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The world’s dirtiest secret

A Foreign Office official recently told me the world's dirtiest secret. Under his breath, he muttered to me: "I don't think we've got a cat in hell's chance of keeping the world under two degrees of global warming." As politicians and...


A Foreign Office official recently told me the world’s dirtiest secret. Under his breath, he muttered to me: “I don’t think we’ve got a cat in hell’s chance of keeping the world under two degrees of global warming.”

As politicians and diplomats gather in New York for the climate talks, more than a few of them may privately agree. Though governments have publicly committed to holding world temperature rise below two degrees, their actual pledges of action so far don’t add up. We are on track for four degrees, with emissions this past year rising faster than any year in the past three decades.

Well, enough. It’s time governments started to own up to the costs of their inaction. Climate change is hitting people now. Their failure to get a grip on the problem does not simply result in environmentalists wringing their hands. It is also having serious repercussions for the current and future health, security and wellbeing of their electorates. Meanwhile, the cost of mopping up the damage wrought by more extreme weather is already making dents in national finances.

Last winter’s floods in Britain – brought about after the wettest winter ever – have already cost the country over £1bn. Half of that has come straight out of the public purse, to repair damaged (and poorly-maintained) flood defences, give support to affected farmers and householders, and patch up ruined infrastructure. The other half has been borne by insurers and householders directly. We know from recent modelling undertaken by climate scientists that the winter floods were made 25 per cent more likely due to manmade climate change. In other words, political inaction is already hurting people and hurting public finances.

And it will get worse – much, much worse – until governments pull their fingers out to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Current Environment Agency recommendations for flood defence investment in the UK are based on the world following a medium-emissions, 2-degrees scenario. Following this alone would see us invest around £20bn between 2010 and 2035. But we’re not even meeting those recommendations: Coalition cuts have created a £500 million shortfall, endangering 250,000 extra homes. How much more will it cost to protect households from climate change if we fail to bring emissions under control? Have MPs and civil servants got any idea what it will take to ‘adapt’ the UK to the cataclysmic extremes of weather that runaway climate change will bring?

The Department of the Environment’s figures show that under a high emissions, four-degrees scenario, up to a million more people could be put at significant flood risk by the 2020s. That ought to be a sobering thought for MPs and prospective politicians: within the next one or two parliaments, a million more voters could see their homes and livelihoods threatened by climate change. The World Bank, appraising the likely horrific impacts of a four-degree temperature rise, has concluded: “4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur – the heat must be turned down.”

Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle has recently pledged to produce a new climate change adaptation plan for the UK, while a motion tabled for the Liberal Democrat conference proposes “a national resilience plan to help the UK economy… adapt to the likely impacts of a three-to-four degree global average temperature rise.”

These are welcome first steps. We need a new assessment of the risks of business-as-usual emissions, to spell out the costs of inaction and the costs of protecting people from runaway climate change.

Of course, a better course of action would be if the world leaders gathering in New York this week – and at the climate talks in Paris next December – agree on a fair, binding global deal that keeps global warming well below two degrees. We have all the technologies necessary to do this, and the huge climate demonstrations across the world this weekend show the public appetite for action. But in case politicians fail, it’s only right that they are honest with their electorates about the future they’re locking us into.

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