Rising sea levels, hail in the middle of summer followed by dry heat waves, devastating wildfires, and frequent floods – these are just a few of the now more and more visible effects of climate change.
Just a few decades ago, climate change was largely an unheard of term, but you have only to watch one of Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries to witness how rapidly the world’s landscape has changed within the last 60 years.
Recently, it was found that the global temperature has risen to 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels while the latest IPCC climate report predicted a rise of temperature over 1.5 degrees.
In such a scenario, the list of consequences we would be dealing with includes frequent heat waves, extended droughts, wildfires, rising sea levels and a shortage in water – which, in other words, moves our current status with climate change officially to code red.
But despite increasing coverage and more awareness of the devastating effects climate change could have, it can be hard to visualise what life could be like on a local level in the years to come.
We spoke to two environmental experts from Essex about how climate change could affect life in the county in the next 30 years if things don’t change drastically.
What is happening now?
“We’ve had the wettest ever winter from the end of December to January, we had six weeks of the wettest weather we’ve ever had,” said Jules Pretty, professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex.
“And yet, by the time we got to March and April, we had the driest spring ever and, then, we had those 20 something days of frost. It was unprecedented.
“What’s happened is the winter weather pattern is staying for longer; rather than raining for a couple of days and then something else, we tend to get a weather pattern staying for a month.
Sign up to the EssexLive newsletter below for the latest news straight to your inbox:
If you’re looking for a way to stay up-to-date with the latest breaking news from around Essex, the EssexLive newsletter is a good place to start.
The twice-daily update will deliver the top news and features to your inbox every morning and evening.
We choose the most important stories of the day to include in the newsletter, including crime, court news, long reads, traffic and travel, food and drink articles and more.
Signing up to the newsletter is simple. All you have to do is to click here and type in your email address.
It’s one of the many ways that you can read the news that matters to you from EssexLive.
“We had a drought in July that would have been super serious but because it came just after the heavy rains of winter, nobody really noticed that part of it.”
Professor Pretty claims that in the near future, the county is set to face either considerably worse consequences or follow a route of adjustment and change, albeit with some sacrifices.
He predicts two possible pathways:
What is the more optimistic scenario?
Before looking at what could happen if we don’t act, Prof Pretty urges people to think of what the future would look like if we put in the collective effort to meet the requirements needed to keep temperatures under the two degrees cap.
“The challenge is essentially this; you’ll hear people say we’ve got 10 years ahead of us. If we half emissions by 2030 and half them again by 2040 and again by 2050, you get to 12.5% of the points where you started from.
“That would be fine. We would be safe and have avoided the worst problems of the climate crisis.”
Professor Jules Pretty believes that change might also introduce the economic growth needed and potentially open up a whole new job sector.
He added: “There are different kinds of opportunities for substantial increase in green jobs, for example, the green economy and transport in food, energy delivery in homes, refitting our whole range of things could be a dramatic boost to the economy and create many jobs, but it’s going to need the government to kind of support.”
According to a 2021 government report, in 2019 carbon dioxide made up 80 per cent of UK’s emissions. To meet the desirable quota, these emissions would need to be cut in half by 2030 – which can only happen if drastic measures are taken now.
In Essex, both experts and Essex’s very own Climate Action Commission seem hopeful. Their latest ‘Making Essex Carbon Neutral’ report was released in June and outlined various ways in which Essex can become the leading county in the fight against climate change.
The recommendations outlined how we can achieve a 40 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 as well as addressed problematic sectors such as Essex’s energy consumption, waste, transport and land use.
The plans outlined included using all biodegradable waste beneficially by 2025, installing solar panels to 25 per cent of roofs by 2030 and all by 2050, having all schools, “poor homes” retrofitted and supplied with renewables by 2030, increasing recycling, making farm land use sustainable land practices, and handling housing emissions amongst other things.
The recommendations are detailed over the span of 116 pages and sound promising, but how achievable are they?
They address things like making buildings, farming and jobs sustainable, tackling waste production and actively battling fuel poverty in Essex’s deprived areas, all in the span of a mere decades.
According to Graham J. C. Underwood, professor of Marine and Freshwater Biology at the University of Essex, such a scenario will require sacrifices from both the council and the public.
“What the commission has published is an impressive piece of work,” he said.
“But the council have really got to put their shoulders behind it now and actually start changing and then all of us individually have got to start making those changes and understand what we can do through education and media and schemes.
“I think my worry is everyone will still think ‘someone else will do it for us, we’ll just carry on fine’. Those are quite big changes because I think people don’t know how to change. My family is struggling to change but we’re trying.
“We’ve got rid of our second car, we’re trying to cycle more, eat less meat, use public transport, and it is really hard because it is often inconvenient.
“But if we all do [things like that], it will make a difference. These are the messages we need to get over – change doesn’t mean your life becomes miserable. We just need to get enjoyment from different things.”
What will happen if we don’t take action in time?
Despite a number of reports with recommendations and suggestions on how we can work towards the desirable net zero goal, there is the very real possibility that we won’t.
What would happen then?
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact results of the earth warming by two degrees Celsius, but climate scientists have made some predictions we can use to paint a general picture of what Essex might look like.
The East of England is known as the driest part of the county and as the weather reaches dangerous highs for longer periods, Essex could have a very real problem with water and farming.
“There’s a lot of potato farming in Essex,” Professor Underwood added.
