along with our planet. Why keep spending money and focusing on schemes like HS2, or flights to Mars for that matter? Are those in charge afraid to stand up for straight-forward common sense?

  2. Peter Kyte says:

    Perhaps if David Cameron was to spend the 50 billion, he is happy to spend on HS2, on proper flood defence and other extreme weather situations, we would not keep on getting caught out by our climate.

  3. Vegetation holds the soil and absorbs water. When I studied geography at A-level we read about the effects of stripping trees etc in the USA . It is called the ‘Dust bowl’.

  4. Derek West says:

    Nick Atkinson report is spot on,what a pity he is not environmental minister,Nuclear power is incredibly expensive and needs vast subsidies from the taxpayers,The changes the world needs to make for climate stability are at the moment not politicaly aceptable and the hard right will make sure they never are.

  5. Ken Brown says:

    I don’t disagree for a moment with propositions about the importance of preserving and extending our woodlands as part of a strategy to combat climate change and for their intrinsic values. However, we have spent the last quarter of a century fiddling around with pseudo-solutions which have manifestly failed to work. If we are serious about climate change, we’d do well to remember that imminent catastrophe was once viewed as a matter that required a coordinated response by the state in the interests of the nation and the international community. While we all have our reservations about nuclear weapons, the US government’s Manhattan project at least illustrated the appropriate scale, urgency and sophistication of the response needed to the prospect of a nuclear armed Nazi state. Climate change is potentially even more dangerous than that.

    We urgently need government to establish an expert, independent commission to investigate solutions to climate change; a commission that would be free from manipulation by corporate lobbies demanding short term profits and politicians concerned about their short term prospects of reelection. This might appear to be a highly ambitious demand in an international culture that is so deeply contaminated by neo-liberal economic ideology but it is essential that such a key area of decision making should be rescued from the machinations of the ‘free market’.

    Carbon emissions are rising inexorably while we trash vast areas of our wildest countryside with wind turbines at huge and disproportionate expense to the poorest members of society. The European Commission is getting cold feet about the wholesale but ineffectual commitment to renewable energy; Germany, with its wall to wall wind turbines, is reintroducing coal-fired power stations in an attempt to stabilise a chaotic energy market and her carbon emissions recently increased by 2%.

    The effective solution is looking more and more like a switch to civil nuclear power – indeed, that is probably inevitable. And the delays in research and innovation caused by a ‘quick-fix’ scramble for wind power almost certainly mean that fracking for shale gas will be an intermediate means of reducing carbon output and ensuring that ‘the lights stay on’. Fortunately, the footprint of a fracking site is likely to be several hundred times smaller than that of a rash of wind farms with an equivalent power-output. But if nuclear is to be the long term future, and developments in India and China suggest it will be, it is vital that all options are considered dispassionately in the long term interests of the planet and that safer, cleaner technologies like the Thorium reactor are not sidelined by vested interests as once happened.

    Margaret Thatcher’s favourite nostrum was, ‘You can’t buck the market’. Well, we’ve spend 30 years not bucking the market and look where it’s got us! Time for democracy to reassert itself against the corporate world and act on behalf of all the people.

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