Climate Change: Extreme Weather Events — [Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:08 am on 13th November 2018.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 10:08 am, 13th November 2018

I thank my hon. Friend Darren Jones for introducing the debate so well. He is a University of Plymouth graduate, and I know that there are a lot of people back in Plymouth Labour who would want to wish him a happy birthday for today.

Climate change is real. Some 97% of scientists believe that it is happening, and it will continue to happen whether the remaining 3% agree with it or not. The extreme weather produced by climate change is becoming more and more commonplace and its impact on our lives is becoming more profound, obvious and inescapable. A report by Oxfam has shown that, between 2008 and 2016, 23.5 million people were displaced by extreme weather. If we do not wake up, that will get worse and worse. The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West mentioned, predicted that if we do not act to stop a temperature increase of more than 2° above pre-industrial levels, on the current trajectory we will see a sea level rise from melting ice of up to 1 metre by 2100—only 80 years away. That would cause severe coastal flooding and super storms that would easily flood most major Western cities and submerge many low-lying islands, and would mean homes, roads and train lines under water.

Rising sea levels and elevated acidity mean that coastal communities such as mine in Plymouth are on the frontline of climate change and extreme weather. Far too often, more intense and more frequent storms are battering the south-west, and a lack of investment to create proper resilience—especially in our transport links—is cutting people in Plymouth off from the rest of the country. That is what I would like to speak about, because it is a good example of the challenges that we must face if we are to truly mitigate the impacts of climate change and extreme weather on our economy.

Members will know that in 2014, the Great Western rail line between Exeter and Newton Abbot was badly damaged by storms. The train line was washed away, leaving the rails hanging like a Peruvian rope bridge above the waves, and as a result, the far south-west and the rest of the country were cut off from each other. Jim Shannon mentioned coastal erosion, which is most apparent from the coastline at Dawlish. I went to university in Exeter, and the place where I studied in the summer months, on the cliffs overlooking the sea, has now been washed away. Those cliffs are no longer there, and when I go past on the train every day, going back and forth to Westminster, I look at that little bit of air and remember that I used to study on it. Coastal erosion is real, and the threat it poses to our train line is apparent.

The Great Western train line was closed for two months in 2014, which affected our entire region, costing us around £1 billion in lost economic activity. It was our one and only train line—our spinal connection, our lifeline for business and leisure travel, daily journeys, holidays and investment—and its closure exposed a gaping hole in Government policy towards the far south-west. Ministers did not care enough to find the funding that we needed to make our train line resilient to the increasing extreme weather that this country faces. The former Prime Minister David Cameron came down to Dawlish in the wake of the storms and said, “Money is no object” in making sure that such a closure would not happen again. However, last week, the train line closed. A month before, it closed again. It has closed dozens of times since that incident in 2014.

Strong winds, heavy rain, and large waves crashing over the sea wall affect the resilience of the Great Western train line and cut us off. Thanks to the good work of Great Western Railway and Network Rail staff, our train line is now operational again, but more extreme weather is going to have more impacts on that precarious and fragile train line. The Minister will know that in bad weather, when the waves crash over our train line, CrossCountry trains cannot get through. The design of those precious and precarious Voyager trains means that they short-circuit when they come into contact with salt water, meaning that if waves hit those trains at Dawlish, they short-circuit and block the track. That is not good enough. Now that Ministers recognise the chaos in our rail franchising system, they have pulled the franchise competition, but that has removed the opportunity to create trains that can get through that particular bit of track.

Network Rail has carried out studies of extreme weather conditions. Those studies show that by 2065, anticipated environmental changes could result in an increase of 4° in extreme summer temperatures, potentially buckling tracks; a 36% reduction in summer rainfall, but a 15% increase in winter rainfall; a 30 cm increase in sea level; and a 23% increase in river flows. When we look at the precarious nature of much of our transport infrastructure, especially along our coasts, rivers and estuaries, we can see what an impact that change in water level could have on the resilience of that infrastructure. The low sea wall at Dawlish will not be enough: the line will flood, and we will be cut off again. That is why we need resilience upgrades to preserve the line, steady the cliffs, and ensure that trains can get through Dawlish while a Dawlish-avoiding line is built. Nothing else is acceptable.

The lack of investment in much of our transport infrastructure, coupled with the more commonplace extreme weather that is being caused by climate change, means that we need greater focus on, and investment in, resilience in our transport system. The Secretary of State for Transport told me in the Chamber that the work on Dawlish was his No. 1 priority, but yet again, no money for Dawlish was announced in the Budget, and it is still the case that no money has been announced by Ministers. I say to the Minister—who I appreciate is not a transport Minister—that the patience of the south-west is wearing thin. We know that we are getting more extreme weather: we can see it year in, year out, and we can see the impact that it is having on our resilience. The betrayal, the breaking of promises, the frequency of closures, the disruption, the damage to our reputation and attractiveness as a destination are all due to the failure to invest in and secure that train line. That cannot go on. We risk more and more disruption from climate change unless Ministers stop sitting on their hands and blaming others. They must put their money where their mouth is and fund proper, long-term resilience, particularly in Dawlish and Teignmouth.

Warnings about extreme weather can seem far distant from our shores. We sometimes look at extreme weather in far-away countries—hurricanes, tropical storms and mudslides—and think of it as happening to other people, not to us. However, the reality is that climate change and increasing extreme weather are occurring in countries far away, but also here at home. If we do not adjust the way we run our economy, invest in low-carbon technologies, and fundamentally change the way our country operates, we will see more extreme weather—not just far away but in the UK. That is something that we desperately need to avoid.