Britain’s national security is at risk because ministers fail to prepare for the rising risks of extreme weather events stemming from the climate crisis, a parliamentary inquiry has warned.
The Joint Committee on National Security Strategy said the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) had been laid bare because of “extreme weakness” at the heart of government.
In what it called a “grave dereliction of duty,” the committee said no minister was prepared to shoulder the responsibility for ensuring the resilience of vital energy, transport and communications networks – despite climate change being a recognized national security risk.
It warned that major power outages, floods, landslides blocking roads and train lines collapsing due to extreme heat have the potential to create a series of “cascading” risks affecting other infrastructure elements.
“We have found that the government has very little control over a critical national security risk,” reported the committee, made up of senior MPs and peers.
“Climate change risks were previously classified as Tier 1 national security risks, but a serious lack of responsibility and accountability by ministers has left a gaping hole at government headquarters on this urgent future risk to the UK’s CNI.”
As examples, the committee highlighted Storm Arwen last November, when nearly 1 million people lost power, the Stonehaven railway tragedy when three people died in a derailment after torrential rain, and the failure of railway drainage systems, which nearly resulted in flooding the national blood bank in Bristol of the kind of problems the country was facing due to the climate crisis.
It provided evidence during last summer’s 40C heatwave, when the country faced major rail disruptions, flight delays and power outages due to another extreme weather event.
But the committee said it was amazed that the minister nominally responsible for CNI resilience – then-Cabinet Secretary Michael Ellis – refused to appear before it because he had “lack of control” on the matter.
“This admission of its lack of control over the matter – the reason for its rejection – was in itself shocking and indicates a serious dereliction of duty on the part of the government,” the committee said.
“It appears that no minister is taking responsibility for this issue, and there are no inter-cabinet committees driving the government’s work on adaptation and CNI resilience.
“It’s hard to imagine the government being so lax about another recognized national security risk.”
The committee called on the government to appoint a Minister of State for CNI Resilience with a team within the Cabinet Office to focus on the issue in relation to a range of national security threats and dangers.
There should be a program of regional drills to ensure responders on the ground – such as the emergency services, the NHS and local authorities – are adequately prepared for extreme weather events.
The committee chair, former Foreign Secretary Dame Margaret Beckett, said: “Storm Arwen has shown how quickly the impact of a blackout can spill over to other sectors.
“These cascading crises are a major threat to the functioning of the UK economy and to society – so this is a serious risk to national security.
“This government needs to finally recognize that prevention is better than cure and move away from its dangerously reactive approach to risk management.”
A government spokesman said: “Robust systems are in place to protect critical national infrastructure from the effects of climate change. This includes work under the Defra-led National Adaptation Program and the HMT-led National Infrastructure Commission [the Treasury].
“At the Cabinet Office, we have developed a standardized approach to help departments understand and mitigate risks to critical infrastructure.”