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This heatwave shows why government needs a climate adaptation plan

The record-breaking heatwave shows why adapting to rising temperatures should be a key priority for the new government

The record-breaking heatwave shows why adapting to rising temperatures should be a key priority for the new government, says Rosa Hodgkin 

This week temperatures are forecast to hit 40C in parts of England, well above the highest previously recorded – 38.7C in Cambridge in 2019. The Met Office has issued its first ever red extreme heat warning, indicating a danger to life. Some schools will be closing earlier. Some businesses have told staff to work from home, and some rail lines will be running at slower speeds – LNER is suspending services entirely for the hottest time of the day.  

But as the Conservative leadership continues to play out, the question of how the UK adapts to the changing climate has not surfaced. There has been some discussion of climate change mitigation and how far the candidates will commit to the government’s net zero target, but not one mention of how they would prepare the UK to cope with the impacts of climate change that are already baked in, whether we hit net zero or not.  

Until now the UK has felt relatively insulated from the more extreme impacts of the climate crisis felt elsewhere, but its climate is changing – the Climate Change Committee (CCC) reported last year that the UK’s average land temperatures have risen by around 1.2C from pre-industrial levels, UK sea levels have risen by 16cm since 1900 and episodes of extreme heat are becoming more frequent. And these changes are having real impacts on people’s lives: over 4,000 heat-related deaths have been recorded in England since 2018. But successive governments have done little to respond. Whoever succeeds Boris Johnson will need to come up with a proper plan of action. 

Governments have failed to focus on adaptation 

While the UK has made progress when it comes to reducing emissions – with ambitious net zero targets and progress in the power sector and on electric vehicles, in particular – the CCC has described adaptation as the “Cinderella of climate change”, under-resourced and often ignored. It reported last year that the gap between climate risk and the level of adaptation underway had widened over the five years since its previous report.[1]  

Governments have invested significant amounts in flood defences, with £5.2bn earmarked for flooding and coastal erosion between 2021 and 2027, but as the current weather shows this is not the only risk the UK faces.[2] Rising temperatures could seriously hit health, wellbeing and productivity, while natural habitats, soil health, agriculture and the power system are all also at risk from potential changes in climate.  

The longer action is delayed, the higher the costs will be 

Covid has shown the potential costs of failing to prepare – as a new IfG report will set out, governments have consistently struggled to prioritise long-term risks. This is just as true for climate change as it proved for a pandemic. The CCC forecasts that in the absence of further adaptation the number of climate risks with annual impacts costing billions of pounds is likely to triple by the 2080s, even if warming is limited to 2C. Estimated future costs from climate change over the next century are already higher now than they were five or ten years ago, and the UK is currently poorly prepared for many of the consequences of a changing climate. Energy, water and transport providers are struggling to take account of climate-related risks and since 2017 over 570,000 new homes have been built in England that are not resilient to future high temperatures.[3

However, effective adaptation measures are available, and could lead to large reductions in damages as well as co-benefits to health, the environment and the economy. Estimates suggest that for many adaptation actions benefits would substantially outweigh costs.[4]  

When it comes to extreme heat, building regulations could be updated to mandate designs that are warm in winter and cool in summer, while other policies could look at measures like better shading, green cover and reflective surfaces. Failing to act now will mean building new homes that are not prepared for the future climate, creating unnecessary retrofitting costs and potentially leaving some homes uninhabitable in future.[5

The incoming government needs to make adaptation a priority 

The Johnson government published its Climate Change Risk Assessment in January 2022, but while this set out key risks, it did not set out a plan for adapting to them.[6] The next administration should make it a priority to develop a comprehensive plan for the coming changes in climate and protect the most vulnerable, as well as looking at how to integrate consideration of adaptation into policy making, both around climate and more widely.  

Coming out of the pandemic, the UK needs to overhaul the way it prepares for long-term risks. This heatwave could cause serious harm but it will pass in a few days. We ought to have a better plan in place in time for the next one.  


Climate change
Johnson government
Institute for Government

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