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Adapting to climate change

Dealing with the consequences of climate change is “adaptation”, for example modifying our buildings so they remain cool during the hotter summers that climate change will bring.

Dealing with the causes of climate change is known as “mitigation”, for example modifying our buildings so they are energy efficient and emit less carbon.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) leads the government’s climate change mitigation policy. Defra has a role in mitigation through its influence over certain important sectors of the economy. For more information visit the DECC website.

Defra leads on domestic adaptation policy, which is the focus of these pages. For information on international adaptation visit see the What is the government doing? page.

How do we prepare for a changing climate?

The Earth’s climate is changing, and these differences in global temperatures are already altering weather patterns, causing sea levels to rise and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather.

Even if emissions stop today, our past emissions mean changes to the climate will continue for the next 30-40 years.

Altering our behaviour to respond to these impacts of climate change is known as ‘adaptation’. It means not only protecting against negative impacts, but also making us better able to take advantage of any benefits.

Details of how the climate might change and the implications these changes may have are explained elsewhere on this site. In summary, the UK will see hotter and drier summers and warmer and wetter winters. We will also see more extreme weather events, including heavy rain bursts (increasing flooding risk) and heatwaves (increasing the risk of droughts and public health issues).

The earlier we start adapting, the less it will cost and the better equipped we will be to cope with these and other potential changes. Successful forward planning – not just responding to emergency situations – will save lives and money. A wide range of advice is available to help individuals and organisations adapt to the changing climate.

“Future Worlds” images (PDF 3 MB) is a set of images showing potential ways to adapt to climate change in both urban and natural environments, based on our understanding of what the climate will be like in 2030.

Risks and responses

Adapting to climate change is a process. It needs to be built into our normal planning and risk management procedures, whether in business, government or elsewhere. That way we can make sustainable adaptation decisions at the right time to maximise the benefits and minimise costs.

A particular change in climate can have a very different effect on different people and places, leading to different risk levels. For example:

  • high temperatures could cause damage to some road surfaces, but not to others due to the different melting point of the material used, and whether the road is mostly in shade due to roadside trees
  • the significance of the impact will then depend on whether it is a country road without much traffic, or a major urban trunk road

Successful adaptation would give us the capacity to reduce any disruption and deal with the remaining consequences.

In practice, there will often be a number of different possible options available to a particular organisation at any time. The choice will depend on the costs and benefits of different options, the attitude to risk of the organisation and the information that is available to it.

A wide range of help and advice is available to assist individuals and organisations consider the options and reach a decision.

The bigger picture

Decisions are being made now with long-term consequences.

Last year, 118,000 houses were built; there was £48bn central government capital spending; and Network Rail announced £34bn of spending over the next 5 years. Demand for investment in economic infrastructure in the UK is expected to be in the range of £40-50 billion until at least 2030.

We need to ensure that large investments take account of future risks from climate change. Options need to be considered carefully as there could be negative knock-on effects that are not immediately obvious which could have a wider impact.

Our natural environment provides clean air, clean water, food, recreation and stores carbon – so it is essential that we improve its resilience to future change.

Glossary of key terms

Confused by the terminology? Our glossary (PDF 20 KB) should help make things clearer.

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If you can’t find the information you’re looking for, or to offer comments and suggestions, please contact us at acc.mailbox@defra.gsi.gov.uk.

Page last modified: 7 December 2010