IF global warming continues at present rates Ulster could say hello to higher insurance bills – and goodbye to some of its iconic buildings.
That is the stark message from a leading British climate scientist, speaking at Stormont this week ahead of plans to create a Climate Change Bill for Northern Ireland.
Professor Kevin Anderson said rising sea levels will leave low-lying areas like those around the Lagan exposed to storm surges, and that worsening floods could see some of most recognisable buildings in the Province facing disaster by the end of the century.
Asked how Belfast stacks up in terms of its vulnerability to flooding Prof Anderson, who leads the University of Manchester’s energy and climate change research programme, said: “Some of the iconic buildings will be at risk, at significant risk, of flooding.
“Then on top of that quite a lot of the important parts – the infrastructure, the residential side – these are all areas that would be susceptible to flooding in and around Belfast.
“We can’t tell you exactly when that will occur but you’d expect it to be some time during this century, and probably some time during the next 30 to 50 years.
“You can imagine the geography of Belfast being significantly different from how it is today.”
Asked to name some of these “iconic buildings”, he said that according to his understanding the City Hall, Titanic building and the MAC would be left “struggling to be viable with a metre sea level rise. And we are pretty much locking ourselves into that at the moment”.
He added: “So the legacy that we’re leaving is that we’re being prepared to wipe out the history of our own cities because we can’t be bothered to make the changes that are necessary.
“The airport again is in a vulnerable area; Victoria Square shopping area; a residential site that stretches right across the city from Short Strand up the Shore Road... In terms of residential areas, there are areas that are significantly susceptible to flooding within Belfast.
“Now over the next 10 or 20 years I think we will get increased weather-related flooding. In the longer term it’ll be sea-level rise flooding exacerbated by further weather flooding as well.”
When it comes to the impact on householders he said: “There are places now in the UK where a company won’t insure you. That is an issue here [in Northern Ireland] I would have thought...
“If sea level rising goes as we anticipate then we can imagine parts of Belfast being problematic from an insurance point of view.
“There’s already been talk around the Thames estuary in London – insurance companies saying: ‘Hang on, you can build here if you want to, but we are not going to insure those buildings’.”
He says he had already heard discussions about whether government should have a role in guaranteeing homeowners access to insurance as the flood risks worsen.
As a global average by 2100, the planet may be on course for a four to six-degree temperature rise, he said.
Quite what that means no one knows. But it is believed highly likely it would disrupt traditionally stable weather patterns and usher in more extreme conditions.
Asked what the expected sea level rise is, he said: “Probably a metre by the end of the century. Some people say it could be higher than that. But it does depend what we do with our emissions.
“If our emissions keep going up as fast as they are going, then it may well be we get well over a metre. But it’s quite hard to imagine it staying less than a metre now.
“If we had some radical changes we could probably hold it under that. But we’d have to be talking about making rapid changes in the next five to 10 years.
“If we want to stop this one metre level, we have a very short window of opportunity for that.”
He said there are less obvious problems associated with climate change too, including that dry ground cannot stand as much current flowing through electricity cables, because they may overheat.
So in heatwaves, where there may be an increased draw on electricity to run air conditioning and cooling units, the electricity grid itself could be less able to cope with a surge in demand.
Until recently, Prof Anderson was also director of the Tyndall Centre, a major climate change research institute based in England.
He was speaking on Wednesday in the Long Gallery, Stormont, at the invitation of eco-campaign group Friends of the Earth.
The meeting was due to be attended by Environment Minister Alex Attwood, but he was absent due to a funeral.
The talk came ahead of plans to draw up a law on Ulster’s contribution to climate change.
Asked whether places he named really would be at risk, the News Letter was referred to a Rivers Agency map, which shows they do generally appear to fall within floodplain areas.
In a statement from his department, Mr Attwood said: “It is my intention to go to public consultation to seek views on an NI Climate Change Bill in the coming weeks.
“The results of this consultation will inform the legislation best designed to meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland and underpin efforts to present Northern Ireland as a world leader in carbon reduction – to be what we and others see as a genuinely clean and green land.”