Heating Up: The Unstable Politics of Climate Adaptation

UK Policy Net Zero

Heating Up: The Unstable Politics of Climate Adaptation

Posted on: 1st July 2021
Tim Lord
Senior Fellow | Net Zero

There is an increasingly heated debate about how we meet the costs of delivering our net zero target, from heat pumps to wind farms. But if we look across the Atlantic, where the current record-breaking heatwave is impacting different parts of society in different ways, we can see a different and equally acute political challenge: how do we meet the costs of adapting to the inevitable consequences of climate change in a fair way? And how will that challenge intersect with and exacerbate wider inequalities in our society?

The importance of climate adaptation

Adaptation – that is, the steps we need to take to adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change – has, for decades, been the poor relation of climate policy. While our global success in mitigation has been limited, it has been the subject of huge policy focus.  But adaptation is a lower profile issue for many countries – including the UK.

That relative lack of focus doesn’t make sense. We know that many of the impacts of climate change are now unavoidable. Even if we radically cut emissions from now, we are going to see more extreme weather as a result of our emissions to date. We can see from the current North American heatwave – where temperature records have been smashed in Canada and parts of the US – that this is a problem which is escalating right now.

And a world of more extreme weather will have impacts which are unevenly spread. That is true globally, but also within countries like the UK. While cutting emissions is in some senses a uniform task – a tonne saved from a private jet is the same as a tonne saved from installing heat pumps in social housing – adaptation will have radically different impacts.

What will “climate adaptation” mean for our homes?

To explore how, it’s worth thinking about what a climate adapted home – one which can provide both resilience and comfort in extreme weather – looks like.

As a minimum, it would have access to shaded outside space for cooling off, and be in good condition with good ventilation. It would likely have air conditioning, and ideally a living roof to reduce heat penetration and protect against flooding, and a battery to provide back-up power in the event of a heat-related failure of the electricity system. 

So when we boil it down, adapting a home to be climate resilient requires three things: a house with outside space; money to invest; and control over making those investments.

And that’s where the intersection with other kinds of inequality comes in.

First, outside space. 20% of people in the UK do not have access to private outside space – but the proportion is much higher among ethnic minority groups, with Black people four times more likely not to than White people.

Second, living in a house. A relatively small proportion of the UK population - around 14% - live in flats. But again, that’s not the whole story. Flat occupancy is much higher in urban areas and among people on low incomes, those who rent, those from ethnic minorities, and among groups such as single-parent families with young children.

Why does this matter? Those who live in houses are less likely to require consent from a leaseholder or other occupants before making changes to their homes. They are more likely to have outside space, adequate ventilation, and less heat exposed areas in their homes. And because those who live in high-rise flats are over 60% more likely to report overheating than those who live in houses.

Source: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/860076/2018-19_EHS_Headline_Report.pdf

Third, home ownership. Ability to make changes to one’s home is highly dependent on control over it. But while overall levels of home ownership in the UK have fallen only slightly over the last 20 years, the headline figure conceals the overall trend: younger people are now much more likely to live in rented accommodation, and less likely to own their home.

Source: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/ageing/articles/livinglonger/changesinhousingtenureovertime

And again, we see wider intersections with embedded inequality: as well as younger people, groups overrepresented in the private rented sector include people from ethnic minorities; single-parent families; and those on low incomes.

Finally, income. Again, the interactions with wider inequality are clear: those in the private rented sector both have lower household income, and spend significantly more of their income on housing costs, leaving less for savings and other investments. So even if allowed to make changes to their property to adapt it for climate change, they are less likely to have the means to do so.

So the interlinkages between climate adaptation and wider inequalities are clear.  If you are young, , are from an ethnic minority, a single parent, on a low income, or live in an urban area, you are much less likely to have the type of housing, control over your property, and disposable income to be able to afford to adapt your home to address climate change. And that’s before we even consider the wider inequalities which a failure to adapt to climate change is already creating – for example of flood risk for those who live on flood plains, who face disruption and potentially being unable to insure their homes.

So what next?

We are right to worry about meeting the costs of cutting emissions in a fair way. But we are, so far, radically underestimating the fairness impacts of climate adaptation. 

It’s hard to predict how the politics of that will play out. But a world where the impacts of climate change are concentrated, not just globally but within the UK, on those who are least responsible for emissions is unlikely to be a comfortable ride. We need to stop thinking of adaptation as the poor relation of climate policy, and start thinking now about how we meet its costs in a fair way – or the wave of anger it will unleash could surprise us.

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