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'Many people believe the question we face is when not if another big flood is coming'

Brechin was badly hit by flooding after Storm Babet last October | Alamy

'Many people believe the question we face is when not if another big flood is coming'

When Jamie Gillies left his Brechin home for the night last October amid warnings of incoming Storm Babet, he didn’t expect he wouldn’t be able to return for many months. But like many properties in the town, his house fell victim to the flooding of South Esk River after two months’ worth of rain fell in just three days.

Gillies is still not back in his home and doesn’t expect to be for another six months. He and his wife have found temporary housing in a nearby village, and he praises the response of the community for showing “real solidarity” for those impacted. Even so, it’s been a tough time.

“The last six months have been a challenge for our family and others in the north-east,” he says. “We were fortunate enough to have home insurance when Storm Babet hit, so my wife and I have been working with our insurer to assess the damage to our home and agree upon repair works.

I do sense anxiety about this

“It’s a stressful process – particularly because life doesn’t stop when something like this happens. Work and other responsibilities continue but in the background there’s this massive problem to resolve. It can feel like a lot to deal with at times.”

On the whole, though, Gillies praises the response to the event. Victims were offered a £1,500 grant from the Scottish Government, while Angus Council has provided various forms of support, not to mention local organisations and volunteers who have “worked hard to provide flooding victims with furniture, clothes, appliances and financial assistance.”

“If I had to be critical, I’d say the rate of response wasn’t as fast as it might have been,” he adds.

Still, fears about future flooding are palpable in the town. “In the conversations I’ve had with friends and neighbours, I do sense anxiety about this. Many people believe the question we face is ‘when’ not ‘if’ another big flood is coming,” Gillies says.

The cost of climate damage

Indeed, Scotland has just endured its eleventh named storm of the 2023-24 season – the joint highest of any year since the naming of storms began – and Storm Kathleen brought with it several flood warnings, including for Angus. Such events are only going to become more common as the impacts of global climate change play out.

Little is said about climate-related loss and damages in the UK – frequently those discussions focus on developing nations, which will be impacted more severely – but that doesn’t mean the effects here won’t be significant.

Berwickshire is frequently impacted by flooding. Credit: Alamy

Already damages caused by climate change cost the UK 1.1 per cent of GDP, according to LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. That is projected to grow to 3.3 per cent by 2050 and 7.4 per cent by the end of the century, under current policies.

Flooding is not the only hazard Scotland faces. Wetter winters will bring a higher risk of landslips, posing a danger to life and also to local economies when transport links are cut.

Meanwhile summers will be hotter and drier, posing a risk to water supply. In turn, that will damage agriculture – both crop and livestock. Pests and diseases that wouldn’t have previously survived in Scotland will also be able to thrive in the expected milder climate, while the fishing industry will suffer due to warmer sea temperatures.

The number of heatwaves are projected to rise, too, with chances of soaring temperatures in any one year increasing to 50/50 by 2050. Heatwaves have already caused a rise in excess deaths in the UK. There’s the knock-on economic impact, too, as workers are less productive in the heat.

Adapting to changes

Climate adaptation measures can ameliorate some, though not all, of this. The Scottish Government published its first adaptation programme in May 2014 and is currently consulting on its third, to be published this autumn.

However, there are huge question marks over whether these strategies are delivering. The Climate Change Committee published an assessment report last November concluding that while there had been “several notable steps forward” on adaptation, “important gaps remain”.

There’s a growing public awareness of the impacts of climate change, but maybe not so much around what does this mean for me

It continued: “Overall progress on adapting to climate change in Scotland remains slow, particularly on delivery and implementation.

“For only one out of the 33 outcomes identified by the Committee for climate resilience across devolved areas do we find good progress on adaptation delivery. For four outcomes we find clearly insufficient progress; 16 show mixed progress; and for 12 there are insufficient data to meaningfully evaluate progress.”

Part of the problem could be a lack of public pressure on politicians to do more. Jonny Casey, head of climate ready leadership at Sniffer, a charity which leads the Scottish Government’s Adaptation Scotland advice service, says while awareness of climate change is improving, people aren’t necessarily making the connection between that and the disruption caused by extreme weather.

“There’s a growing public awareness of the impacts of climate change, but maybe not so much around what does this mean for me, what does this mean for my home, my family, my community, my place of work? For Scotland as a whole that’s the area that’s still lacking, awareness on what adaptation is or what good adaptation can look like.”

There’s also a financial issue. Resourcing being put towards adaptation is “significantly lower” than for mitigation, Casey explains. That’s true both across the UK and globally.

“Looking at different ways that we can mobilise private investments for climate adaptation is going to be really, really important, because the scale of the investment required is probably beyond what’s feasible from the public purse alone,” he adds.

For every £1 invested in action to increase resilience to climate change, you can expect to see between £2 and £10 net economic benefit

One of the ways Adaptation Scotland has been working to leverage in private investment is by providing training to enterprise agencies to support businesses to make “pragmatic and practical measures” which improve resilience. That might be securing premises against floodwater, it could be how best to support workers facing disruption, or it might mean strengthening supply chains.

