By Professor Richard Dawson
Storm Arwen is the most recent in a long list of damaging weather events over the last decade. Again, we saw that our infrastructure services are already vulnerable to substantial damage and disruption from extreme weather. The headlines focused on the time it took to restore lights and power. But it was worse than that; transport was disrupted by snow and fallen trees, taps dried up, and some locations lost landline and mobile phone communications – the latter from switching off old copper landlines.
This very much echoed concerns raised in our most recent Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk (CCRA3) and our 2021 Progress Report to Parliament which showed that we don’t have a plan for such cascading failures. Moreover, as we increasingly digitise and electrify our infrastructure, these risks will increase further if we don’t address them strategically.
This week I was invited to contribute oral evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy inquiry into critical national infrastructure and climate adaptation. As I prepared for this it became clear to me that our security strategy must embed climate adaptation throughout. Moreover, it has to go beyond a simple recognition that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather is increasing.
Make full use of the Adaptation Reporting Power
The UK Climate Change Act gives the Secretary of State for Defra the power to direct organisations to assess climate risks and report on what they are doing to adapt to climate change. The sectors with more robust regulation and reporting requirements are making more progress with respect to their adaptation to climate-related risks. However, in recent years reporting has become voluntary and there are gaps in the organisations being invited to report, leading to a patchy understanding of the climate risks facing the UK’s critical national infrastructure. For example, the move to consolidate findings into sectoral reports has meant that no individual broadband or mobile phone operator has reported to government recently. Neither have many port operators who are so crucial to ensuring continuity of supply chains, nor the owners or the Toddbrook Reservoir in Whaley Bridge, which partially collapsed in August 2019, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate. It may be prudent to extend reporting to some local organisations who play such a crucial role in the provision of infrastructure services and emergency response. In the context of national security, the continuity of infrastructure services and supply chains is crucial. Full use of the existing legislation on adaptation reporting gives us the opportunity to understand how well risks are being managed.
Leadership to manage complex and long-term risks
Our 2021 Progress Report to Parliament showed how responsibility for climate risk is spread across UK government departments. Although Defra leads development of the National Adaptation Programme for England, they do not own the risks to critical national infrastructure. The UK government’s central risk register, managed by the Cabinet Office, focuses on incidents rather than long-term risks. There is a disconnect between managing the long- and short-term risks. Moreover, no department or minister currently has explicit responsibility for the management of infrastructure interdependencies and the cascading failures seen in Arwen or the 2019 lightning strike which accompanied a powerful electrical storm on one of the year’s hottest nights.
The government has a responsibility to systematically look at longer-term, more extreme and unexpected threats, which individuals or individual organisations are unable to think about or address. Government has to look at how critical national infrastructure systems function, what the vulnerabilities are within those systems, stress test them against the threats to which they might be exposed and identify proportionate actions to manage those risks. Establishing an Office for Strategic Risk and Resilience in the Cabinet Office would be one way of achieving this.
Give existing policies real teeth
The number of critical infrastructure sectors and climate risks can sound complex, but we have already developed several useful tools to help manage long-term climate risks. Examples include the Thames Estuary 2100 plan to manage flood risk to London and the Thames Estuary, and Shoreline Management Plans, which cover England, Wales and some of Scotland. These bring together lots of stakeholders to develop a long-term strategy to manage climate risks to people, the economy and environment in the coastal zone. However, they are not statutory; local government, and other important owners are therefore able to ignore their recommendations. The current disjoint between risk management, planning and development is not just limited to coastal areas and is locking-in climate risks to our built environment and critical national infrastructure.
Proactive prevention and preparation, not reaction and reconstruction
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of preparation and prevention – the same is true of climate risk. The latest UK and international scientific assessments show that the frequency and intensity of climate hazards are increasing. Our policies, regulation and practice must therefore be strengthened to embed climate adaptation throughout to tackle emerging risks from critical infrastructure interdependencies and to avoid locking-in vulnerabilities to our national security.