The United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) has put climate justice at the centre of the news agenda for a fortnight, but for UNISON members working at the Environment Agency, adapting to climate changes in the UK is part of their job, every single day.
Jackie Hamer is a senior environment officer at the Environment Agency, where she’s worked for 30 years. Over this time, she has seen how conversations on climate change have rapidly evolved.
“When I first started doing this job, people hardly talked about climate change. It wasn’t a factor because it just wasn’t in the headlines. Now, we’ve all had to start thinking ahead so much more about what climate change will bring.
“We know that, in this country, we’re going to get more severe storms, so we’ve got the likelihood of more flooding than we’ve experienced to date, and more drought as well. The two are related, because when you get more storms, the rain just washes out to sea without having a chance to sink into the ground and reach the aquifers underneath the soil.”
Ms Hamer explains that water that sinks into the ground produces clean, good quality water that’s then treated for millions of people to drink, “but if rain is washing off the ground due to storms, we can ironically end up with water shortages.”
Then there’s the question of managing water resources. “The water companies extract huge amounts of water for drinking water supply, and we have industries and agriculture abstracting water for processes, cooling and irrigation: so how do we balance these demands, whilst keeping enough in the rivers to maintain healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life?”
Ms Hamer (pictured above) describes how the Environment Agency is always thinking about the future, including flood forecasting and building defences.
“You can’t just go along with a lot of short-term targets like we used to do, we have to think really far ahead. Our old certainties aren’t certainties any more”. She says that many of the UK’s flood defences, built even relatively recently, are no longer fit for purpose.
“We used to plan for severe storms to happen once every 200 years, but now we’re getting severe storms three times in a decade. Floods have done enormous damage and some communities have been flooded repeatedly, and they just manage to get themselves together again before another flood comes along.”
While the agency is planning for how communities in the UK can adapt to more severe weather, global politicians are currently in talks about how to prevent the worst consequences of climate change coming into effect. Ms Hamer doesn’t have much confidence in world leaders’ political will or intention to take any meaningful action on the climate.
“There’s a lot of talking the talk, but who is going to pay for these huge changes? The private sector just wants to make some money while avoiding the risk, and governments haven’t got the bottle to do what they say they will.
“We’ve struggled to make any progress up until now, so why would anything change? There were promises made at COP in 2015 which signatories have totally failed to deliver. We’re trying to move political mountains – if it was easy, we would have done it by now.”
Political will and public investment
UNISON’s new report into greening the public sector found evidence to show that central government needs to invest £140 billion up to 2035 in order to fund the urgent actions needed to meet those ambitions and decarbonise services. At present, it has committed just £8.2 billion towards such measures, a meagre 7% of what is needed.
Unsurprisingly, the Environment Agency is also critically underfunded by Westminster. Ms Hamer observed: “Climate change is driving extra work for us, but the government aren’t funding us properly. We’re not funded properly to maintain the flood assets that we have, and we’re not funded to attend all of the pollution incidents that we need to.
“For example, accidental spillages of toxic waste that end up in rivers. There’s a lot of pressure on the agency to respond to everything, but we physically can’t.”
She cites several situation in the last few years of huge waste fires, where massive tyre stores ignite and then the fire brigade spends days trying to dampen it all down. Water is being used to fight the fire, and then that water, full of toxic chemicals from the burning tyres, ends up in a river somewhere.
“The agency is not adequately funded to deal with that. We’re having to pull back from attending incidents that we would have attended in the past.”
‘We have to own our part in this’
Ms Hamer believes that dealing with the climate crisis will demand that we change the way we treat our environments and own the problems that we cause rather than putting them out of sight and out of mind.
“So much of the environment is inextricably intertwined and interconnected. That means you have to work together – we have to work smarter, network, work with other partners. Everyone has to work together, and we have to own our part in this by recalibrating the way we live.”
Given that the UK is headed towards the simultaneous challenges of flooding and water shortages, everyone will need to change the ways they relate to water and waste on a daily basis.
“Right now in the UK, water is very plentiful,” notes Ms Hamer. “People treat it as though it’s a limitless resource, but if there’s one thing that climate change will tell us, it isn’t.
“People can be very profligate with water, and it’s going to become more of a precious resource. Nobody’s saying we’ll go back to Dickensian living conditions, but we can all be aware of how much water we’re using.
“Ask yourself: do you really need to wash your car twice a week? Do you need to water your lawn every day in summer? Is a bath necessary or can you have a shower?”
On waste, she points out that the UK currently exports a lot. “We struggle to recycle enough and therefore have historically shipped a lot of our recycling abroad for processing. But we can’t continue to do that, especially as countries are now banning plastic waste imports from us.”
Last year, the UK sent more plastic packaging waste to Turkey than to any other country. More than 200,000 tonnes, or 30% of all such exports, according to the Environment Agency’s national waste packaging database. In July this year, Turkey banned plastic waste imports.
Ms Hamer summarises a bleak outlook for the UK’s ability to adapt to a changing climate, and changes in the way our waste and water are managed. “We’re increasingly going to have to deal with the consequences of our wasteful lifestyles. There are so many choices that people make as an everyday part of their lives, and it affects the climate.”