Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 601)



  Q600  Lynne Jones: There has been quite a big increase in NERC's spending, has there not?

  Dr Calver: It is across the whole board of NERC's subject matter remit. We also get ad hoc funding from the European Union. There are some directed programmes in NERC—Flood Risk from Extreme Events—and the Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council has a Flood Risk Management Consortium. There are lots of initiatives. Of course, if there is more funding, things can be done sooner but I think as regards details I would be straying too far from my science remit.

  Dr West: I think you have raised an important point. It is not something we can address through traditional research funding. I think this is an issue of training society to start asking difficult questions. Perhaps society is not good at thinking about probability; it is worse at thinking about risk. Some organisations have been very good at defining their own critical threshold. The Railways know exactly at what point they have to impose speed limits because of the risk of buckled rails. The Environment Agency in the Thames Estuary 2100 Programme knows what sort of flood level causes what sort of problem. In general, for example, people know that very dry summers cause damage to roads but very few organisations know what that cost-response curve looks like, so they do not know how a dry summer causes them problems. What we would like people to do before we offer them the opportunity of looking at these good probabilistic climate scenarios is to examine their own operation. At what temperature do you have to start giving water to people on the Underground? At what temperature do you have to start looking after old people in a different way? In general, people know that there is such a threshold but they do not know what it is, and so they tend to wait until there is a problem before they respond. What we would like people to be able to do is to say, "We know that if the temperature goes over so and so for three days, we are going to have to get our gritting lorries out to grit the roads because the tar is melting". It is an entirely different sort of research and it is quite introspective. It is asking people out in the fields with their wellies on what is happening so that people in the office can say, "We know that we have a problem above this threshold".

  Q601  Lynne Jones: How do we maximise the probability that those with these areas of responsibilities will actually do as you have suggested? Who should have the chivvying up role in achieving these capabilities?

  Dr West: If the Climate Change Bill works out as I hope it will, I think that there will be a statutory duty on some public bodies, maybe all public bodies, that they have assessed their current vulnerability. I would suggest that you cannot assess your current vulnerability without defining your thresholds.

  Chairman: On that note we will conclude our inquiry. A little while ago I think I became saturated with high quality information, and there is a limit to how much I personally can digest. When we look back, there may well be one or two other areas that we might want to contact you on in correspondence. Equally, if there are things which you want to expand on or explain to us if you wish you had had a chance to put, we would be delighted to hear from you. May I thank you all for a truly fascinating and certainly intellectually challenging series of exchanges. I think it has given us a much better understanding of our capability, particularly in the meteorological area and the very interesting possible extensions of marrying up the hydrology with the meteorology. Dr West, you have brought things rather nicely to a conclusion when you said that with all this information you have got to challenge your preparedness to deal with some of the climatic phenomena that we have been discussing. Thank you all very much indeed for your contributions.

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