Climate Change is about adapting as well as cutting carbon

Natural processes have changed our climate throughout Earth’s history. But the changes we are experiencing now – with eleven of the planet’s warmest years since 1850 all occurring since 1995 – represent the preliminary results of an unprecedented global experiment that mankind has been conducting since the industrial revolution. Even if, as a species, we took the concerted actions needed to halt that experiment today, the results must continue to roll in for many decades to come.

The slow mixing and feedback of the greenhouse gases we have already released and the inertia of the planetary climate system mean that we are committed to at least 40 years of increasing climate change. We are locked into the laboratory. That fact merely underlines the urgent need for radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions right now, to head off a climate catastrophe in the second half of this century. But it also means that we need to face up to the more immediate changes that we cannot now avoid.

This article introduces the issues from the perspective of new guidance to adapting our homes to be resilient to the changing climate.

The science has been developed, tested, refined, debated and explained repeatedly so that none of us can claim to be unaware that carbon released from the burning of coal, oil and gas – as well as other gases from land use and industry – has been steadily accumulating in our atmosphere to warm the air, land, sea and ice.

The 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the most authoritative and meticulous piecing together and assessment of scientific knowledge ever seen on the topic – concluded that the world will see an average temperature increase of between 1.1°C and 6.4°C over the lifetime of many born at the start of this century – with the best estimates at between 1.8°C and 4.0°C. Even at the very lowest end of the ‘best estimate’ range, this will be more than two and a half times the 0.7°C rise we saw over the 20th century; and, at the upper end, the global temperature rise will be comparable to the dramatic shift at the end of an ice age. But we are already out of the ice age – and have been for all of the 10,000 years or so of human civilisation.

So, we are moving into uncharted territory and, to mix metaphors, will be building on decidedly shaky foundations if we choose to ignore the simple fact that the future will be different to the past – or to bank on the temperature rise being limited to ‘just’ one or two degrees. Even if the change were large enough to cause the Gulf Stream to switch off completely (and the best science says this becomes a significant risk with increasing carbon emissions into the 22nd century, but not sooner), the local cooling for the western parts of the British Isles would be far outweighed by the increasing temperatures from the global heating.

This realisation – that unprecedented change is already in play and is unavoidable for at least 40 years – has fundamental implications for how we manage the impacts on our natural environment, our economy and our public services. It will determine how (not whether) we make the urgent transition to local, national and global systems that do not (cannot) depend on cheap and plentiful oil and avoid pitching our atmosphere, land and oceans beyond the irreversible tipping points which science is beginning to reveal.

This has direct impacts on something much closer to home – how we design, build or renovate our houses, workplaces and public buildings: buildings that should be able to stand up and function for sixty to a hundred years or more, given the conditions we expect over their lifetime.

Our built environment needs to deliver on two immediate priorities: sustainable and low carbon on one hand and “fit for purpose,” climate resilience on the other. In reality, of course, these are merely two faces of the same imperative: to see our economy, society and environment as closely linked parts of one system, where actions always have consequences and feedback. Nothing could be more wasteful of resources and damaging to the environment than constantly having to scrap or patch up poorly designed and constructed buildings as we belatedly face up to the increasing temperatures, wind speeds, rain penetration, land slippage, erosion and flooding which we should be planning for now.

The South West Climate Impacts Partnership published “Warming to the Idea”, its assessment of how climate change could impact on our region in 2003. Drawing on the work of the UK Climate Impacts Programme and the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research – one of the world’s premier centres of scientific expertise, based in Exeter – SWCCIP concluded that we should be planning to adapt to unavoidable impacts. By the 2050s, these include: much drier (15% – 30%) and hotter (1.5°C – 3.5°C) summers, with drier soils; and much wetter (5% – 15%) and warmer (1.0°C – 2.0°C) winters – with heavier rainfall, more frequent storms and stronger wind speeds. These and other climate changes, such as flooding, have implications for buildings and insurance.

SWCCIP exists to investigate, inform and advise on the impacts of climate change in South West England, to influence the strategies and plans of key partners and stakeholders and, through dialogue and research with priority sectors, develop and share practical adaptation strategies which respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by these impacts. With sector groups working on housing and construction as well as farming, biodiversity, business, local government and tourism, the partnership has a network of over 500 organisations.

The Hadley Centre, UKCIP and partnerships such as SWCCIP are helping to develop the tools we need to plan for adaptation. Following the most recent IPCC assessment at the global level, the next set of UK guidance comes later this year, with a new set of UK 21st Century Climate Change Scenarios (also known as UKCIP08). The fifth generation of national scenarios, UKCIP08 will describe how our climate is expected to change at national and regional scales over the rest of this century – and in far more detail than the current UKCIP02 scenarios. The suite of UKCIP tools allow planners and other decision makers in the public, private and non-profit sectors to gauge how the factors that are most important to them will be impacted by changing climate variables – and how to build this knowledge into their plans and investments.

Much of the work of regional partnerships, UKCIP and national research initiatives has focused on specific sectors of the economy. The built environment, for example, has been the subject of the Building Knowledge for a Changing Climate project, Adaptation by Design guidance from the Town and Country Planning Association – and a series of projects from the Three Regions Climate Change Group.

Although the work of TRCCG focuses on the south eastern areas of England, its findings and recommendations are highly relevant across the UK and have been endorsed by other regional partnerships, including SWCCIP, and UKCIP. The first study, in 2005, devised a simple checklist and guidance for design teams to use in new build projects, addressing the location and site layout of the building, its structure, ventilation and cooling, drainage and water services and the outdoor spaces and connectivity. A case study companion followed in 2007, giving examples of good adaptation practice from the UK and abroad. And earlier this year, the group published new guidance to ensure good climate resilience among existing housing stock. The Your home in a changing climate report shows that it is possible and cost effective to improve our existing housing stock’s resilience to climate change and that mitigation (low carbon) and adaptation (climate resilience) can be successfully integrated. Fundamental to this will be developing the skill set among housing professionals, so that adaptation opportunities can be identified and designed in or retrofitted in at the earliest opportunity.

The document can be downloaded from the TRCCG website, which also provides case studies showing how to retrofit a typical home, flat and block of flats to cope with some of the expected impacts of climate change.

With this wealth of guidance and the acceptance that change is both inevitable and manageable, the time has never been better – or more pressing – for us ensure that our buildings remain fit for purpose in a new climate while making deep cuts in the carbon emissions that threaten even greater change further down the line.


Author: Mark Goldthorpe has been working in sustainable development and climate change for 15 years, including developing and managing environmental business services for the Environment Centre in Southampton ( and the policy, guidance, training and stakeholder engagement programmes of the South East Climate Change Partnership ( He is currently Climate Change Masters Co-ordinator at the University of Exeter, based in the Department of Geography on the Tremough campus in Cornwall (

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