The Climate Change Emergency

The following was written by Emma Bateman as part of our response to Lowestoft Council declaring a Climate Emergency1. Most of the information in it is from the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report from the Committee On Climate Change2.


There is a growing understanding among the public that climate change is having an alarming affect on our planet which will impact all of our lives and the lives of future generations. These notes are intended to give an overview of some of the wide ranging sectors which will be affected by the increase in extreme weather patterns from climate change

Although people are aware of climate change, the issue has not been taken seriously enough by those in power. The Institute for Public Policy Research published a report in February 2019 which outlines the reality of what the future may hold for us;

“THIS IS A CRISIS; FACING UP TO THE AGE OF ENVIRONMENTAL BREAKDOWN”

“Mainstream political and policy debates have failed to recognise that human impacts on the environment have reached a critical stage, potentially eroding the conditions upon which socioeconomic stability is possible. Human-induced environmental change is occurring at an unprecedented scale and pace and the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic outcomes in societies around the world is rapidly closing. These outcomes include economic instability,

large-scale involuntary migration, conflict, famine and the potential collapse of social and economic systems. The historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake.”

The environment is already under a great deal of stress even before climate change is factored in. Climate change risks are exacerbated because they occur in combination with existing pressures, particularly for biodiversity, soils and water. There is strong evidence of changes to species distributions in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, a trend related to increases in both air and water temperatures.

The effect of climate change on food production

In the last couple of years there have been several incidences of crops being wiped out or decimated by extreme weather events. For example, in June 2019 in Lincolnshire, heavy rain wreaked havoc on crops. The headlines were “Brassicas worst hit, with fields reduced to quagmires for growers who describe it as “worst rain in 40 years”
A similar thing happened in France also in June 2019 when some soft fruit growers had 80% to 100% of their crops wiped out in a 10 minute hail storm.
Onion yields last year in the UK were affected by drought and were down by 40% whilst chips were an inch shorter because of the poor potato harvest.

Potatoes are identified as a crop that is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to projections of reduced water availability from a trend to drier summers and a reliance on irrigation. In eastern England, where a significant proportion of the UK crop is grown, a substantial amount of water is used to grow the crop and lift it from otherwise hard-baked ground. By the 2050s the area of land well suited and moderately suited for rain-fed potato production could decline by 88% and 74% respectively.

Livestock will be affected by the extreme weather too. One of the main direct effects of climate change on dairy production is heat stress, which can adversely affect milk yield and fat and protein content as well as cause animal welfare issues. Conversely, extreme snow events such as the one that occurred in spring 2013 can cause higher rates of calf and cow mortality and result in a lower number of lambs per ewe

In terms of recent conflicts, Many were exacerbated by food and water shortages as a result of climate change. For example, Before the war began, an extraordinary drought caused 75% of Syria’s farms to fail and 85% of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. That drought also triggered a wave of migrants searching for jobs in urban areas, spreading instability throughout the country.

The effect of climate change on pests, pathogens, microbes and diseases

Low winter temperatures currently act as a climatic control on many pests and diseases that pose a risk to trees, crops, livestock, people and native wildlife. Milder, wetter winters could increase the risk from damaging pests and pathogens and higher temperatures will increase the suitability of the UK’s climate for invasive mosquito species and other pests. It is also possible that so-called ‘sleeper species’ that are not currently a problem become more invasive in future Any increase in pests, pathogens and invasive species has the potential to further threaten native wildlife already stressed by other pressures and could have serious implications for agricultural production (crops and livestock), forestry, and ecosystem services such as landscape amenity value.

The effect of climate change on trees and woodland

Trees and woodland are important sources of timber and fibre. They also provide many other ecosystem services, such as biodiversity, carbon sequestration and climate regulation, run-off control and catchment water supply, and recreation and amenity,

Tree growth and forest productivity will be substantially altered by climate change. Although cooler upland and wetter areas will have improved growth of some tree species , growth is likely to be reduced in many other locations due to increasingly severe soil water reductions, particularly on lighter soils and in the south and east of Britain.

