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Act now to protect vulnerable people from climate change

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This soggy summer has already highlighted the lack of protection for the most vulnerable people in the face of extreme weather – and the Environment Agency suggests the flooding has not ended yet. 

At least 3,000 homes have been flooded this summer and insured losses alone are estimated at £200-£300million.Some towns have experienced three floods in succession, leaving residents facing huge costs.

As the Met Office examines the possible role of climate change in the UK’s wet summer, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published a report that shows there is a long way to go before the needs of vulnerable people are addressed in local authorities’ plans to adapt to climate change.

The report suggests that for climate change adaptation responses to be ‘socially just’, we need to:

  • Understand who is vulnerable to the effects of climate change (including flooding and heatwaves);
  • Look at the social factors that affect people’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from the impacts of climate change, such as their income and social networks;
  • Involve them in developing responses that meet their needs.  

The research showed a significant variety in the 35 local authority adaptation plans it reviewed. There were few examples of direct action. The actions that were identified focused largely on water and drainage management, reflecting that flooding is one of the main impacts we need to prepare for.

However, drought and heatwave responses also need to be part of the picture. Long-term water management will be critical – we have had the wettest three months on record following the driest 14 months.

New developments built for solar gain will need to ensure that they do not leave their users uncomfortably warm as temperatures increase.  Previous research has highlighted how older people in care homes may be particularly prone to overheating. Measures to ensure cooling and shading will be important, not only indoors but also through the provision of parks and green spaces, which councils should be considering in developing green infrastructure.

It is critical that vulnerable groups are at the heart of adaptation responses. However, as flood defence expenditure dwindles and town halls suffer public spending cuts, there really needs to be more support from government to ensure that the adaptation agenda is not ignored.

We are still awaiting details of future flood insurance policy, which we believe must remain affordable to high-risk households, many of whom will be on low incomes.


What’s the scale of the challenge?

We need to ensure that local adaptation to climate change is given a push now so that momentum is not lost just as more extreme weather kicks in.

The Town and Country Planning Association suggests we need to completely rethink our strategic response to climate change. The National Adaptation Programme needs to give clear direction on social justice expectations, and to support and enable effective local responses.

Recent emissions and climate impacts are above the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case scenarios, and we face a 4-degree temperature increase by 2050-70.

It’s time for action to ensure we are resilient in the face of climate change.

Katharine Knox is Programme Manager for Place at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She manages the Foundation’s social justice and climate change work.

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