Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency and UK Commissioner to the Global Commission on Adaptation. Speech delivered on:31 October 2019.
Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen…
As it is Halloween, I will begin:
“It was a dark…
…and stormy night…”
As a category 1 emergency responder for flood incidents in England, dark and stormy nights are familiar to the Environment Agency.
Just this weekend, thousands of people were protected from severe flooding as a result of well targeted investment in flood schemes along the River Severn.
I visited on Monday and saw how my colleagues worked around the clock to help protect communities. They showed why we are the fourth emergency service during flood incidents.
The thesis of my speech tonight is that everyone in society…
…government, businesses, and individuals…
…needs to put the climate emergency at the heart of everything they do.
This work should not be in a box labelled “Environmental Issues”…
It should not be given a cursory 10 minutes at the Board meeting before everyone gets back to “the business of business”…
The climate crisis IS “the business of business”.
It must become a default part of our thinking.
Otherwise, the dark and stormy nights of the coming decades will not only be much scarier…
…they will have an insurmountably damaging effect on communities, nature, and the economy.
But, I am not the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – here only to conjure a nightmarish apparition of the future.
I am positive about our prospects.
I’m the Chair of the agency that looks after the environment in the green and pleasant land of:
The Lake District.
The Norfolk Broads.
The Jurassic Coast.
And, the 2019 Rugby World Cup Finalists: England.
My message today is: there’s still everything to play for.
Last week, on the northern Danish coast, a one hundred and twenty year old, seven hundred and twenty tonne lighthouse was put on skates – and moved seventy meters in land to save it from coastal erosion.
“The Lighthouse that was Rescued from the Sea” sounds like a children’s book…
…but drone footage of the vast minaret-like structure gliding slowly across sand dunes made it a global news story.
The Rubjerg region of Denmark is popular with tourists.
It was decided that the cultural and aesthetic value of this non-operational lighthouse was worth securing for another forty years.
When it comes to coastal erosion and flood planning, the priority for authorities is to protect life.
But, saving this lighthouse was not that.
It says something about the way people want to live.
When we talk about the horrors of the climate emergency…
…and Extinction Rebellion are right that we must tell The Truth about this…
…we should also think about the resilience of what we value now.
The coastline has never been static. There has always been coastal erosion. Rivers change direction.
There have always been floods and droughts in the UK.
Just as there have always been typhoons in Japan.
So, when you read an article about the latest record-breaking climate event, it often comes with a sidebar of analysis titled: “Is this climate change?”
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said we have 12 years to hold global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – and even if we do, the physical impacts – like storms and heatwaves – will increase.
The IPCC’s report is not only momentous because of what it says…
It is a towering achievement because it managed to get scientists and government officials from forty different countries to agree on a single document.
Last month, the IPCC released a new report saying that once-a-century sea level events will be annual events by 2050.
So while we can agree that such things have always happened…
We must also agree that the multiplying effect of the climate emergency means we have new questions to answer.
A farmer might overcome a few dry summers with some tactical decisions about what to plant and where…
But a long term shift in climate means fundamental changes to the business – or running the risk of ruin.
We will be able to talk about that a bit more shortly, when Sir Ian Cheshire and Sue Pritchard join me.
Sir Ian chairs the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission who – this summer – warned the climate emergency calls for a radical 10-year plan to transition to a sustainable food system, with more government support for healthy produce.
Adapting does not necessarily require new technology.
That humanity’s response to the climate emergency will involve technological breakthroughs is not in doubt.
But, a business that pins all their hopes on the R&D department is a risky investment.
Global economic losses from climate disasters are already estimated at 520 billion dollars a year.
We already have the expertise and resources to overcome many of these.
So, it is an economic and moral failure that the international community is not looking at this effort as a strategic priority.
When Greta Thunberg talks about “cathedral thinking” to avoid climate breakdown, and says we must lay the first stone without knowing exactly how to construct the ceiling… she is right.
However, we are not working blind.
We already have a lot of the infrastructure and technical expertise that we need.
Take Typhoon Hagibis for example – which I know Your Royal Highness saw first-hand.
This was one of the worst typhoons in Japanese history.
The news here focussed on the rugby matches that had to be abandoned or postponed…
But, irritating though that was, it was small beer compared with a monumental triumph of modern civic planning that reduced loss of life and allowed Japanese society to quickly get back to normal.
My own son is a journalist working in Japan and he wrote:
“Hagibis comes in the wake of the category 4 Typhoon Faxai just a month ago, which knocked out power to 60,000 homes in Chiba Prefecture, and was considered one of the most severe storms to make a direct hit on the Tokyo area. Hagibis covers an area four times the size of Faxai and is a category above. It is Faxai’s angrier cousin, and it comes for Tokyo full of rage… It is the first time in my life I’ve prepared for a weather event of this scale, but I don’t think it’ll be the last.”
Last year, I visited Japan and walked in the vast underground flood silos 165 feet under Kasukabe.
Each silo holds 13 million gallons of water and clears 7,000 cubic feet of water a second, helping to keep Tokyo’s flood risk down.