Damage to trees and woodlands is likely to increase from pests and pathogens and from wind storms, droughts and wildfires. For example, Chalara fraxinea (ash dieback) is a new disease in the UK that was first reported in 2012, and is now present in all English counties (though the increase in global trade also facilitates the spread of pests and diseases alongside climate change). And last winter Wildfires broke out across the country as the UK experienced the highest winter temperatures ever recorded. Saddleworth Moor in West Yorkshire burned for more than 13 hours. There is also some indication of increasing damage from grey squirrels, deer and wild boar is being reported. it is likely that warmer winters and earlier springs in particular have reduced mortality and allowed larger populations to build up.

The effect of climate change on fresh water systems.

It is predicted that climate change will lead to water shortages by 2050 unless we take action to address supply, demand and storage. A significant proportion of UK water bodies do not currently meet the standard of “ good ecological status” according to the EU Water Framework Directive. Future projections of warmer, drier summers and extreme events such as droughts are very likely to increase the risk of low flows, reduced water levels and higher temperatures thereby degrading water quality even further particularly at vulnerable locations. Reduced flows and higher water temperatures increase the risk of ecosystem disruption from reduced oxygen supply, thermal stress to species, reduced dilution of harmful pollutants and increased incidence of algal blooms in water bodies.
It may be possible to increase water transfers from wetter to arid areas in order to alleviate water shortages, However, this brings an additional problem of serving as a conduit for invasive species.

Ecosystems, particularly wetlands and woodlands, regulate and filter the flow of water through vegetation and soils (interception, evapotranspiration, infiltration, drainage, conductivity). The Climate-related and human-related changes to ecosystems will therefore modify their role in buffering against extreme high flows (flood risk) and low flows

The effect of climate change on coastal ecosystems

One of the most important ecosystem services provided by Coastal habitats is through the “soft ” protection they provide . Interaction of the sea with vegetation and sediments acts as a natural buffer from flooding and erosion hazards either directly by dissipating wave energy, or indirectly through regulating sediment movements. Without this, additional stress and maintenance costs are put on hard defences.

Coastal habitats have a high biodiversity value, supporting a high number of species relative to their extent. The coastal zone is also an important location for cultural heritage, particularly archaeological sites. An estimated 28% of the combined English and Welsh coastline is currently experiencing erosion rates greater than 10 cm/year, and almost two-thirds of intertidal profiles in England and Wales have steepened over the past hundred years as a result of erosion due to the combined effect of sea-level rise and sediment depletion.

As a consequence of these changes, there have been significant losses of intertidal habitat area . Salt marsh and coastal grazing marsh is increasingly threatened by higher levels of salinity due to increased percolation and flood frequency. An 80-metre width of salt marsh has been estimated to reduce the height of seawall defence required from 12 metres to only 3 metres

Higher water temperatures, holding less dissolved oxygen and increasing acidity could result in significant changes to the base of the marine food chain, possibly with major implications for fisheries and biodiversity.

The effect of climate change on infrastructure

Increased frequency of flooding from all sources is the most significant climate change risk to UK infrastructure including energy, transport, water, waste and digital communications. Coastal infrastructure is particularly at risk from storm surges and rising sea levels, as well as higher rates of coastal erosion in some areas.. Infrastructure networks near rivers will also be increasingly at risk from projected higher flows during heavy rainfall and flood events resulting in bankside erosion.
Offshore infrastructure is vulnerable to high wind speeds, large wave heights, strong currents, fog and lightning, causing disruptions to maintenance, operations and movements of the infrastructure and personnel.

Projected changes in temperature and rainfall will place additional pressures on infrastructure. In particular affecting the rail, road, water and energy sectors. High temperatures create a risk of buckling on the rail network, cause electricity cables to sag, and road tarmac to soften and rut. Components such as signalling equipment can overheat and fail. Projected extended periods of rainfall will also increase the risk of slope and embankment failure.

Storms are the biggest risk for disruption to overhead cables which are vulnerable to lightning, wind, snow and ice damage and tree and debris related damage. increases in wind speeds experienced during storms would have significant implications for overhead power lines, disrupting energy distribution infrastructure, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) networks such as those delivering broadband to rural areas, and the rail network.

High Wind speeds effect road operations because high sided vehicles can become unstable in gusts of wind over 45mph. This is particularly significant on exposed sites such as bridges. High winds can also damage roadside furniture, such as traffic signs, and cause damage and disruption to the rail network through branches being blown on to railway tracks, blocking lines, and causing damage to trains.

