We need to talk about how to deal with the impacts of climate change: opportunities for public engagement in climate adaptation research and policy

In March 2021, UK Research and Innovation’s Sciencewise programme convened climate experts to discuss key challenges in climate adaptation and debate the potential for public engagement to address those challenges. What emerged was a call for a national conversation on dealing with the impacts of climate change, with experts seeing this as vital to keeping the UK fit for the future.

UKRI’s public engagement programme Sciencewise, has published a new report (Adapting to Climate Change: opportunities for public engagement on climate adaptation research and policy), informed by experts, climate scientists, business, NGOs and government. It finds climate adaptation policy development is hampered by the fact the UK public are largely unaware of the vulnerability, probability, and consequences of climate change, or the scale of adaptation required to tackle it.

Key findings:

  1. Recent studies into public attitudes towards climate risks and adaptation action confirmed the public are concerned about flooding and extreme heat, and view health, emergency services and society’s most vulnerable people as the highest priority for protection. Evidence shows that the majority of British adults are also willing to pay to reduce future health risks of climate change. 
  2. Compared to mitigation, the low political profile of climate risks and adaptation was of great concern to climate experts who felt that adaptation was being overlooked in national conversations about the path to net zero and Building Back Better, making adaptation harder down the line.
  3. Climate adaptation policy currently lacks an engaging narrative, a clear direction and defined outcomes. Addressing these would galvanise decision-maker action and build interest, support and confidence among the public. 
  4. Perspectives varied on the urgency with which we should act and who: The balance of responsibilities between the national and local level, private and public, and organisations and individuals was still unclear. In the meantime, locally-led action was seen as a practical way forward, given the breadth of activity already underway in cities and regions across the UK. 

Referencing Parliament’s recent Climate Assembly UK, UKRI’s Sciencewise report argues greater public engagement is urgently needed from organisations working on climate adaptation policy and research to bring diverse public perspectives into the decision-making process:

  1. Timing is perfect for citizen involvement in climate adaptation policy given the government’s upcoming Climate Change Risk Assessment, National Adaptation Programme and UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow later this year
  2. Local, place-based adaptation activity offers a practical, impactful way to bring the public meaningfully into adaptation decision-making. 
  3. Climate adaptation needs a new narrative and clearer messaging. In-depth understanding of public values in relation to the climate can play an important role in developing the right framing.  
  4. Research will be critical in shaping effective adaptation policy and input from a range of perspectives, including the public, will ensure research priorities have the widest social and economic benefit. 

Simon Burall, Director of UKRI’s Sciencewise programme says, “The government is legally bound to both cut carbon emissions and prepare the UK for the worst impacts of climate risk. However, climate adaptation policy is currently being overlooked in national conversations around Net Zero and Building Back Better. Climate experts know a storm is coming but are extremely concerned that the public still in the dark about what this means for them.” 

Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, the government is required to provide Parliament with a comprehensive assessment of the risks that climate change poses to the UK every 5 years. UKRI’s Sciencewise research is released ahead of the latest Climate Change Committee (CCC) advice to government – its 3rd Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA3) – due to be published on 16 June and laid before Parliament by January 2022.  

Sciencewise welcomes further discussion with government departments and public bodies who want to understand more about the opportunities for public dialogue on climate adaptation. To get in touch please contact:

Tom Saunders, Head of Public Engagement, UKRI [email protected]
Simon Burall, Director of Sciencewise programme [email protected]