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Victorian values needed to tackle climate change risk

“Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems.” That is the opening sentence of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Summary for Policymakers, published this week alongside its Fifth Assessment Report.

It’s a difficult document to draw conclusions from. So many of its findings are couched in scientific caveat. “Future risks from a changing climate depend strongly on the amount of future climate change,” is one observation.

And then there is the detail - more than 2,000 scientists contributed to the report and it feels like there are a 1,000 words from each and every one of them. Frankly, it’s information overload.

But the overall conclusion is surely sound: the risks are growing and adaptation can play a key role in reducing them. But as Chris Field, co-chair of the working group that produced the IPCC report notes, although adaptation is now starting to occur, this is generally with a stronger focus on reacting to past events than on preparing for a changing future.

“Climate change adaptation is not an exotic agenda that has never been tried,” he notes. “Governments, firms, and communities around the world are building experience with adaptation. This experience forms a starting point for bolder, more ambitious adaptations that will be important as the climate continues to change.”

It’s an interesting point, and more than a touch ironic, coinciding with the start of work to mitigate flood risk in Somerset by dredging a 200m section of the River Parrett. OK, this is ahead of a fuller 8km dredge, and as an immediate, short-term action it may have some merit.

But it’s still not exactly “ambitious adaptation”. And the debate needed just to get that far highlights the difficulty of getting consensus on issues around climate change mitigation.

Many of you will simply refute the IPCC’s findings. There will be others - a bit like me - who just find it all a bit too hard.

But we must not be daunted. The global population is growing, and it’s getting more and more urbanised. The IPCC report is clear that the risks of climate change are now concentrated in urban areas, and that these risks are amplified for those lacking essential infrastructure or living in poor quality housing.

Only engineers are going to solve the problems. But to do that we need to be bold and visionary and to find our swagger of old. As London mayor Boris Johnson said last week, we lack the confidence of our Victorian predecessors. “In terms of optimism and the willingness to try new things I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” he said. “Think of Brunel, think of Stephenson - think of the brilliance of those engineers, their optimism, their can-do spirit.”

We need that spirit now.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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