A large proportion of communication is over radio links. All radio systems experience periods of unavailability due to effects of the weather. Over the last 20 years in the UK, the incidence of rain causing unavailability has increased

Co-sited cables, fibre optics, road, railway, pipe and other infrastructure – even if not physically connected but running in parallel along the same route – can amplify vulnerability as a storm, flood or landslide can simultaneously impact multiple infrastructure networks.

Alongside storm damage, Railways, ICT networks, electricity generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. The 2003 heat wave cost £2.5 million in repairs to the rail network, and after electrical power, ICT is the second most important infrastructure network for the running of the UK’s rail network.

Increases in air and water temperatures (and increasing salinity levels) can reduce the power output and thermal efficiency of steam and gas turbine-based generators as more of the electricity is required to cool the plant. Higher temperatures also reduce the efficiency of transformers.
In England and Wales, the electricity sector is responsible for approximately half of all water fresh water abstractions. This water is required for cooling the plant, so a rise in air and water temperatures will impact the efficiency of the operation When sufficient cooling functions are not possible, power station operators are required to ‘ramp down’ the generation output in order to reduce cooling demand in order to maintain safe and efficient operation or to protect the aquatic environment. This has happened in France, Germany, Spain, and the USA amongst others. It often occurs in places where electricity demand peaks in summer, when water demands are greatest or when water availability is lowest. This problem is expected to worsen with climate change.
Water cooled power stations situated on the coast or beside rivers are subject to disruption through flooding, coastal erosion, and disruptions to coastal power stations using sea water as a coolant have been reported due to water intake systems becoming clogged with seaweed and jellyfish.

All infrastructure sectors require power for some (if not all) of their assets. This includes flood protection assets such as gates and pumping stations. In addition, ICT plays a huge part in the smooth running of infrastructure . The significance of interdependencies between ICT and power systems was exposed in September 2003, when failures in the power network caused by flash-over between a conductor cable and a tree directly led to the failure of internet communication hubs, which in turn led to failure of other power stations. An estimated 56 million people were impacted, mainly in Italy and Switzerland.

Ground subsidence due to shrink–swell processes driven by cycles of drought and heavy rain can damage railway track, road surfaces and buried infrastructure including waste and water pipes gas pipelines and electricity cables, as well as some above ground assets like electricity pylons and telecommunication towers. Risks are most significant in areas where shrink–swell susceptible clay soils dominate, such as around the east of England.

Failure of key infrastructure components such as bridges, or landslides that block important transport corridors, can significantly increase travel times, and key routes might be blocked by high winds and flooding. The impacts of this disruption can be significant when emergency materials cannot be transported, or if transport access is vital to the emergency response during an extreme event. For example, in July 2007, the delivery of a temporary flood defence at Upton-on-Severn was unable to be deployed due to severe disruption to the transport infrastructure caused by surface water flooding

Dams and reservoirs would be affected during extended dry periods by desiccation and shrinkage and loss of vegetation cover. There may also be direct damage by high temperatures increasing block cracking of asphaltic concrete liners and possible cracking of concrete spillways . Water treatment infrastructure is also vulnerable to flooding, and changes in rainfall intensity with the resulting flash floods pose significant challenges for urban drainage infrastructure.

Various water treatment processes are likely to be impacted by changes in raw water quality including periods of increased concentrations of sediments, metals and dissolved organic carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. Raw water quality may also be at increased risk of contamination by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals as a result of the changing distribution of agricultural pests and diseases.

