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Leader comment: Climate crisis: act or die

15 October 2021

IN THE 25 years since it was set up, the Environment Agency has got used to a predictable cycle of events: a flood happens, the agency is criticised for failing to prevent it, an official inquiry determines what ought to be done to prevent subsequent floods, another flood happens, etc. As with other government departments, each crisis is an opportunity to request more funding — though in the agency’s case, at least one inquiry concluded that its funding was “about right” but spent on the wrong things. (Executive bonuses were mentioned.) This week, however, brought a change of tack, as the agency shrugged off any pretentions to control the situation and, in expectation of the next floods, warned people that they must “adapt or die”.

The agency’s response is reminiscent of the disciples before the feeding of the five thousand. First, the problem is too big — whether the crowd of Christ’s followers, or the management of England’s rivers in the face of the climate crisis. Second, the solution is too meagre — whether the child’s lunch, or the funding granted by the Government to manage flooding, air pollution, land use, coastal risk, etc. No miracles are likely to be forthcoming, however, and the new, confrontational approach by the agency is an indication of how it views the seriousness of the threat — and the meagreness of the UK’s preparations. It is simultaneously a warning and a washing of hands: disasters will happen; don’t blame us.

The parallels with the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic are unavoidable. This week, an all-party group of MPs agreed unanimously that thousands of lives had been lost unnecessarily because of the present administration’s lack of interest in crisis planning, the fatal delays before implementing preventative measures, the unwillingness to learn from more reactive countries, and hasty decisions made at the last minute. The Government, extraordinarily, chose to argue with the MPs’ findings, and has since then simply ignored them.

It is up to the public to ensure that the same approach, with the same outcomes, is not applied to the climate crisis. Fortunately, the electorate seem more switched on than the Government, which has yet to produce its promised raft of measures to meet its carbon-reduction targets. In contrast, in a WWF poll of 22,000 voters from across the constituencies, nine out of every ten people supported a carbon tax, better integrated public transport, a reduction in meat consumption, and a nationwide electric-vehicle charging network. The policies have been proposed; the electorate has indicated its support, even to the extent of bearing extra costs; other stakeholders, from religious groups to industry and City investors, have added their promptings. Even if the Government continues to act in character, waiting until a crisis before acting, now is the time. The climate crisis is here.

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