Flooding and water shortages could increase if confidence in weather and climate forecasting drops, despite the evidence for climate change

Nick Cullen

The last time I was asked to write about water, England and Wales was experiencing a drought having had successive years of below average rainfall. There was much speculation as to a summer of water shortages. I framed my report around the fact that we needed to adapt to water shortages and local flash flooding, since climate change would lead to hotter drier summer’s warmer wetter winters and more extreme events, as forecast by the Met office. By the time I had finished the work and the report was ready for publication it had started raining and we had a very wet summer.

As I write this short piece, the remnants of tropical storm Henri are a reminder for most parts of the country the summer has been very wet with August in Cornwall being the wettest since 1912, all despite Met office forecasts to the contrary back in June. According to the Met office this cooler summer weather might become commonplace over the next decade or so. This seems to contradict previous Met office advice that the trend was for warmer drier summers.

So does it matter that the Met office gets its forecasts wrong? In short I think it does.

Weather forecasting and the developing science of climate change relies upon very sophisticated models of global climate. Results from modelling are only as good as the input assumptions and I understand that the latest results reflect a better understanding of the decadal weather cycles such as El Niño. Unfortunately the subtleties will be lost on the majority of the public including me and it worries me that changes in the messages from the Met office simply sows confusion and doubt.

So does it matter that the Met office gets its forecasts wrong? In short I think it does. Whatever the vagaries of weather forecasts, climate change is happening and the UK needs to respond. The most cost effective response is to reduce demand and waste. This requires both investment in water saving systems within the built environment and in the distribution infrastructure. Factor in climate change and changes in rainfall patterns across regions and across the year and the costs run into many billions of pounds.

Given that price competition in the water industry is likely to become more intense, finding the capital for investment in infrastructure is also likely to become even harder. Yet despite the evidence for climate change, if confidence in weather & climate forecasting drops, (the two being linked in the public’s mind) there is a risk that the political will and public support for ongoing investment in new climate resilient buildings and new water infrastructure may follow, risking an increase in both flooding and water shortage events in the future. If you think this is an unlikely scenario, consider the rapid curtailment of the Feed in Tariff & the end of the zero carbon homes policy.

Nick Cullen is a partner at Hoare Lea