Ports and harbours have a vital economic role receiving 95% of the UK’s imports and exports as well as more than 40 million passenger journeys. Presently, extreme weather causes the most disruption to operations and climate change will increase this. Half of the UK’s port capacity is located on the east coast, where the risk of damage from a tidal surge is greatest. Sea-level rise of around or beyond 50cm by 2080 is a particular concern , especially for some ageing port infrastructure, but flooding and physical damage to harbour infrastructure will also become an increasing threat

More extreme weather events are likely to lead to oil and gas production time being lost, and wind turbines will cut out and stop producing power at speeds above 25 m/s . It has been estimated that extreme weather conditions have caused about 80% of all North Sea offshore turbines to sustain failing grouted connections, causing some turbines to tip and no longer stand vertically. Additionally, sea floor conditions such as scour and sand dune migration are often underappreciated risks,

The effect of climate change on business

Through their international supply chains, distribution networks and global markets, UK businesses are exposed to the risks of extreme weather around the world. Climate change is expected to increase the risk of weather-related disruptions, particularly for supply chains and distribution networks that involve more vulnerable countries, such as in south and south-east Asia, and in sub-Saharan Africa

Currently, the risk to businesses from flooding is high in many parts of the UK. Whilst managing flood risks will be possible and affordable in some areas, in others risks are expected to rise. Businesses reliant on infrastructure that is vulnerable to more extreme weather are also going to be impacted with increasing frequency.
Severe flooding and coastal erosion can lead to loss of coastal business locations and the infrastructure they rely on. This may affect sectors such as tourism.

Future water shortages may seriously impact water-intensive industries. Water is used by industry for cooling and heating, washing products, dissolving chemicals, suppressing dust and also as a direct input to products. Without sufficient water, production in many businesses would have to be reduced or stopped .

Higher temperatures in working environments could result in workers engaged in particular sectors or occupations, for example heavy outdoor manual labour, being put at a greater risk of heat stress.

The effect of climate change on health and well being

There is good evidence that local neighbourhood factors are an important determinant of health and quality of life These neighbourhood factors include both physical characteristics (e.g. built and natural environment) and how safe and secure people feel in that place.

Catastrophic flooding is one of the most serious risks identified in the UK Government’s National Risk Register. During the major flood events of 2007, approximately 55,000 properties were flooded, around 7,000 people were rescued by the emergency services and 13 people died. 17,000 people had to move into temporary accommodation. Nearly 2000 people were still in temporary accommodation after one year. The Social impacts of flooding include displacement from home, loss of work days, loss of school days and impacts on household income. In addition, Evidence suggests that flooding has adverse and long term effects on mental health and well-being leading to increases in common mental disorders (i.e. anxiety and depression) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There are approximately 2,000 heat-related deaths per year across the UK. The risk to health is likely to increase in the future as temperatures rise. In 2003, a heatwave in Europe killed 20,000 people. There is currently (June 2019) another heatwave that is set to sweep Europe bringing temperatures surpassing 40 degrees C and toppling temperature records across France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.

Around 20% of homes in England overheat even in the current climate. There is some evidence that the risks of overheating in hospitals, care homes, schools, prisons and offices will increase in the future.
The urban heat island effect will mean that increases in temperature are exacerbated in cities. Air quality , particularly in urban areas, is degraded by heat and increases in ground-level ozone concentrations in urban areas often occur during periods of hot and calm weather.

Extreme weather events including heat waves, flooding, and snow storms disrupt health and social care service delivery, and can damage health care infrastructure. Health services are vulnerable to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and the capacity of the system to cope with shocks could decrease given increasing pressures on the health service and local government. Modern built facilities are designed to support contemporary care models and to be thermally efficient in cold weather, but this has led to problems with overheating during heat waves, for patients and staff in hospitals and care homes.

The natural environment provides important, but often intangible, inspirational, aesthetic, educational, cognitive, spiritual, recreational and amenity benefits to people. An appreciation of wildlife in its natural setting is, for many people, a core component of the cultural benefits provided by nature. Changes in species and habitats therefore have a potential impact on the interactions between people and the natural environment. Climate change may also lead to the loss and damage of culturally important sites and structures that would have cultural and community significance. This may be particularly acute in coastal areas due to erosion and the loss of land and structures to the sea. Landscapes are often described in the context of providing a “sense of place” and have important links with human identity, health and well-being. Displacement through climate change can break up communities and family networks and have a profound affect on well-being.


1 Lowestoft Town Council declares climate emergency, Lowesoft Town Council, June 2019 (https://lowestofttowncouncil.gov.uk/news/lowestoft-town-council-declares-climate-emergency/)

2 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report, Committee on Climate Change (UK), 2017 (https://www.theccc.org.uk/tackling-climate-change/preparing-for-climate-change/uk-climate-change-risk-assessment-2017/)

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