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England's environment agency issues stark climate change warning

A report warns that London’s sea level is expected to rise dramatically — by as much as 9 inches by the 2050s, and nearly 18 inches by the 2080s.
Winter weather Dec 29th 2020
Heavily flooded fields in the Gloucestershire region of the United Kingdom in December 2020.Steve Parsons / PA via Getty Images file

LONDON — Adapt or die.

This is the stark warning England’s environment agency issued Wednesday as it urged the country to change in order to cope with flooding, droughts and other extreme weather events brought on by climate change.

The message comes after summer flooding, which scientists said was made more likely by climate change, killed 200 people in Western Europe, and ahead of a key international environment conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

"It is adapt or die," the agency’s chair Emma Howard Boyd said in a statement. "While mitigation might save the planet, it is adaptation, preparing for climate shocks, that will save millions of lives."

Making places where people live, work and travel resilient to the effects of extreme weather can minimize death and destruction that the climate crisis is already wreaking, the agency said. It’s also much cheaper to invest in climate resilience early than deal with the aftermath of climate change impacts when it's too late, it added.

The report warned of increased flooding and drought, rising sea levels and greater demand on water as the result of global warming.

It noted that London’s sea level was expected to rise dramatically — by as much as 9 inches by the 2050s, and nearly 18 inches by the 2080s.

England could face the type of flooding that killed 200 people in Western Europe this summer when rivers in Germany and Belgium overflowed their banks after heavy rains, Howard Boyd warned.

A recent study by the World Weather Attribution initiative, an international group of scientists that analyses extreme weather events around the world, found that climate change makes such deadly events up to 9 times more likely. 

"That will happen in this country sooner or later, however high we build our flood defenses, unless we also make the places where we live, work and travel resilient to the effects of the more violent weather the climate emergency is bringing," Howard Boyd said.

The agency said new flood and coastal defense systems were vital to adapting to the changing climate. It also called for projects to restore natural ecosystems that hold back rainwater and absorb carbon at the same time.  In addition, it said water companies will need to plan for water shortages, and more needs to be done to attract private funding to invest in flood defense projects.

A flooded road in The Nine Elms district of London on July 25. Justin tallis / AFP via Getty Images file

Sam Fankhauser, professor of climate change economics and policy at Oxford University, said the agency was right to issue the severe warnings.

"Heat waves and floods do kill, and they are sources of immense trauma and destruction," he said.

"They don’t have to be, if we prepare well, so the agency is absolutely right to emphasize the importance of adapting to increased climate risks," he said. "Adaptation gets less attention than reducing emissions, but they are really two sides of the same coin."

The environment agency’s report comes just weeks before the U.K. is scheduled to host the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, widely seen as crucial if climate change is to be brought under control, where helping communities adapt to climate change is one of four goals outlined by summit officials.

The adaptation measures on the COP26 agenda include more funding to improve early warning systems and flood defenses worldwide, and measures to protect and restore habitats to provide natural storm and flood defenses.

The U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told NBC News in an email in response to the environment agency report that it's taking "robust action" to improve resilience to climate change across the whole country.

In August, the United Nations warned that climate change was changing the Earth in ways that are “unprecedented” in thousands of years — and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of years. For the first time, it provided a more detailed regional assessment of climate change, including a focus on risk assessment and adaptation.