The government must “get a grip” on “major national security risks” posed by the impacts of the worsening climate crisis on many areas of critical national infrastructure, a cross-party committee of MPs and peers has said.
The joint committee on the national security strategy has warned that the UK’s lack of preparedness for future climate-influenced events means essential infrastructure such as power, water, transport and communications are all vulnerable.
The committee, chaired by Labour MP Dame Margaret Beckett, said there was overwhelming evidence that the environment emergency is already having an impact on UK infrastructure.
It is also clear, the committee said, that no minister has been taking responsibility for adapting UK infrastructure to deal with the impacts of the climate crisis.
Their report suggests that this “reveals an extreme weakness at the centre of government”.
The document cites recent examples of the effects of severe weather in what they described as “a damning report”.
These effects include:
- The deaths of three people from a train derailment in Scotland, after heavy rain in August 2020
- Almost a million people losing power, some for extended periods of time, after high winds brought down power lines in North East England and Scotland during Storm Arwen in November 2021
- The failure of railway drainage systems that nearly caused the National Blood Bank in Bristol to flood.
The committee also pointed out that one of their evidence sessions was taken during the heatwave of July 2022, when temperatures peaked at 40.3C.
Dame Margaret said: “There are plenty of examples of the extremely serious impact that climate change has already had on our critical national infrastructure. And there are bound to be more in the future – almost certainly more serious still.
“But the thing I find most disturbing is the lack of evidence that anyone in government is focusing on how all the impacts can come together, creating cascading crises. There are simply no ministers with focused responsibility for making sure that our infrastructure is resilient to extreme weather and other effects of climate change.”
The committee criticised the self-described “minister for infrastructure resilience” in Boris Johnson’s administration – the then cabinet office minister Michael Ellis – of a “severe dereliction of duty” for refusing to testify before them.
The committee has been gathering evidence for its inquiry for the past year, and warned that even more severe weather – and consequent impacts – will be prevalent soon.
They highlighted how high temperatures can cause electricity cables to sag and roads to soften and rut. Flooding is expected to be more severe, they said, and the consequent failure of railway embankments more frequent.
The dependence of other infrastructure sectors on electricity – partly a consequence of the transition to net zero – “creates further vulnerabilities”, the committee said.
Dame Margaret said: “Storm Arwen showed how quickly the effects of a power shutdown can impact on other sectors. People were left without any access to their landline phones after the storms, and unable even to call emergency services in areas with a poor mobile signal. These cascading crises are a major danger to the functioning of the UK economy, and to society – that’s why this is a serious risk to national security.
“Events such as Storm Arwen and the summer heatwave are going to happen more and more often. We heard just last week that the UK may face blackouts early next year if we lose further gas supplies from Europe. The new prime minister must pull all the strands of government together to mitigate against potential disasters, including climate change impacts.”
She added: “This government must finally recognise that prevention is better than cure and move on from their dangerously reactive approach to risk management.”
The Independent has contacted the government for comment.