Warming warning - A snapshot on climate change in the UK

Thursday 23 January 2020

Climate change is firmly on society’s agenda and in the news. At the start of a new decade we gather a few of the latest stats and facts on the evidence of increased warming, and possible impacts on life in the UK.

Changing climate on record

Just looking at the weather in December 2019 gives us an indication of the way climate change may be influencing seasonal trends.

The Met Office reported that:

  • The provisional UK mean temperature was 5.1°C. That is 1.3°C above the 1981-2010 long-term average.
  • Mean maximum temperatures were mostly around 1°C above average, but nearer 2°C above in parts of the South East. Mean minimum temperatures were around 1°C above average for most areas, but up to 2°C above average in much of Scotland and Northern England.
  • Rainfall was 116% of average. It was a very wet month for East Anglia and Southern England with a few places getting close to double the average rainfall. It was wet over central and Western Scotland also.

How does December 2019 compare with annual and decade long trends?

The Met Office confirms that climate change is causing warming across the UK. All of the UK's ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2002. Heatwaves, like that of summer 2018, are now 30 times more likely to happen due to climate change. The decade 2010 to 2019 holds eight high UK temperature records, compared with only one low-temperature record.

Dr Mark McCarthy, head of the National Climate Information Centre, said: “It is notable how many of these extreme records have been set in the most recent decade and how many more of them are reflecting high rather than low-temperature extremes: a consequence of our warming climate.”

Effects of climate change in the UK

  • UK winters are projected to become warmer and wetter on average, although cold or dry winters will still occur sometimes.
  • Summers are projected to become hotter and are more likely to be drier, although wetter summers are also possible.
  • By 2050, heatwaves like that seen in 2019 are expected to happen every other year.
  • Heavy rainfall is also more likely. Since 1998, the UK has seen seven of the ten wettest years on record. The winter storms in 2015 were at least 40% more likely because of climate change.
  • Sea levels around the UK will keep rising beyond 2100, even with a reduction in carbon. Parts of the UK will be in danger of flooding, with low lying and coastal cities at particular risk.

What are the projected impacts on life in the UK?

The Committee on Climate Change’s risk assessment, published in July 2016, emphasised that: ‘the impacts of climate change are already being felt in the UK’. These are: flooding, heat, drought, natural capital risks, food and pests.

Floods, storms, and extreme heat damage buildings, highways and rail disrupting transport, preventing commerce and provision of services, and affecting health and care. Buildings and infrastructure need to be adapted to cope with the new conditions. Businesses and organisations need to plan operations and investment around a changing climate.

Regardless of the implications of weather events related to our changing climate, there will be societal shifts across countries and continents. Many parts of the world will become more challenging places to live and some will become impossible, with increased desertification and permanent flooding of inhabited land masses. Emigration will be a response, which could lead to deprivation, starvation, increased pressure on public services in landing countries, and ultimately, civil unrest and even war.

Response to climate change preparedness

According to PwC’s 23rd annual CEO Survey of UK CEOs (published January 2020), 64% of UK CEOs believe climate change is a threat to their organisations, with a quarter being extremely concerned about the issue. This figure has trippled from 2016 levels, when only seven per cent of UK CEOs were extremely concerned.

UK CEOs admit they have more to do. Despite the shift to a carbon neutral economy, only 57% of UK organisations have assessed potential transition risks and only 48% have assessed potential physical risks associated with climate change.

In October 2019 the Committee on Climate Change Chief Executive, Chris Stark, said: “The country remains unprepared for even a two degree rise in global temperature."

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