Ed Miliband is right – climate change is a national threat, and it requires action

Why we need a long-term plan to protect the country from climate change – and to right the wrong of the injustice it causes.

Katharine Knox is policy and research manager for climate change at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

As Britain faces yet more flooding, the political parties are finally waking up to the potentially debilitating threat of climate change. On Sunday Ed Miliband said it is an issue of national security, while the prime minister has spoken of ‘learning lessons’ and promised £5,000 giveaways to improve home and business resilience to floods.

His ‘money no object’ pledge in response to the current crisis is telling. It’s welcome that support for much needed housing resilience improvement measures, which will go some way to reducing the risk to households in flood prone areas.

But attention must turn to the bigger picture: a national resilience plan to flooding in the face of increasing extreme weather due to climate change.

While these short-term funds are welcome, long-term solutions are also critical. The Water Bill currently before Parliament is an important policy intervention.

It will introduce Flood Re, a means to support the provision of affordable insurance for households at high risk of flooding. A small amount of premiums from all households’ insurance bills will be pooled and used to ensure that premiums can remain affordable for those unfortunate enough to now face enormous bills because they live in places at high risk of flooding. Up to 500,000 households may be affected.

The continuing deluge raises questions about how we can develop flood resilience and how these measures need to be targeted. If climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather, including flooding, as scientists suggest, then there needs to be a clearer political imperative given to developing national responses to climate change.

While a national adaptation programme exists, staff at Defra have been cut, and now the Environment Agency face job losses. The recent weather indicates a change of approach is needed, particularly when the Adaptation Sub Committee suggests a massive shortfall in flood defence funding.

As a new report for JRF points out, climate change and policy responses to it represent a ‘quadruple injustice’, whereby certain groups, usually on low incomes, are impacted most be climate change; contribute the least to causing it; pay, as a proportion of income, the most towards implementation of particular policy responses and benefit least from those policies’.

Responding to climate change provides an opportunity to redress this imbalance: taking a more socially just approach is an opportunity to increase resilience across communities while reducing the impacts of climate change for the most vulnerable.

But who is most vulnerable?

JRF understands vulnerability as a term that relates to the interplay of different factors such as age, income, health, exposure through the built environment and location, all of which affect a household’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the impacts of climate change.

These can be older people, people in low incomes and tenants of private or social housing. Indeed the combination of an ageing population and increasing risk of severe flooding presents a serious challenge to policymakers to target vulnerable groups in efforts to adapt to flood risks and climate change, particularly in deprived coastal areas.

Part of the problem with current policy responses to climate change is that they are implemented independently from other policies that seek to tackle issues such of poverty, disadvantage and vulnerability. This leaves a gap in understanding of which people and places are likely to face most risk from flooding and extreme weather events.

This is gap is extremely unhelpful, and potentially dangerous. To truly improve resilience, the government must do more than consider the geography of flood risk, as well as social vulnerability.

Only then can we have a fair response to the injustice of climate change, and protect ourselves from its damaging effects.

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