Adapting to climate change needs our ‘urgent, unswerving attention’ says National Trust with launch of landmark report

The National Trust is calling on all political parties to ramp up progress on adaptation by introducing new legislation that recognises the importance of adapting buildings, coastlines and countryside to cope with the impacts of climate change.

It comes as the Trust launches a landmark report – A Climate for Change – which outlines for the first time the charity’s approach to climate adaptation and details how technology is helping detect future threats to its places, ahead of COP28.

The charity says parties should commit to legislating in the first session of the next parliament by writing into law a Climate Resilience Act with clear legal duties and targets for adaptation.

As the UK’s largest conservation charity, caring for 250,000 hectares of land, 780 miles of coastline and 220 gardens and parks, the Trust is already experiencing first-hand the consequences of more frequent extreme weather events – from heavier rainfall causing repeated flooding, to rising temperatures, prolonged periods of drought and more wildfires across its landholding.

These changes are also beginning to affect some of the 28,000 buildings and precious collections in its care, as well as causing challenges for the volunteers and staff who are managing the impacts.

In some places, heavier rainfall is overwhelming historic guttering systems causing recurring issues with damp, and higher temperatures are causing issues with humidity, as well as providing niches for pests and diseases.

Previous analysis by GIS Consultants 3Keel revealed that nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of the places looked after by the charity could be at a medium or high risk of climate hazards by 2060.

The Trust says it is not alone in the challenges it faces in tackling the impacts of climate change and believes the new proposed legislation will ensure adaptation is on an equal footing with mitigation and the pathway to net zero. It is also calling for decision-making that builds climate considerations into all government processes, and for leaders and organisations everywhere to start working together to prepare for climate impacts.

Patrick Begg, Outdoors and Natural Resources Director at the National Trust said: “Climate change presents the single biggest threat to the places in our care and the single biggest challenge to our mission – to look after places of nature, beauty and history for everyone to enjoy, now and in the future.

“It demands our urgent and unswerving attention, and we call on our partners and on Governments across the UK to stand with us, and to do more to confront the challenges we all face.

“Our responsibility spans hundreds of historic sites, buildings and some of the nation’s most loved coastlines, rivers and countryside.

“These places are our national heritage and are treasured by people here in the UK and much further afield; last year we received 24 million visitors to our historic houses, gardens and estates.

“This is a serious obligation and we do not claim to have all the answers. But we do know that adapting to changing climate is essential if the Trust is to live up to its founding purpose.”

Patrick continued: “We are seeing a stream of weather records regularly broken, making it extremely likely that 2023 will be the hottest year ever, with experts already predicting next year is likely to be even hotter.

“And, in just the last month, two major storms, Babet and Ciarán, caused beaches to be eroded, flooding in our gardens, significant trees to topple and, ironically, for our hydro at Cragside in Northumberland – the birthplace of hydroelectricity – to be temporarily overwhelmed.

“Our staff are already seeing changes where they work. Climate change isn’t something that is happening abroad, it is happening right here and now.”

Patrick added: “Scientific report after scientific report tells us that we must act now to ready ourselves for the very worst impacts of climate change, which is supported by our own property observations.

“There are also strong economic arguments for investing early in climate adaptation, as explored in a recent report by the United Nations.

“We need greater speed and clarity of thought from our leaders, and a recognition that adapting to climate change is as urgently needed as mitigating the UK’s carbon emissions.”

To help the charity identify where it needs to adapt, it has further developed its Hazard Map desktop tool, first launched in 2021 adding new layers to pinpoint the risk to its places from threats such as wildfires, rainfall days, strong winds and drought.

Using this tool and on the ground observations, the Trust has also produced a detailed visualisation of how Penrhyn Castle and Garden in North Wales could look in 2060 if an approach to adaptation isn’t taken, to help demonstrate potential impacts and to open up discussions.

Keith Jones, Senior National Consultant on Climate Change at the National Trust said: “In order to plan, prepare and adapt to our changing climate, we need a better understanding of the hazards we face.

“The hazard map flags the risk so that we can discuss with property teams what they are seeing in real terms, such as flooding, wildfire, or overheating.

“By doing an ‘on the ground’ reality check with property teams, which essentially explores their experiences and detailed site knowledge, we can then assess the reality of these risks – whether they are great or small – and prepare accordingly.

“We know facing these threats head-on can be scary and challenging, but by acting now, we are doing positive work to get ahead of the potential risks and impacts.”

To further address the challenges it faces, the charity has also unveiled the approach it will now be taking towards climate adaptation, which includes ensuring action is driven by research and evidence, developing a resilience mindset, learning from the past, working with nature and not against it, and working in partnership with others.

Keith added: “What we’re experiencing is being felt across the nation – by people, communities, businesses and organisations everywhere, and we are in a good place to collaborate, share our learnings and to find ways to meet the challenges we face head-on.”

The places where the Trust is already taking an adaptive approach are many and varied, from sites employing traditional methods, such as slate hanging on the gables of a Welsh cottage to help stop water ingress from driving rain [Dyffryn Mymbyr in Eryri (Snowdonia)], to working with farmers to adapt their land by restoring peatlands and planting trees [Darnbrook Farm in the Yorkshire Dales].

It is also working with communities to record important archaeology before it is lost to the sea [Dinas Dinlle on the Gwynedd coast] and engaging local people on how best to deal with rising sea levels and increasing storms undermining harbour walls [Mullion Harbour in Cornwall].

The Trust is also using nature-based solutions, such as re-meandering rivers [Goldrill Beck in the Lake District], simultaneously slowing flood peaks and restoring nature and carbon-rich habitats; and future-proofing historic gardens by planting new schemes to cope with changing weather patterns and periods of drought [Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire] and considering the long-term future of gardens at risk of erosion [Mount Stewart, County Down].

Commenting on the report, Emma Howard Boyd, Global Ambassador for the Race to Resilience, who wrote its foreword, says: “I hope this is a catalyst for increased public attention on climate security, a source of guidance and support, and a powerful message to decision makers in every sector that now is the time to act. 

“Preparing the National Trust for a changing climate isn’t about overhauling the organisation, its priorities remain caring for nature and history. Instead, it is about making sure that the Trust is here in another 128 years’ time, fulfilling the same purpose and continuing to care for some of the most beautiful, historic, and nature-rich places in the country.”

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