“These are water hungry crops. For Essex to have enough water for farmers to grow such crops that need irrigation but also have enough drinking water for housing and economic activities due to the increasing growth in population, we will need 70 per cent more water resources. So where’s that water going to come?”
“I think the landscape is changing already and farmers are already struggling a bit with this.
“Most of us are rather separate from food production in our lives – we just get to the supermarkets and the crops and fruits are there.
“But for the people who actually grow food in the countryside, the changing climate could be a real challenge.
“We’ll see the countryside changing – different types of crops and trees being planted, perhaps we will have to get used to crops that need less water, simply because the water won’t be there.”
At the same time, as the county begins to experience a month’s worth of rain in mere days, we might very well be looking at a future where Essex’s crops and vegetation struggle to grow and farming declines as a profession. Fruits and vegetables will never look or taste the same as they did only a few decades ago.
Find out the latest news in your area by typing your postcode below:
In just a few decades we’ve also seen places like Antarctica and Greenland transform from winter wonderlands into melting wastelands. Unfortunately, the tragedy does not stop with the loss of these land masses – it also means rising sea levels.
With the weather following extreme and unpredictable patterns and the ice melting at rigorous speeds, Professor Underwood believes sea levels could rise up to 40cm, or as high as 70cm, in the next few decades.
Essex will be dealing with constant and relentless coastal flooding, especially during periods when the coast is wrought by storms or tidal surges.
“Natural coastal habitats like mudflats, shingle ridges, salt marshes can buffer the effect of tidal surges and reduce the risk of over-topping,” he says. “But sea level rise causes erosion of those habitats so the natural protective function is then lost.
“The costs to society to defend areas [from flooding] will be significantly increased, or land will be repeatedly flooded.”
However, Professor Pretty says it is not only coastal flooding we should be worried about, but in-land as well.
“The thing about our coastline is it’s very well protected,” he says. “The 400 miles of coastline, partly because of the 1953 floods, everyone sort of understands the nature of sea flooding quite well. So in the immediate future, I don’t think that’s going to be a great significance.
“But what has proved to be a larger problem has been flooding that occurred as a result of rainfall within the landscapes of the counties. That can have an impact on people’s housing and transport upon roads, railways, and so forth.”
Essex might be able to adapt – change its infrastructure, make houses, companies and schools flood-proof – but that still means that, during storms, transport will be greatly disrupted, deprived areas will endure irreparable damage, and people from poor socioeconomic backgrounds will face consequences that range from homelessness to death.
The chasm between lower and middle class will be more prominent than ever, and possibly deadlier.
Many have also suggested covid is but a rehearsal for the main event that is the culmination of the current climate crisis. Professor Pretty agrees.
“When you’re thinking about a county like Essex, you define the impacts of the changing climate upon specific activities,” he says.
“But then, the bigger effect is [found] on the economic and social consequences. It is a bit analogous to the pandemic – you’ve got the virus itself, and its health and direct health events, such as the number of people who have been infected with COVID [and] the number of people who have died from it.
“But then you’ve got a whole layer of other things in terms of impacts upon social interactions, loneliness, work patterns, access to food, transport system – and those are usually bigger than the thing itself. We’re going to see the same thing.”
An indirect impact of climate change, for example, is how public health will deteriorate by 2051.
According to Professor Pretty, higher temperatures have an interactive effect with air pollutants, so people battling breathing conditions or Covid-19 will struggle significantly. Symptoms will be worse, and alleviating them will become a laborious process.
Others living with conditions or illnesses affected by the climate will also be greatly impacted and during summers heat strokes will go from a rarity to a new normal. The sudden tide of people seeking medical attention will ultimately put a strain on our health system.
However, to fully understand the extent of the impending disaster, we will have to zoom out of Essex and into the Himalayas. The mountain range holds 46,000 glaciers and is responsible for Asia’s major rivers that provide water to more than 1.6 billion people.
There are already a number of reports warning of water scarcity, but Professor Pretty invites people to think about the very likely scenario that in the next few decades the network of rivers hosted by the Himalayas might be depleted.
“With plus two degrees, 90 per cent of those glaciers will disappear,” he says. “Around 1.6 billion people will need to find their drinking water elsewhere. We can’t predict the social and economic consequences, but we can have a pretty good guess that when 1.6 billion people haven’t got any drinking water from those rivers and all the ecosystems are disrupted, and the cities are disrupted, everyone has to move to somewhere else in the world.
“There is no economic model to make that work – there would be a huge influx of migrants moving here, the economies of those countries would collapse, the world economy would collapse. It is unthinkable and it could happen in 30 years.”
In the grand scheme of things, as countries across the globe become inhabitable because of extreme temperatures, it is true that Essex might not face immediate consequences due to its location and the UK’s resources.
But it will be battling floods, a rush of worsening and newfound illnesses, loss of income, skyrocketing rates of homelessness, disrupted food production, and an overwhelming influx in immigration.
“I still hear some people say, if it gets to the point of three degrees or four degrees [warmer temperature] during the course of this century, then we’ll just have to adjust,” says Professor Pretty towards the end of our long conversation. “There is no adjustment, actually.
“It is pretty awful, and it’s difficult to say this because the consequences are so serious, but the impact upon Essex would be great simply because the global economy is collapsing. Therefore, all bets are off.”
Want the latest Essex news direct to your inbox? Sign up here.