Even so, the cost to government for adaptation and damages will still be sizeable. There are, according to a report from the Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) last month, significant financial risks associated with it, in part because “full adaptation costs are not known at the UK or Scottish level” and also the way the block grant works means some areas will need to be funded despite no similar spending (and therefore consequentials) from the UK Government.

The inability of the Scottish Government to borrow or build up a reserve from unspent cash could also create problems in terms of responding to climate-related losses if Scotland suffers more severe impacts than England in any given year.

It is difficult to estimate the true cost of damage and loss because so much depends on global mitigation. Meanwhile, the Climate Change Committee had made a stab at estimating the annual cost needed for adaptation in the UK – £10bn a year between 2020 and 2030 – but the SFC highlights this is only a “partial estimate” and the “optimum level of investment is unknown”.

Storm Babet brought two months' of rain in three days. Credit: Alamy

Anna Beswick, a policy fellow at LSE’s Grantham Institute, says this lack of certainty should not prevent projects being funded. “Senior leaders and senior decision-makers are used to making decisions under uncertainty all of the time.

“And actually, we have a lot more evidence about the impacts of climate change and future risks of climate change than we do about many other things that we’re considering for the future, for example around trends in technology or population growth or for different economic sectors.

“We’re always drawing on different analytics in many spaces to make decisions and in many cases we have more evidence to justify investment in adapting to climate change than we do in others.

“There’s also very strong evidence that there is a high economic benefit and return for investment in climate resilience. We know, for example, that for every £1 invested in action to increase resilience to climate change, you can expect to see between £2 and £10 net economic benefit – for things like introducing effective early warning systems and reducing flood risk.”

It needs bravery, it needs courageous leadership for this to be addressed

She also highlights that the longer politicians wait to make decisions, the more it will cost. “Right now, in many cases in the UK and in Scotland, there are massive opportunities to increase resilience and adapt to the impacts of climate change. There are loads of things that we could do if there was the willingness to do it, but that is a window of opportunity that will close as these changes continue to increase and intensify.

“By failing to ensure that our buildings are built to cope with current and future climate, for example, we’re locking in risks that will have to be dealt with in the future and it may not be possible to deal with those risks as effectively.”

Different parts of the country will, naturally, require difference responses. Coastal locations, for example, may benefit from protecting dune systems, while urban areas may benefit from more blue-green infrastructure – for example allotments to allow for local food production or greenspaces to improve drainage.

Brave leadership

Solutions must, Beswick argues, be local – but there is little financial support to facilitate this at the moment. In particular, there is a “complete lack of funding to support local authorities to enhance resilience”.

Brechin resident Kim Clark shows Humza Yousaf flood damage in her house. Credit: PA Images/Alamy

She continues: “There are some really good examples of progress with climate adaptation in Scotland across different sectors, in different cities and regions, and that should be celebrated. But there needs to be a step change in upscaling the things that are allowing adaptation to happen, and in particular identifying and addressing the finance gap.

“Until we have a focus on funding and financing, and how to unlock funding and finance climate adaptation, then all of the actions and policies won’t really be able to be delivered.”

She is critical of a “lack of leadership and accountability”, and urges politicians to be “proactive rather than reactive” because ultimately “somebody, somewhere, will pay”.

Every year we wait, we just increase the risk

She says: “It needs bravery, it needs courageous leadership for this to be addressed. This is not an issue where there are lots of ribbons to cut – successful adaptation sometimes goes under the radar because if you have invested in resilience and you’ve made something that’s able to adapt and respond, then you avoid a crisis… It needs leaders who can see that, who can buy into the economic benefits, the wider societal benefits, the essential need for these decisions to be taken, and who can live with the fact that there won’t necessarily be a short-term prize.

“That’s a hard pill to swallow when it comes to election cycles, but that’s the kind of bravery that’s needed and ultimately that legacy will stand the test of time.

“There will be a story to tell if we miss these opportunities now. The risks couldn’t be any clearer, the evidence is incredibly strong and has been for years. Every year we wait, we just increase the risk and that is the story that we’ll be told unless we can get courageous leadership to take proactive action and build on the good things that are happening.”

In response to the SFC’s report, the Scottish Government pointed to the £4.7bn set aside for climate policies, including on adaptation. Net zero secretary Mairi McAllan also urged the UK Government to “stop shirking their responsibility and invest”.

She added: “It is deeply concerning that we are expecting a real-terms cut to our UK capital funding of 8.7 per cent over five years, totaling around £1.3bn… We will continue to call on the UK Government to change course, and ensure future financial settlements provide us with the resources we need.”

Back in Angus, Gillies says “significant political attention” is required across all governments to meet the challenge. “I’d like to see the Scottish Government working with local authorities and the UK Government to plan for the longer term.

“This isn’t a political issue – it’s a social one. And a matter of justice, given many people don’t have the means to recover from a devastating weather event… This is the kind of stuff that should occupy manifestos. It’s a priority for people in my area, and many others.”

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